MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens’ 100th anniversary season is becoming a nightmare, with the firing of head coach Guy Carbonneau becoming the latest horror.
General manager Bob Gainey said Monday he will take over behind the bench for the second time in three years after axing his former teammate Carbonneau.
The surprise announcement came a day after the team ended a two-game losing run with a 3-1 victory over the Stars in Dallas.
“In the last eight weeks our performance has been below average, and I believe a change in the direction at ice level is necessary,” Gainey said at a news conference. “For sure, Guy was a special player for Canadiens, a captain.
“He took a very difficult job (as coach) and tried his best to advance the team. It’s never an easy message to deliver to anyone, but it was at a point where I felt it was needed.”
Gainey, who promises to make Montreal a better defensive club and cut down on the number of shots allowed, will coach his first game Tuesday night against the visiting Edmonton Oilers.
Associate coach Doug Jarvis and assistants Kirk Muller and Roland Melanson will stay in their jobs, and Don Lever, coach of the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs, will become an assistant coach in Montreal. Hamilton assistant Ron Wilson will take over for Lever on an interim basis.
It is the latest blow to a team that began the season with Stanley Cup aspirations and now is struggling to stay in a playoff position.
Only three weeks ago, Gainey asked star winger Alex Kovalev to stay home for two games to reflect on his weak play, and that was followed by a report that three players had hung around with a suspected gang member and drug dealer, although no players were charged or considered suspects in any crimes.
There was also a mid-season meltdown by blue-chip goaltending prospect Carey Price, although the 21-year-old seems to have returned to form in the past week.
In recent weeks, Gainey also tried to boost his team by acquiring veteran defenceman and power-play point man Mathieu Schneider and shipping out unused forward Steve Begin.
But the team continued to struggle on the ice, where Carbonneau was changing the composition of his lines from game to game and trying everything from skating his team hard to taking them bowling to get them going.
On Saturday, a day after a brutal 2-0 loss to lowly Atlanta, Gainey met with team president Pierre Boivin to say he was considering a coaching change. After watching the game in Dallas, he was convinced and informed Carbonneau of his decision when the team arrived in Montreal late Monday afternoon.
“We need our players to play up to their potential and that was not playing to our potential in Atlanta,” he said.
Now, the Canadiens hope they will get at least the short-term boost that mid-season changes often bring as players look to impress the new coach. The timing is optimal, as Montreal plays nine of its next 10 games at home, where it is 20-6-4 this season.
Gainey said Carbonneau took the news like a professional. There no plans at present for him to remain with the organization in another job.
He acknowledged that only in January he had said hiring Carbonneau was his best move since he became GM of the Canadiens in 2003. He had given Carbonneau a three-year contract extension last summer.
Gainey took over as coach after he fired Claude Julien on Jan. 14, 2006 and handled the team for the rest of the season. That was when he brought Carbonneau in as an associate coach with a mandate to take over behind the bench to start the 2006-07 campaign.
Carbonneau, who was in his first head coaching job, had a 124-83-23 record in two-plus seasons with the Habs. He’s the seventh NHL head coach to lose his job since the start of this season.
Last season, the Canadiens led the NHL Eastern Conference with a 47-25-10 record and 104 points, but were bounced from the playoffs in the second round by Philadelphia. Carbonneau was a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.
Expectations were high this season, but after a strong start, the Canadiens went into a skid starting just before the all-star game in Montreal on Jan. 25 that saw them win only three of 15 games and fall into the thick of the race for the eighth and final post-season spot in the NHL Eastern Conference.
They rebounded with four close wins, then lost two more on the road before beating injury-riddled Dallas.
“I want our goalies protected better, I want us to play better defensively,” said Gainey, whose team has been giving up 35-plus shots regularly. “Our goaltenders are one of our strengths.
“It’s not acceptable that we give up twice as many shots as we take. We want to give our goaltenders and our defencemen a chance to play more in the other zone than ours.
“I’m not going to make black-and-white changes, but we need to move toward being a better, stronger, more consistent team defensively and an offensive team that takes advantage of our opportunities.”
There had been calls for Carbonneau to be axed recently from fans and some media members who felt he had no answers to the way opponents had been shutting down Montreal’s quick-transition game and hemming them in their zone.
But Gainey said it appeared that “our team (did) not seem to be emotionally engaged.”
Carbonneau, 48, played 13 seasons for the Canadiens between 1980 and 1994, the last five as captain, before moving on to St. Louis and Dallas. He won two Stanley Cups in Montreal and another in Dallas.
The Sept-Iles, Que., native later worked for the Stars, then joined Montreal for a season as supervisor of prospect development and a brief stint as assistant coach.
The last time Gainey took over, he got Montreal into the playoffs, but lost in the first round to eventual Stanley Cup winner Carolina.
Before returning to Montreal, where he had a 16-year career as a player from 1973 to 1989, Gainey coached and was later general manager for the Minnesota/Dallas franchise.
The Habs (35-24-7 ) stand in a fifth-place tie with Carolina in the Eastern Conference overall standings at 77 points. Three teams – Pittsburgh, Florida and the New York Rangers – are only one point back.
Gainey also made another move – moving the team’s skates on the mornings of games out of the Bell Centre to the club’s suburban practice rink.