Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cunney's Worth

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.


Anonymous said...

At the end of this long season Cunneyworth will be able to hold his head high, knowing he kept his dignity in an almost impossible situation while those above him looked like deer caught in headlights.


V said...

Agree wholeheartedly with your article JT. He has handled himself admirally under extremely trying circumstances.

I have to confess, I don't know how much I want him/they to win. Don't get me wrong - would love a sustained charge to the play-offs. But I am comfortable with 15th place in the Conference and the chance to snag a great young player because I don't think they can make the playoffs from here.

Before Martin let go I would have bet they would make it, but very pesimistic now. If they prove me wrong, great. But really hoping they don't finish 10th.

DanielleJam said...

Go RC Go!!

dusty said...

Cunneyworth is indeed making the best of horrible situation. He is saying the right things and doing a reasonable job behind the bench. The players are saying all the right things too and with Cammalleri gone I don't expect that to change unless the team goes on an extended losing streak.

The real question is whether or not Gauthier survives the summer. Randy will most certainly be gone unless the Habs make the playoffs and reach the conference final. And that's not happening.

Watching the Islanders, Lightning and Hurricanes bust their asses trying to win each night and seeming to be on the improve, the Habs will have a fight on their hands to stay out of the cellar. As V said that's not such a bad thing.

Frank Lego said...

I like what I see so far from Cunneyworth. This is refreshing to see a coach that is involved in the game after Martin. I also appreciate a lot the way he manages time on ice for the defence and the double shifts for the best on offence. Finally, I liked the message sent to Eller, Kostityn and team when he benched them for part of the last game.

But so far, he is not winning more than losing. He was responsible of the power play since beginning of the season and I do not see an improvement. We miss Kirk Muller very much in that area. With him, we are back to square one, going back to a coach without NHL experience or winning track record in AHL or the Juniors.

I am looking forward to see either an experienced coach of the NHL and there is not a lot of good ones are not already employed. Or a winning coach of AHL or the Juniors, like Dale Hunter. I am thinking Patrick Roy which is on a track similar to Claude Julien, Michel Therrien or Alain Vigneault. We need a winner and it should be with some connection to the Canadians or Montreal.

But I do hope that Randy succeed because I am a sucker for good troy ending.

G said...

Stats are stats. The death spiral has stopped under Cunnyworth and the team is playing better in my point of view.

I don't like the "tank" talk. All you have to do is look at teams like Columbus who have drafted highly and achieved nothing to think " that a good idea?" I find it difficult to be enthusiastic over a team that does not try. People who try but lose generally develop character at the least.

Character will take you a long way when the chips are down. Lack of it will get you a long way as well. At least two time zones and a whole other conference.

dusty said...

Somebody please explain to me why RC dressed 7 defensemen tonight. Surely he must have known that Bourque would have to fight and he'd be down to 10 forwards 9 if you don't count Darche.

Cunneyworth may have a plan but I don't see it.

Raj said...

Well, JT, I'm sorry but I'll have to be the dissenting voice here. While RC is a fine individual who has been thrown straight into the deep end, and yet handled himself with dignity and class in public, I don't think he's a good NHL coach.

Yes, he talks to players on the bench during a game. Just how much wisdom can you impart during a fast-paced game, when as a coach you have so much to keep track of? You have to match lines, deal with penalties (for and against), take note of which players did and did not do well, and in what situations all this occurred. JM was criticized for writing in his notebook and being impassive behind the bench. Well, he realized you can't instruct much during the game if you want to your focus on what you must do as head coach. That's why Muller did the talking and the diagramming of plays on the whiteboard. JM wasn't being aloof -- he was focused on his job and delegating everything else to his assistants, as he should have. He left instruction for the practices,

I wonder how much Lars Eller likes playing for RC now?Eller was benched for 20 minutes or so tonight and just a little less last game. And for what crime? Tonight, not preventing Alex Ovechkin from scoring on a power-play. (Eller had good company). His coach also set him up to fail during the last game -- except that got papered over because we won. Isn't a coach's job also to develop young players and not set them up to fail? And to make sure even your veteran players aren't in over their heads? Tonight, why wasn't Pleks against Ovechkin, with Gorges and either Subban or Gill on D? Pleks and Jorges and Gill did a great job against Ovie in the '09-'10 playoffs? Why does RC get a pass for benching players for a whole period? (JM was lambasted for benching players for shorter periods of time). Why won't he bother to match lines when he the right of last change at home?

RC likes to "keep it simple" -- no creativity allowed on the PP (which he ran even when JM was head coach). "Drive to the net", "Finish your check", "Work hard" are the only other mantras he seems to employ. They are good ones to be sure but playing at an NHL level requires some sophistication as well -- which he seems incapable of. Cammalleri may have had a point or two in his (now infamous) remarks.

Puck possession has plummeted, Pleks is now getting less ice time than Blunden, we still can't score on the PP, rookies aren't developed well -- those aren't the hallmarks of a good NHL coach. I know RC did great things in the AHL. Possibly, that's where he belongs.

To me, this is 1996 all over again, RC is the second coming of Mario Tremblay. All we need is for PG to be fired -- which he probably deserves right now for entrusting a good team to RC. If someone like Pierre McGuire ends up being GM, it WILL be 1996 all over again. And we know how that era ended.

Anonymous said...

Nice article but you describe how a good assistant-coach should behave.

MathMan said...

I'm with Raj: Randy may be a great person, but he is a terrible coach. The feel-good story around the poor anglophone coach being hard done in by the evil francophone media is nice and all, but the bottom line is when one sits back and actually evaluates the way he coaches, and I don't mean the buttering up comments from the players in the papers, I mean how he's actually using his guys.

And the bottom line is, his personnel management is awful. He keeps using his best forward (Plekanec) with his worst (Blunden) and expecting this to succeed at any role. He keeps using his two best matchup centers in bottom-six roles. Twice in a row now he's thrown Eller in the toughnest matchups and then benched him for 20 minutes when he predictably floundered. His defenseman roulette is causing no end of problems, and when he starts tinkering with his lines at the end of game, he basically changes linemates every shift rather than see if something ends up working.

He just doesn't seem to "get" it, which is odd given that this is a man with an impressive resume and several months of working under Martin, who had a keen grasp on matchups and personnel usage.

Firing Martin and replacing him with Cunneyworth was needless and probably cost the Habs a shot at the playoffs.

RC needs to be replaced. And his language has nothing to do with that, as it should be.

Pierre P. said...

I do like what his "coaching philosophy" seems to be, and I would love to see him get some success, but we can't escape the facts: his record is abysmal, and he is responsible for the Hab's worse PP in their history. There is only one conclusion to be drawn form that: he is not a good coach (wich is a good thing in my personnal point of vue, since I would love a high draft pick).

Steve said...

I really like Cunny, I think he has brought offense back to the game.

Anonymous said...

Nice post JT!
Fact of the matter is, Cunney HAS given more leeway to his younger players, including Eller, to play in more situations where they can succeed. The lines that have worked, he has kept intact (DD-Patches-Cole / Eller-Moen-AK46 / Gorges-PK / Emelin-Diaz). He has employed a more aggressive, two-man forecheck. He plays 7 Defensemen because he doesn't have enough depth at forward to roll 4 full lines, and yes, he communicates to his players in the middle of the game. I can assume that whatever it is he wants to talk to his players about later in, in practice, he will remember, as opposed to jotting down. Has he made mistakes? Sure. Do I think he speaks "player?" Absolutely. And that is a necessity in today's NHL. It just is.


V said...

I am pretty confused by some of RC's lines, use of players and the 'keep it simple' mantra as well.

But it's premature to say he is a 'terrrible coach' as some have done here - it's pretty early. And it feels like he's trying to instill a work ethic, character, identity (or something) in this team that will serve them better in the mid to long term and sacrificing the short term.

It looks increasingly like someone gave up on the team Martin/PG assembled for this year and this season just before the Martin firing - knowing it would drop us into the bottom 1/4 of the league. RC might have a specific challenge they have laid out for him that is not focused on wins/playoffs.

Pierre P. said...

I don't want to be picky, but despite what some say about more offense being shown with RC as coach, the fact is under JM the team has a 2,52 G/G, while under RC they are at 2,47 G/G, with two blow-out wins. If you take out the game against Ott (6 goals) and the one against the Jets (7 goals), you have a 1,85 G/G.
Hard to believe, but we actually score less with RC than we did with JM. And if you like at the GA/G, we went from 2,45 under JM to 2,93 under RC.
I don't care what he says to his players, in what language, and if they like him or not. The facts are that we are losing (4-10-1 record, 9 pts out of a possible 30, a record that means a 25 pts season!), because we score less and are getting scored on more.

MathMan said...

RC is not putting Eller in a position to succeed. He's doing the exact opposite by giving him Plekanec minutes: he's putting him in a position to fail, then benches him when he predictably does.

Whether he is trying to win hockey games or trying to develop the kids without thinking about victory, I don't see a way that this makes sense. In a situation like this it's not the player that is failing, it's the coach.

I'm endlessly amused, though, by how he is doing in spades exactly the things Martin was blamed for (often unfairly): benching kids after mistakes, line tinkering late in games, constantly changing player roles...

dwgs said...

Sorry Pierre, but you can't casually dismiss numbers that mess up your theory. You could just as easily throw away the numbers from the two games where they got shut out to skew the results the other way. Not defending Cunneyworth, just questioning the methodology.

dusty said...

After watching the Pittsbugh game I conclude Cunneyworth's worth is zilch, zero, nada.

Pierre P. said...

Well, I see what you mean, but when you use averages and such, you have to keep in mind that your data may be flawed by statistical aberrations, i.e. when one data is so far away from the average that it can skew the whole picture. In this case, when you have an average of 2,47 (you noticed I DID provide the numbers including the blow-outs, right?) and numbers that deviate alot from it (like 6 or 7), then you must take that into account. Or you can go with something else, like the median, for example. In this case, it's 2 G/G (closer to 1,85 than 2,47). And let's say we go with your suggestion (taking away the 2 worst goal inputs, even though 0 is closer to the average of 2,47 than 6 or 7), we still get an average of 2,18, wich sucks. I am by no means a statistician, but I still know that good statistical methodology is not just applying a formula, it's applying your judgement as well.
I'm not trying to twist anything to match a supposed theory: all the numbers show that scoring is down under RC. I wish it were different, I wish under RC goal scoring was up and the team back in the playoff picture and lookng like it might do some damage in the post-season, but it just ain't that way.
And Gomez in the shoot-out...