BROSSARD, Que. – Jacques Martin has coached over 1,000 games in the NHL, but no level of experience could have prepared him for the challenge he faces in his new job with the Montreal Canadiens.
With nearly half of last years roster gone and seven new players brought in to replace them, Martin will have to essentially start from scratch to form new line combinations, defensive pairings and install his system over the next three weeks of training camp.
It’s a monumental task and Martin is ready for it.
“We’ve got new coaches, a lot of new players, some players returning, so I think it’s going to be important for us to develop our own identity,” Martin said Sunday following his teams first on-ice session. “We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences, and that’s all positive.
“But now were all here and its going to be important that we all have the same goal. We’ve got to become a unit.”
None of the forward lines or defensive combinations from last season return intact, and Martin was not about to get into specifics about his plans in that area. But he did offer a glimpse into how his decision-making process will be handled.
For his forward lines, Martin says he prefers to work with pairings and make the third slot interchangeable depending on situations. He noted that among left-wingers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Max Pacioretty and Travis Moen he has no idea who would be on the first or fourth lines.
“We’ve got some battles,” Martin said. “It’s going to be up to the players to determine that.”
On defence, Martin said he feels this years version has more depth than a year ago, and that it may spare someone like Andrei Markov from constantly having to play against the opposing teams top line, as he often did last year.
He compared his defence of Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Paul Mara, Josh Gorges and Hal Gill to that of the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes that won the Stanley Cup.
“The difference between their first and sixth defenceman was very marginal, they didn’t have to match their defence against the other team too often,” Martin said. “When you look at the experience we have on our defence, I think we may be able to be a little less worried about matching lines.”
Martin also said he wants the defence to get involved with the attack to try and encourage the creation of odd-man rushes, which would be a change in strategy from last year and also a departure from his reputation as a strict defensive coach.
“In general, teams defend so well now there are very few odd-man rushes in a game,” he said. “So the way to create offence is to add that defenceman to the attack as a fourth man.”
The uncertainty surrounding the team means any line combination Martin uses in camp will be highly scrutinized, such as Sundays unit that had Scott Gomez between Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn during an intra-squad scrimmage.
“I’m not the coach,” Gomez said when asked about the combination. “It’s only the first day, let’s not go crazy.”
If any of the new Canadiens doubted the fervour of Montreal’s fans, they got a glimpse of it Sunday as about 1,500 fans came to the Habs’ practice facility in suburban Brossard.
“That was unbelievable,” said defenceman Paul Mara. “You come out for the first day of training camp, to see the stands are full and the crowds cheering like they did, it really welcomes you and makes you want to play in Montreal. You hear about it, but you never really understand it until you experience it.”
Gomez got his own unique way of experiencing the pressure in Montreal when he was heckled by a fan to “wake up this season” during the scrimmage. Shortly afterwards, he scored a goal.
“I did hear him, I thought I was the only one, but I guess it woke me up a little,” Gomez said with a laugh. “He has every right to say whatever he wants. That just shows the passion the fans have here.”