By now you’ve probably heard about or seen how the usually staid Jacques Martin called out a rookie radio reporter for having the temerity to question why Mathieu Darche was on the power play instead of Erik Cole Saturday night.
It was a fair question, but Martin responded to it with a condescending laugh before informing the reporter that Cole had just three power play goals last season with the Hurricanes. Then he admonished her for not doing her research.
Perhaps if Martin could inspire that kind of push-back in his players, he wouldn’t have thousands of people in Montreal calling for him to be fired. It’s not that those fans don’t have a valid point, but is there really anybody this side of Toe Blake that could get this team to play better? Even though Martin was a mediocre goalie when he played the game, there’s no evidence to suggest he can do anything tangible to get Carey Price to stop the puck more consistently. It’s not Martin’s fault Erik Cole can’t seem to do anything when his centerman isn’t Eric Staal or that three of his top defensemen are out with injuries.
Going into Monday’s game against the much-improved Florida Panthers, the Canadiens find themselves mired in their worst start in 70 years and looking up at 28 other teams in the NHL standings. The power play that dined out on opponents the past couple of seasons is abysmal and the penalty killing is mediocre at best.
A wise hockey man once told me the best way to judge a squad’s special teams is to add its power play and penalty killing percentages together. Anything under 100 is unacceptable. Going into Monday’s game, the Canadiens have a combined total of just 88.1. To put that into perspective, there are currently eight teams in the NHL that would have a higher total if they hadn't even scored a goal on the power play yet this season.
That’s an indictment of Martin to be sure. But those who want to see his head on a platter are ignoring the fact that no matter how good a team is it won’t accomplish anything without good goaltending. With the subpar performance from Carey Price lately, the Canadiens will struggle to simply survive the season. For all those who think Martin is obsessed with defense, the Canadiens average almost 33 shots per game this season. They’ve outshot their opponents in all but two games so far – one of them was their only win of the season – and they average seven shots per game more than their opponents. When you outshoot your opponent by 15, 13 and 18 - the way the Canadiens did in three successive games against the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres – and lose them all, there’s ample evidence your team is clearly not getting the level of goaltending its opponents are getting.
It might just be as simple as Price being better and getting healthy on defense for the Canadiens to return to their customary status of chasing one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
And if Martin wants to blame somebody for not doing his research, he might want to start with his boss. Was there anybody outside the Canadiens front office who truly thought signing a 32-year-old with a history of injury problems, and whose heart was still in Carolina, was a good idea? Did Pierre Gauthier not envision what his team would be like without the steady hand of Roman Hamrlik at the till?
I’m not saying Martin should have a job for life, but if the Canadiens fired him today, who out there could come in and make things better? Patrick Roy? Really? Benoit Groulx? Those aren’t the kinds of moves a team makes seven games into the season.
If the Canadiens really want to shake things up, perhaps Gauthier could make a bold statement by burying Scott Gomez’s contract in the minors once he returns from his upper body injury. It’s one of the tools large market teams have to legally circumvent the salary cap and there clearly are teams not afraid to use it. And there is no circumstance under which the Canadiens would not come out ahead in the deal. You’d have to think Gomez would be eager to collect the remaining $17.5 million owed to him and report to the minors. And if he didn’t, he could retire or the Canadiens could suspend him. Either way, his $7.357-million cap hit would be off the books. If they were to ever call him back up and lose him on re-entry waivers, they’d be on the hook for only $3.7 million against the cap until 2014. At this point, it would almost be worth it for the Canadiens to pay that amount in cap space to not have Gomez playing for them.
Or they could simply keep him in AHL Hamilton for the rest of this season, then buy him out in the summer.
That might be the same time they want to consider cleaning house by firing their coach or their GM or both. If things continue to go as sour in the last five months of the season as they have in the first month, you can bet any or all of those things will happen.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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