By RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

The announcement of Montreal Canadiens’ head coach Jacques Martin being “relieved of his duties” reached me while I was at the monthly Halifax card show. Oddly enough, CTV Halifax news anchor Steve Murphy (himself a collector) was the one that broke the news to the hall, having received the information on his Blackberry – word spread quickly and when it reached me I was relieved and happy. Martin’s philosophy of defence first had become stifling of the Canadiens’ skill and talent, and it was apparent on some game nights that he had lost the confidence of his players. Whatever the reason (or reasons) that general manager Pierre Gauthier believed, sacking Martin was a move that was long overdue to shake up the Canadiens and their dreadful 2011-12 season.

Not too long ago I wrote an article entitled “Can the Habs Save Their Season?” In this article I wrote that there was considerable reason for optimism going into the season, shining a spotlight on the hope for continued improvement from the young emerging core and the belief that there was a bounce-back campaign in the offing for several of the team’s veterans. The disappointments that were noted in early November continue to be prominent in late December: there is still no Andrei Markov; the power play was an ongoing disaster until the recent acquisition of Tomas Kaberle; P.K. Subban’s slump has yet to be broken, and the swagger he displayed last year seems to have disappeared entirely; and the offence in general has continued to be a pop-gun affair. With the exception of the ongoing Markov saga (more about this later), these are all areas that fall directly under the coach’s area of accountability.

Tight-Lipped Coach Martin. One of the great criticisms of Martin is that he is not well-known for being a great communicator

Since that November article, there has been an even more disturbing trend emerging from the Canadiens, which can also be attributed to Martin and the style of hockey he coaches. Through the Habs’ first 33 games, they have had a lead at some point in the game and gone on to lose 12 times. A number of these have been leads of two goals or more that have held up into the third period. Rather than continue to press the attack and forge an even larger lead, Martin would have his players ease off and go into the prevent defence, resulting in a greater number of shots against. With a raw blueline corps comprised of two rookies and two sophomores, this has yielded numerous late-game collapses and overtime/shootout losses. The strain on Carey Price and his D-men has been too much to bear.

The most damning evidence of this failed tactical approach came in the recent loss to the Vancouver Canucks. The Habs built a 3-0 lead by the three-minute mark of the second period, beating Luongo three times on just nine shots. Luongo’s fragile confidence was clearly shaken, as he was looking to the sky after the second and third goals, and checked behind himself a couple times on even routine saves. Instead of going for the kill, the Canadiens eased the pressure, mustering only 14 shots in the rest of the game, including 5 in the third period and just 1 in the overtime session. The Canucks, meanwhile, had 18 shots on goal in that same timeframe while the Habs’ defenders blocked an additional 21 attempts. In failing to press the advantage against a shaken opponent, the Canadiens allowed the Canucks back into the game and the latter took full advantage of the opportunity. While it is true that the Canucks are an elite team in the NHL, the Canadiens played passively and allowed their opponents to tilt the ice for the final 42 minutes of the game. That falls to the coach, and it has been an ongoing source of frustration for many Canadiens fans throughout the season.

Cody Hodgson scores the shootout winner on Carey Price on December 8th. The Habs at one point led the game 3-0.

Another major item that needed to be addressed with the coaching situation was the team’s apparent lack of preparation to play hard for a full 60 minutes. On too many nights it was not until the opposing team had 6 or 7 shots on goal, and several minutes of the first period elapsed, that the Canadiens registered their first shot on goal. “The dreaded late goal” has been a phrased uttered too many times following the Habs surrendering a goal in the final two minutes of a period. The third period of many games has been the Habs’ worst, as too many key personnel are worn out by having to kill penalties while also being used on the power play units – it is almost a curse if they go into the third with a lead, as the defensive style of Martin yields a high shots against total that further exacerbates the blueliners and Price. The coach’s chief job is to ensure that his charges are prepared to play hockey for 60 minutes, that they have a functional system in place to win games, and that they execute the game plan to victory. By failing in this crucial area, Martin and his lack of communication (he could often be seen after a goal against scribbling in his notepad, rather than trying to fire up the players to get the goal back) had become detrimental to the team’s success.

There are, as is the case with any coaching change, extenuating circumstances that may have made Jacques Martin a scapegoat for the team’s overall failures. There have been injuries to key—high-salaried—personnel that have handcuffed the team and forced the Habs to rely on many more young players to be baptized by fire. Some players have not been pulling their weight or not buying into the system, which (when executed to a T) has brought the team considerable success in the past during Martin’s tenure. Mike Cammalleri’s struggles this year have been well-documented; instead of a goal post or miss here or there, a goal or two along the way may bump the Habs to an extra couple of wins. Price has had a couple of off-nights, which seemed to be incredibly rare throughout his 72 games last year. The young guys, as will forever be the case with young guys, have made some rather costly mistakes at key moments. These are all valid arguments to be put forward for not firing the coach.

However, on balance the Canadiens have simply not been good enough to win on most nights despite having enough talent to be a contender for a division title. I believed at the start of this year that it would be another battle between the Habs and Bruins for Northeast supremacy. The upward trajectory of players like Price, Subban, and Pacioretty, plus the additions of Erik Cole and Andrei Markov (who has de facto not been an active member of the team for the past two years) and stronger years from Gionta, Cammalleri, and Gomez were the three critical factors supporting this belief. This is why GM Gauthier was relatively quiet on the free agent front this past summer, bringing in only Cole and some spare parts while letting established veterans Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski go to ply their trade elsewhere. It is only with the hindsight blinders attached that Gauthier has come under criticism for his off-season moves, which is largely an unfair assessment.

If there is one “fair” assessment to be made of the general manager in a negative fashion, it is the decision to re-sign Andrei Markov to a three-year contract for the same dollars that the defenceman had on his previous contract. While there are mutual loyalty sentiments felt between the Habs and Markov, the player’s continuing injury saga has been a major distraction while also providing a crutch for some corners to defend the coach’s and the team’s performance. Let me preface what I am about to say by saying this: I like Andrei Markov and he has been a valuable contributor to the club during his playing years with the Habs. That said, he has not been a full-fledged member of the Canadiens for almost two years. The organization took a huge gamble by giving him a 3-year, $17.25M ($5.75M cap hit) contract in the wake of his latest major reconstructive knee surgery. That expense, coupled with the Gomez albatross, puts a team already facing a serious salary cap crunch into an even tighter squeeze, which may force out some very good talent that is rapidly approaching UFA status. Even if Markov were perfectly healthy and contributing to the team today, his cap dollars for the next two seasons means that there is less available for pending UFA Josh Gorges and pending RFA P.K. Subban in the blueline role. Thus, while some fans and media will use the excuse “but we don’t have Markov” to excuse the on-ice product, the real significant impact of the Markov contract will be felt off the ice in a larger personnel role.

Andrei Markov’s absence from the lineup is not a valid excuse for the coach for losing games.

The absence of a single player, regardless of how talented he may be and how much he may bring to the table, is not a reasonable excuse for losing. Since January 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins played all of 8 games with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their lineup; Malkin has missed considerable time with a knee injury and Crosby’s concussion issues are well-documented and, unfortunately, ongoing. Without two of the best players in the world, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished last season 4th in the East and are presently in 5th place this year. No excuses have emanated from Pittsburgh about their tough long-term injury woes, they just go out and win hockey games. The coach’s job is to do the best with what he has, and the Canadiens have enough talent & skill in their ranks to do much better than their current 12th spot in the conference and cellar-dweller position in the Northeast. It is for that reason that it was the right and correct thing to do to let Jacques Martin go and find a suitable replacement – it is the only way that the Habs will be able to overcome the hole they have dug for themselves and hopefully claim a spot in the playoffs.