Folks, it's been a while since we've had a top-ten around this place. There's been a lot of wringing of hands and grinding of teeth about Michel Therrien and his apparently inexplicable decisions lately. The unrest is growing and rumblings of "Fire Him!" getting louder. So, in honour of the latest Habs coach to wear the lame duck feathers, today's top ten is all about reasons why Therrien is writing his ticket out of Montreal...again.
10. Bournival: Michael Bournival made the team out of camp because he has a non-stop motor and will always go to the net. In pre-season games, he impressed because he was noticeable on every single shift he took. When he started with the Habs, he played left wing on the fourth line, but it took him only four games to begin putting up points in the NHL. By his seventh game, he had 2G, 3A and had earned himself a place on Tomas Plekanec's wing. The pair had chemistry. During the nine games Therrien allowed them to play together, Plekanec had seven points. Bournival had four and Brian Gionta had five. That's not too bad, given the fact that the trio got only second-line minutes and less than ten minutes total on the PP. Yet, the minute their production began to slow, Bournival was dumped back to the fourth line and has only rarely shown signs of his early explosiveness since.
9. Bouillon. Francis Bouillon is a good guy and a loyal Hab, but Therrien is playing him too much and in too many dangerous situations. The 38-year-old defenceman is averaging more than 17 minutes per game, including a nightly 1:29 on the PP, where he's accumulated exactly one assist all season. When it comes to goals allowed, the Habs have iced 16 different defence pairs this year. Of the six partnerships who statistically are on the ice for the most goals against per 60 minutes of even-strength time, Bouillon figures in four. P.K.Subban, who's typically on the ice for 2.2 G/A per 60 minutes at even strength, is on for 3.2 when paired with Bouillon. While Bouillon deserves respect for his contributions to the team over the years, he should not be playing ahead of Raphael Diaz, who's better than Bouillon in every category. And, many would argue, he does not deserve to be playing ahead of a developing defenceman in Hamilton.
8. Galchenyuk. Last year, as an NHL rookie, Therrien sheltered the kid and gave him limited minutes in situations that gave him a chance to succeed. As the year wore on, Galchenyuk picked up the pace and made a run at the rookie scoring lead. This season, Therrien has given the young player an average of an extra minute at even strength, and an extra minute on the PP. Galchenyuk responded. In the first 20 games of the season, he played on a line with Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher and posted 15 points. Then, in an effort to spark a slumping David Desharnais, Therrien broke up that line and played Galchenyuk with Eller and a mix of wingers, including Brandon Prust, Daniel Briere and Rene Bourque. In the 24 games since, Galchenyuk has managed only eight points. Therrien knew he had a great combination at the beginning of the year, but sacrificed that in favour of promoting under-performing veterans like Bourque and Briere, neither of whom has managed to produce at a pace similar to Galchenyuk's when he was used properly.
7. Time outs. There's a sense a coach needs to have about the mood of his team at any given moment. He's only got one time out, should he need a few moments to settle down a group beginning to panic, or set a play for an important last-minute flurry. Therrien has, on several occasions used his time out to give fourth-line players a breather after an early-game icing. Then, when there's a real need for the time out...when the team is imploding and coughing up a 3-goal lead within minutes, for example...he doesn't have the option of using it. This is just one example of Therrien's poor bench management. (Using the Bouillon/Murray pair and the fourth line against the opposition's top snipers at home when he's got last change is another, but I digress.)
6. The power play. Here, again, there's an issue with managing personnel. Scotty Bowman used to say the most important thing a coach can do is have the right players on the ice at the right time. On the power play, for example, it might be worth sending out line combinations you know have been successful scoring together. It's not a time to worry too much about defensive responsibility, or about maintaining your go-to lines intact. Perhaps, on the power play, it's a time to reunite Eller with Gallagher and Galchenyuk. You know, because they actually make things happen. Instead, Therrien continues to send players out on their regular lines, which don't necessarily make the best combinations for snappy offence.
5. Gallagher. Brendan Gallagher is a special player. He's overcome his less-than-imposing stature at every level he's ever played to become one of his team's best scorers. A recent chat with a training assistant in the room reveals Gallagher is probably the fittest Hab right now. His super energy makes him a threat on the ice at all times, and his infectious smile and upbeat personality breathe life into the lineup. Or they did, until Therrien messed with him too. In the first 20 games of the year, matched with Galchenyuk and Eller, Gallagher complied 12 points and was a thorn-in-the-side factor every game. In the 24 games since he's been placed on a line with Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, he's had only 9 points and is invisible on many nights. Pacioretty and Desharnais tend to look for each other first, and Gallagher is often an afterthought on that line. His energy is waning and he's not as effective. However, where Therrien took note of this in the case of Briere and Desharnais, and tried to move them to a line that would help get them going again, he's not done the same for Gallagher. It's as though he feels young players should learn to deal with frustration and discouragement, while veterans don't have to do the same thing.
4. Emelin. Alexei Emelin is a left-side defenceman. Most NHL defencemen can play both sides reasonably well, even though one side may be stronger than the other. Emelin, however, is a leftie. All his instincts send him to the left side when he's defending, which, if he's supposed to be playing the right side, leaves two Ds on the left and none on the right. When playing with Josh Gorges, which he did for the first 15 games of his return to the lineup, the issue isn't so glaring. For all the flack he gets for not being an All-Star, Gorges is a steady defender most of the time, and the numbers bear that out. He's also good at recognizing when his partner is drifting out of position and covering the other side. For some inexplicable reason, however, Therrien decided that although Markov and Subban were one of the best defensive pairings in the league and Emelin and Gorges were decently holding up their end of the D-zone responsibilities, it would be a good idea to break up those pairings and put Emelin with Markov. Markov covers his end of the ice, and he does it very well. He just doesn't have the same mobility he used to have, and had a great time with Subban retrieving the puck and skating it out. He and Emelin have not been a great pair this year. Emelin is not Subban, so between his positional weaknesses and lack of being Subban, Markov is carrying a heavier load when paired with Emelin, and he's not as effective either. They're second-worst in team defence, allowing 4.2 goals per 60 minutes even-strength time. Therrien either needs to restore the original D pairings that worked, or put Emelin with Subban and let him play the left. He seems inclined to do neither.
3. Speeches. Everyone knows 24CH is not the whole story of what goes on in the room. The show has to be careful not to use its privileges to give away strategy or revel too much of what players would like to remain private. That's the price of an all-access pass. Still, the stuff we're allowed to see...the "be 'ard on puck" and "you got to be 'ungry...you don't book a table at Moishe's and eat two Big Macs first..." is pretty entry-level stuff. Somehow, when you picture Mike Babcock's or Lindy Ruff's pre-game speeches, you don't imagine them talking about McDonald's. When you add public comments like the one last playoffs, when Therrien claimed an injured Brian Gionta was "crying in my arms," you have to think the players cringe at some of the things he says. The point here, aside from the coach's choice of phrasing, is the rhetoric always seems to be the same, and that's enough for an energetic young group of hockey players to start tuning out.
2. Accountability. We've seen this many times over the last two years. Brian Gionta takes a dumb hooking penalty in the offensive zone, and returns to the ice immediately after his trip to the sin bin, skating on his regular line on his regular shift. Andrei Markov makes a terrible pinch, gets caught and nearly costs a goal, then comes right back out on the PP a minute later. Lars Eller takes a dumb hooking penalty in the offensive zone and is benched for a period. Jarred Tinordi makes a terrible pinch and warms the bench for the rest of the third, eventually ending up back in Hamilton. Josh Gorges makes three giveaways in a game and nothing happens. Alexei Emelin does the same thing and winds up in the press box. Players notice these kinds of discrepancies, and, while there may be some wiggle room for veterans, there shouldn't be such a gap between what a young guy is punished for and what a veteran gets away with. When the core of your team is young and learning, punishing them when others' mistakes are let slide builds resentment among the group it's most important to keep happy.
1. Subban. We all know one thing about the relationship between P.K.Subban and Michel Therrien. In two years, Subban will be a multi-millionaire, All-Star NHL defenceman with one or more Norris trophies and, likely, an Olympic medal. Therrien, meanwhile, will probably be criticizing Subban on RDS' L'Antichambre. Coaches, as we know, are hired to be fired. Brilliant defencemen, however, are hired to stick around as long as possible and, potentially, bring a Stanley Cup to a city long starved of one. So, when a coach gets the opportunity to influence a young star player and direct his career for a few years, it's a privilege, not a right. That's why, when Subban commits a hot-headed penalty late in a period, after he'd been mauled all game, the coach's response should not be benching him for ten minutes of a third period when his offence is desperately needed. Neither should said coach be publicly wishy-washy about said player's character or fitness to play on the Canadian Olympic team. Therrien doesn't like Subban. We get it. However, when he says the Habs philosophy is "team first," how does he justify his need to knock Subban down a peg against the team's need to score a couple of goals? The answer is, he can't. Furthermore, P.K.Subban is the organization's future. Michel Therrien is a stop-gap, re-tread coach who's only there because he speaks the right language and had enough experience to off-set the lack of same in a rookie GM. In the long view of the Habs future, Subban has a chance to be one of the guys who come back to pass torches around after they retire. Therrien will be a name on a stat sheet. If there's even the slightest chance that this coach is hindering the development of a potential superstar, that's reason enough to can him. "Team first" is a great concept, but special players like Subban sometimes have a different vision of what that means. Sometimes, Subban may have to be selfish and take a solo chance if he thinks he can make a difference for the good of the team. Coaches can't always control that. And the coach who thinks he can needs to think twice. As my grandfather used to say, "Be good or be gone."