MONTREAL – Sloppy play, blown leads and a poor record on home ice all conspired in the firing of Jacques Martin as coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
Sensing his team was going nowhere, general manager Pierre Gauthier removed the defensive-minded Martin in his third season and promoted his somewhat younger, more tech-savvy assistant Randy Cunneyworth to the job of interim head coach on Saturday.
Assistant GM Larry Carriere was named assistant coach, his first coaching job after a long career in scouting and administration.
The 50-year-old Cunneyworth, a Toronto native whose lack of French was quickly noted by fans and the media in a Francophone city where English-only corporate board meetings have been a hot topic, is the team’s first unilingual English-speaking coach since Bob Berry in the early 1980s.
Gauthier said Cunneyworth would work on his French, and that he hopes he will be able to keep him in the job next season. He said ”a language can be learned.”
For now, he just wants his team to win.
”Our team wasn’t performing up to an acceptable level,” Gauthier said. ”For sure, there were injuries, but also the approach to games, especially the team’s play in the third period, are things that affect the results.
”It was best to make a change. Sometimes in this business to make things better you need to make a change, to bring in new ideas, a new approach to the team’s performance, so it becomes more consistent.”
Gauthier, a former assistant who moved into his job when Bob Gainey stepped aside two seasons ago, did not consider searching outside the organization for a coach.
The 59-year-old Martin, who this season passed the 600 career wins mark, became the sixth NHL coach fired in recent weeks after Bruce Boudreau in Washington, Paul Maurice in Carolina, Terry Murray in Los Angeles, Davis Payne in St. Louis and Randy Carlyle in Anaheim.
The change that Gauthier said he had been mulling over for two or three weeks seemed to take everyone, including the players, by surprise. But it was strongly hinted at on Oct. 26 when, off to a weak start to the season, Martin’s closest ally Perry Pearn was fired as assistant coach. The team then went on a brief winning spurt that has since cooled.
The Canadiens were 13-12-7 and in 11th place in the NHL Eastern Conference when Martin was axed, hours before a home game against the New Jersey Devils. They were 5-6-6 on home ice.
Martin’s last game was a 4-3 loss at home to Philadelphia. Before that was a string of blown leads or nearly wasted leads that left the Canadiens with one point in games they should have had two.
Players who had bought into Martin’s system, which emphasizes defensive play and keeping players close together on attack to support each other, looked to be opting out.
Many fans disliked the emphasis on defence, particularly the team’s tendency to play as if killing a 20-minute penalty when nursing a third-period lead. Justified or not, Martin-bashing was widespread in cafes and Internet postings.
”What system is in place doesn’t matter if everyone buys in and plays the right way,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. ”If you only have half the guys doing what’s asked of them, everything is in disarray and I think that’s where we got to.
”We weren’t playing together and doing the things we need to do to win. And consequently we lost games we shouldn’t have lost and changes needed to be made.”
Martin was also a low-key man, bland in media interviews and mostly quiet behind the bench. Cunneyworth will be somewhat more animated.
Cunneyworth has rocketed through the Canadiens system in less than two seasons.
He was hired as head coach of AHL Hamilton last season after two seasons as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers and nine years as head coach of the AHL Rochester Americans in the Buffalo Sabres system. The Bulldogs went 44-27-9 last season and both Cunneyworth and his assistant Randy Ladouceur were brought to Montreal to replace the departed Kirk Muller, now head coach in Carolina.
Now the Randy and Randy show is in charge in Montreal.
Gorges was impressed with Cunneyworth’s hard work and his approach to the job.
”He’s one of the first I’ve seen in my career who has got the computer with the video between periods, or on practice days,” Gorges said. ”He’s going over minor little details of the game before or what’s coming up in the next game and he’s prepared.
”We can expect a lot of preparation, working on knowing what we have to do in different situations.”
The basic system of play is not expected to change much, but Cunneyworth said there are aspects that need to be improved.
”It’s lot to do with execution,” said the former NHL forward. ”We have to demand better of each other.
”The players have to be on board more as a team rather than trying to do things on their own. I think it’s important that we get that across quickly. It’s important that our team competes in all areas, that when it has the puck it has everybody involved.
”One of our assets is our speed. We’re not a big team, but we’re certainly a team that can move and move the puck well. Being on the puck and not giving up are things I will demand and our staff will demand.”
Martin was much the same when he was hired in 2009, in the same summer Gainey completed a house-cleaning that saw several veterans leave and Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Michael Cammalleri arrive as free agents. Systems had gone haywire under former coach Guy Carbonneau.
At the time, it needed structure and a clear system and the veteran Martin certainly provided that. In his first season, the Canadiens made the playoffs and then upset Washington and Pittsburgh en route to a conference final. Last season, they finished sixth and took eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston to Game Seven in the first round before losing in overtime.
That coherence on the ice wasn’t as evident this season, although they have had a run of injuries and had to use as many as four first-or-second-year defencemen in several games. Too many players were trying to do too much on their own, and too few were going to the net to look for goals.
”They have to compete and show a willingness to put their bodies in harm’s way,” said Cunneyworth. ”That’s what they get paid to do.
”For the most part, guys do that wholeheartedly. We have to get more doing that.”
Martin was not available for interviews.
To a man, players denied the coach had ”lost the room,” even if it appeared his message was no longer getting through to everyone.
”The bottom line is winning games—we weren’t winning and changes happen,” said defenceman Hal Gill. ”I don’t think it was about losing the room or anything like that.”
Cammalleri, a sniper who has been in a scoring slump, agreed that losing was at the heart of the move.
”When we are where we are and expect to be a better team than we’ve been, you definitely are aware there might be changes,” he said. ”For it to be Jacques was somewhat surprising.
”We’re in 11th place, that’s what went wrong. I think Jacques was still trying to work on things and improve the team. I don’t think there was anyone not listening to him.”
Before joining the Canadiens, Martin spent five seasons coaching the Florida Panthers and before that nine seasons as head coach of Ottawa, where he left as the all-time leader in regular-season wins, playoff wins and games.
His GM in Ottawa was Gauthier, and one of his top players was Cunneyworth.
Known for his defence-first philosophy, Martin led the Senators to its first President’s Trophy in 2002-03.
He was named NHL coach of the year in 1998-99 and was part of Canada’s gold medal triumph at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games.
”It’s someone I’ve known a long time and respect a lot,” Gauthier said of Martin. ”We had a good discussion.
”We had a difficult start and then we won four in a row to get to .500. And we’re still at .500, or near there. That’s not enough. The team hasn’t been consistent in its approach and its play. That’s why we decided to act.”
Cunneyworth played 15 NHL seasons, amassing 414 points in 866 career games with Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, Hartford, Chicago and Ottawa.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Bob Gainey left the Canadiens last season.