The AHL today announced Guy Boucher as its choice for coach of the year. The Bulldogs' rookie bench boss has guided his team to a 51-17-10 record, good for second-best in the league, and has his players buying into a defensive system without sacrificing goals. The 'Dogs have allowed the fewest goals per game in the A, while scoring the third-most. All this has happened without any big budding superstars carrying the team...unless you can consider a coach a superstar.
Every player who's come up from Hamilton, with the exception of Ben Maxwell, has shown promise and big-league basics in Montreal. Boucher gets rave reviews too. Mathieu Darche credits Boucher with his revival as an NHL player. PK Subban praises Boucher's systems and communication skills. Mathieu Carle says Boucher is a great teacher.
For Habs fans, this is all very good news. It's nice to see the Bulldogs' coach get the credit so many say he deserves. It's also great to have such a good man guiding the organization's youngsters at a critical stage of their development. We look forward to him being the Canadiens' head coach one day.
The question most of us have is how quickly that might be possible. Boucher is signed for two more years in Hamilton. Up until his contract there runs out, any other NHL team wishing to hire him must ask the Canadiens' permission to make him an offer. That's all well and good, but what if some team does want to hire him? What can the Habs say? They've already got a head coach, two assistants and an ex-coach on the payroll. Pierre Gauthier can't very well say, "Oh, just hold on until we get tired of Martin, then we'll make room for you." I don't think that would happen. They can just outright refuse other teams a chance to talk to him like the Wings have done with assistant GM Jim Nill. I can see that chafing at Boucher if he really wants an NHL job next year or the year after. So, if the Habs are serious about Boucher eventually taking over from Martin, they'd be wise to move sooner rather than later.
I, for one, think Jacques Martin's methods aren't working well for the team he's handling. The Habs are a fast team, but don't use their speed. They're a talented offensive team, but sit on slim leads instead of pushing for more goals. They have trouble breaking out of their zone and their PP is dreadful. Some of the blame for those problems obviously must fall on the players. But it's interesting to see Boucher handling them differently than Martin does, with better results. More concerning with Martin, though, is his decision-making. Not taking time outs when the team is reeling, having the fourth line and bottom D pair on the ice against the other team's top line when he's got last change, punishing young players who make mistakes while doing nothing about similar errors made by veterans and consistently sending one man in on the forecheck are all questionable decisions. Martin, like every coach except Lindy Ruff, will be fired. It's just a matter of when.
The problem is the cost of firing coaches. Martin's got a four-year contract and you can be sure the pay isn't peanuts. He didn't leave a cushy GM job in Florida to take over Montreal's bench unless he was very well compensated. The team also has Guy Carbonneau under contract for another season after this one, for good money. Expecting the Molsons to pony up another million-plus contract for a third coach is a lot to ask. Plus, Martin is Gauthier's man. The two of them have a history and hockey guys don't fire their buddies easily. (Carbo and Gainey notwithstanding.)
There's an easy answer, though. Gauthier hasn't hired an assistant GM. It would be a simple matter to bump Martin upstairs into that role, with vague promises of being Gauthier's successor. That would open the coaching job for Boucher after next season, when Carbo comes off the books. Boucher would get one more year to learn the pro game and test his theories in Hamilton. He'd also have another year to work with the kids he'll be coaching in Montreal and build up their loyalty. That plan would give the Canadiens something concrete to say to Boucher when he wants to know why they won't let him talk to other teams.
Maybe it's wrong to say a coach can be a star, but I think in Boucher's case, he's got a lot of promise. His AHL coach of the year award says he's already skilled at his job. The faster he's ready for Montreal, the better.