Should the Montreal Canadiens lose tonight, and even worse should they get swept with a whimper instead of a bang, the calls for Michel Therrien’s job will go beyond the Habs fan base and they’ll get louder. Much louder.
It probably won’t happen in the off-season, if for no other reason than the Canadiens signed Therrien to a four-year contract extension over the summer, but you can bet that Therrien’s name will figure prominently on the list of coaches on the hot seat when next season begins.
Discuss among yourselves whether this is fair. Therrien has been an outstanding regular-season coach for the Canadiens in the past three years. Only four coaches in the NHL have had the equivalent of 100-point seasons since Therrien took over the Canadiens coaching job in 2012-13 – Bruce Boudreau of the Anaheim Ducks, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues, Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks and Therrien. Only four coaches – Boudreau, Hitchcock, Quenneville and Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins – have accumulated more points than Therrien’s Canadiens in that time. And only Quenneville and Darryl Sutter of the Los Angeles Kings have led their teams to more playoff series than Therrien has. (Julien and Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers, like Therrien, have guided their team to six series in the past three years.)
But there is a lot that is fundamentally wrong with this group and some of it has to do with coaching. The power play has been a contradiction of terms in the playoffs. The Canadiens have been one of the worst possession teams in the league for some time. They too often dump the puck into the opponent’s zone instead of gaining the zone with possession, something that is not working for a team that is this small. Their play in their own end results in far too many shots, far too many good opportunities against and far too much work for goalie Carey Price, who, it could be argued is the difference between the Canadiens being a 100-point team and one that is desperately battling for a playoff spot.
Some of this has to be on the coach. Some of the fact that the Canadiens seem to so easily lose their cool and sense of discipline has to stem from the man behind the bench. The fact the Canadiens were so sloppy in their own end and had so many players so badly out of position and missing assignment in the final seconds of Game 3, when Tyler Johnson scored to seal the game and put the Tampa Bay Lightning in the drivers’ seat in the series, is indeed troubling.
But it was also right around this time last year that Therrien was getting raves for his work behind the bench with the Canadiens. It was the second round and the Canadiens defeated the Bruins in seven games, with many claiming that Therrien’s maneuvers were the instrumental in him outcoaching Julien and getting to the Eastern Conference final. That was probably one of the reasons the Canadiens gave him a four-year extension in the first place.
But people have short memories and this year, even with the way they finished the season, has not been a good one for Therrien. Even though Alex Galchenyuk showed promise during the regular season, he has gone AWOL along with all the Canadiens not named Brendan Gallagher in these playoffs. The fact that Therrien hasn’t been able to coax more offense out of his team, and worse yet, seem to make the adjustment necessary to get it, has to be at least partly on him.
And it’s not as though the Canadiens have needed a lot of goals to be in control in this series. The 6-2 blowout in Game 2 notwithstanding, the Lightning hasn’t been scoring much either. And by almost anyone’s estimation, the Canadiens should have won Game 3 and were prevented from doing so by an outstanding performance by Ben Bishop.
The Canadiens may win Game 4 tonight and extend the series. Then they go back to Montreal, and if they can pull out a victory at home, who knows what can happen. But when you watch how hard the Canadiens have to work to score goals, it could be a longshot. And if it ends tonight, Therrien will probably have to start looking over his shoulder, particularly if McGill University grad Mike Babcock suddenly becomes available.