Back in September, very few Canadiens fans would have said they'd prefer Jacques Martin to Guy Boucher. Most of us were gnashing our teeth that the coach of the future had bolted to the Bolts. Now, though, it's time to reconsider that opinion. You have to wonder where the Canadiens would be at this point in the season without Martin at the helm.
In good times, with a healthy lineup, the Canadiens are a speedy, skilled team that might chafe at the defensive restrictions a coach like Martin places upon it. That kind of team would thrive under Boucher's "everybody go" approach. The Canadiens, though, are no longer that team. They're a battered, injury-ridden squad reduced to plugging holes with every warm body the Hamilton Bulldogs can produce. That's the reality of the hand Martin's been dealt, and yet the team continues to win.
The beauty of the system that drives us all mad in good times is that everyone has a job with a very simple set of instructions. That means every player on the team can fill in where needed. Lose a top-six power forward? Plug in a grinding fourth-liner, and the system absorbs him seamlessly.
It certainly helps the system to function when the young players being asked to fill in are of the quality of David Desharnais, P.K.Subban, Lars Eller and Yannick Weber. Those guys are grabbing their opportunity and making the very most of it. It's hard to believe sometimes that if the Canadiens starting lineup had stayed healthy, Desharnais, Weber and Ryan White would be buried in Hamilton. They're shining in Montreal and it's mostly due to their own talent and hard work. Part of the credit for their success, though, is due to the fact that they (and everyone on the ice with them) know exactly what they're supposed to be doing.
It helps that the Bulldogs are playing a similar kind of game, as their roster is also becoming increasingly depleted. Randy Cunneyworth is producing NHL-ready players who are defensively responsible and fit into Montreal very nicely. His success in Hamilton is certainly taking some of the sting out of Boucher's departure.
It also helps that Carey Price has stayed healthy and gives the team a chance every single night. There's a lot of talk about him possibly winning the Vezina and/or Hart this year. I don't think he will, because Tim Thomas' numbers are too impressive and because the people who vote for the Hart trophy are very inclined to award it to the guy who scores the most. Price definitely deserves serious consideration, though. Without superstar talent up front, Martin's system can only work if there's a good goalie holding the fort. The Habs have that, in spades.
Roman Hamrlik's steady play and monster minutes through the latest rash of injuries is another reason for the success of both the system and the Habs. He's been so reliable for Martin, and keeps chugging along, no matter how much ice time he's getting. Hammer's been entirely honest about wanting to finish his career in Montreal, and his willingness to take a reduced role and a smaller salary to do so. If there were any way to get rid of Jaroslav Spacek's contract, it would be great to keep Hamrlik for another year instead. Unfortunately, it's unlikely Pierre Gauthier can find a taker for Spacek and the team can't keep both of them when Markov and Gorges return. Right now, though, Hamrlik is saving the defence and allowing the system to function.
Watching the team calmly block shots, keep the Lightning to the outside and jump on their chances as though nothing had changed in the lineup since October is a little bit amazing. After the game last night, I thought about whether Canadiens fans would still prefer Guy Boucher to Jacques Martin. I think in good times, it's easy to say yes to that. When the team is more full of holes than David Aebischer, though, you want a steady hand guiding it. You want experience and you want a tight, defensive system that allows replacement players to step in on the fly and contribute. Martin is safe, and he's the right man to keep the Canadiens rolling along in hard times. At this moment, I'm glad to have him.