In November, while the season was beginning swimmingly for the Canadiens, I offered a blog of caution, urging people not to get too excited by Montreal’s hot streak; going so far as to compare the Habs to the 2007-08 Senators.
But I never mentioned Guy Carbonneau as a potential problem and many, in defending their beloved team, pointed to the coach as one reason why I was so far off base.
But on Monday, Carbonneau was fired and Bob Gainey, rightfully, stepped to the fore.
Rightfully because it was Gainey who saddled Carbonneau with a superstar-less squad, a revolving door of power play quarterbacks, a goalie duo with an average age of 22 and an offensive stallion no team has been able to harness for 15 seasons. And it was Gainey whose only move to buoy the team around the deadline was netting a 39-year-old defenseman, even though the Good Ship Canadiens was already leaking badly.
All this during a season of immense pressure and expectations.
All signs point to Carbonneau having ‘lost the room.’ Purported good guy Steve Begin was moved because he couldn’t get along with the coach. Veteran Mathieu Dandenault reportedly requested a trade and Georges Laraque did so publicly. And then, of course, there’s Alex Kovalev, in whose basket Gainey must put a large number of eggs if he’s going to get the team “emotionally engaged,” which he pointed to as a problem in his press conference Monday.
But credit must go to Gainey for stepping in. He could have left Carbonneau – who the GM gave a contract extension to just before the season began – and the players to their own devices. But this is the team Gainey built and this is his last-ditch effort to lead it in what was supposed to be a celebratory centennial season.
Little will change strategically with Gainey behind the bench – heck, other than bringing in taskmaster Don Lever from Hamilton of the American League, the rest of the coaching staff remains the same. Not surprisingly, the man for whom the Selke Trophy was created plans to shore up the defense and shelter his young goaltenders.
So while there may be some tweaks to the system, what Gainey really brings to the bench is the fear of God.
The saying is “You can’t fire the team, so fire the coach.” Gainey has done that. He’s relieved his friend, former teammate and handpicked coach from the burden of dealing with the cast of underachievers Gainey, himself, assembled.
So now the GM walks into the Montreal dressing room to stare down a squad with 16 restricted or unrestricted free agents come July 1, meaning, essentially, that after this year, Gainey actually can fire the team.
Gainey’s message is clear: This is the last chance for this team as it is. And if the players want to go out like this – as a bunch of perceived party boys and laze-about coach killers – then they will go down in history as the 100th Habs team: the one that ruined a chance for glory.
But there is hope. The Canadiens are currently a playoff team, sitting fifth in the log-jammed Eastern Conference. The sky has not yet fallen. If the players want to, they can still make themselves, their organization and their fans proud. The season is now in their hands.
But it’s on Gainey’s shoulders.
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