It's been a month now since Randy Cunneyworth was unceremoniously handed the reins of the skittish Canadiens, setting off a stampede of language critics, including his own management. The month hasn't been easy. The new coach has dealt with bad press, a struggling team, a lack of internal support and a player traded part way through a game. When he took over, the team's record was 13-12-7. It wasn't exactly earth-shattering, but the playoffs were within the realm of possibility, given a decent winning streak. That hasn't happened. Under Cunneyworth, the free fall has continued and his 4-8-1 record has the team sitting closer to last than eighth.
His losing record has gone some way toward cementing the perception that Cunneyworth is no more than a lame duck, holding the spot until the real coach is hired next summer. Add to that his rookie mistakes, like scratching Alexei Emelin in favour of Chris Campoli, and the constant switching up of players' roles, and the temptation is to dismiss Cunneyworth out of hand.
That's doing the new guy an injustice. He may have been thrown into the head coach's job with little thought or planning from boss Pierre Gauthier, but Cunneyworth has handled the language flap and the microscopic scrutiny of his bench decisions with aplomb. He's appeared calm, articulate and intelligent in his press briefings. Behind the bench, he's actively encouraging players and instructing them during the game.
That may be the single greatest difference-making quality that Cunneyworth brings to this team. He communicates. "Communicator" is the new-NHL buzz word for "good coach." It might be a reach to say that being able to speak "player" is enough to revive a season already on life-support. However, it seems to be making a difference for young players at a crucial stage in their development. They need confidence in themselves if they're to continue to progress, and that's a really difficult thing to build in a losing environment. That's why the things the players themselves have been saying about Cunneyworth are encouraging hope for their advancement on the ice, if not for his behind the bench.
"I really enjoy playing for Randy," Lars Eller said just before his breakout four-point game. "He's very close to the players, you can always go and talk to him and he'll talk to you about things. You never feel bad asking him a question because you know he wants to make you a better player."
"There was a lot of communication on the bench between the players and the coaches in the third because of all the leads we’ve been giving up lately," Max Pacioretty said after the win against Ottawa earlier this month. "That communication from the coaches was huge and because of that we knew we weren’t going to let things slip away. Tonight I think you have to credit the biggest part of our victory to the coaches. If you had a camera on them you’d see how vocal they were. They tweaked a lot of things in the third and it helped us a lot.”
"I have a lot of confidence playing under Randy. I have a lot of ice
time and everything's going well," Mike Blunden said.
David Desharnais gave a bit of insight into Cunneyworth's pre-game pep talk technique when he said, "The coach told us before the game that we should get pissed off right off the start."
P.K.Subban is playing some of his best hockey of the season since the coaching change, showing much more confidence and good decision-making than he did for the first thirty-plus games.
Even the veterans feel good dealing with Cunneyworth.
“I’m playing with lots of confidence and playing with good players
helps," Travis Moen said. "We’re getting lots of ice time and we’re taking advantage of that.”
What's even better for morale is the way Cunneyworth talks publicly about his charges. He's talked about being happy for and proud of his young players, which has to make them feel that they're on the right track. It's refreshing to hear a coach name names in a positive way, when that upbeat reinforcement is deserved. Nobody wants to work for someone who doesn't seem to appreciate his effort, so you have to think Cunneyworth's approach is helping the team warm up to him.
Of course, from the fan's point of view, the coach and players could pull a John and Yoko-stye love in, but none of it matters until they start winning games. If Cunneyworth is to start somewhere, though, building a positive rapport with the players is a good choice. In order to lead effectively, he's got to have the team buying in. That seems to be happening, slowly. The big question is whether there's enough time left in the season for anything Cunneyworth does to make a difference in the Habs immediate fortunes.
If, as most expect, the team misses the playoffs and Cunneyworth is let go in April, the lessons of good communication with the coach and a positive attitude in the face of adversity are important ones for the impressionable youngsters under his care to learn. If Cunneyworth accomplishes little else, they can take that much away from this coach who's doing his best in tough circumstances.