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Habs Season Lost, Now What?

March 31, 2012

After starting the season with vastly opposing expectations, two of the best known NHL franchises are again out of the playoffs for this season (for the Leafs, the 7th season in a row).  The 2011-2012 season started with high hopes for a Montreal Canadiens team that had performed beyond its potential in the playoffs last year, stretching the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins to 7 games in the first round. Looking to build on that playoff run, the Habs and their fans were confident of making the playoffs.

Opening the season with a 2-0 shutout loss to the Leafs led to a 1-5-2 record and the firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn before the end of October. With the fans calling for head coach Jacques Martin to be fired, the dismissal of the well-liked and experienced Pearn just hours before a game against the Philadelphia Flyers was to be just one of the controversial events to surround the Canadiens this season.

Continuing with barely 7 wins in November, the crowds were by then calling for GM Pierre Gauthier and Jacq ues Martin to be removed.  The entire team appeared to be in disarray at this point. Star goalie Carey Price was suffering behind a porous defence that not only missed the experience and skill of injured star Andrei Markov, but the antics of sophomore, P.K. Subban. Subban, the young and charismatic defenceman the Canadiens foresaw as their future leader from the back end, was displaying his immaturity both on and off the ice.

High expectations had been heaped upon the youngster from the moment he stepped on the ice as a highly touted prospect. A high-risk/high-reward type of player, he was letting his emotions run high as well. Fights with teammates during practice and a penchant for ridiculous, momentum-killing penalties were becoming distractions with the media. Why wasn’t he the target for benchings?  Simply because there wasn’t anyone else to replace him.

The Habs entered the season short their best defenceman, Markov, lost again to injury. The loss of Roman Hamrlik  to free agency would also have a greater impact than expected. Without Markov, there was Subban, veterans Hal Gill; Jaroslav Spacek; Josh Gorges, and journeyman Chris Campoli, with a group of untested rookies in Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber.

Alongside this inexperienced defence corps, the Canadiens still had the same weaknesses of the past few seasons – their forwards were small, skilled and not very aggressive. Overpaid Scott Gomez’ season was so brutal that there were pools held to cash in on when he might score (he would manage to score his first goal in over a year in February). Injuries would play a part, but the mix and match forward lines consisting of Michael Cammalleri, Max Pacioretty, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, Erik Cole, Travis Moen and Lars Eller ‘complemented’ by David Deharnais, Mathieu Darche, Ryan White and Louis Leblanc was unable to provide any consistent offence.

In an effort to appease their fanbase and to bolster the offence, the Habs shipped an unhappy Jaroslav Spacek to Carolina for Tomas Kaberle. While Kaberle was once the catalyst for the Maple Leafs powerplay, it was obvious from last season’s stint with Boston (which incidentally netted him a Stanley Cup ring) was evidence of the downturn of his career. This was not the deal that would energize the Canadiens.

The difficult season progressed and as the pressure increased both internally and from its fanbase the team finally fired head coach Martin.  In his place, they named interim coach Randy Cunneyworth, an action which in itself was controversial.  The francophone media immediately focused on the fact that Cunneyworth was unilingual.  A firestorm erupted in Montreal as fans debated the new coach, not on his merits and experience, but on his lack of French. The separatists went so far as to state that it was infringing on the heritage of the organization.

Instead of coming forth to support his new appointee, president Geoff Molson made this statement, ““Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach.” By emphasizing the need for a bilingual coach, Molson much stamped the ‘interim’ on Cunneyworth’s term. To Cunneyworth’s credit, he acknowledged the importance of speaking French and stated that he would make all efforts to learn the language.

The season of turmoil would continue with, after another poor showing, Michael Cammalleri was quoted as saying, “I can’t accept that we will display a losing attitude as we’re doing this year. We prepare for our games like losers. We play like losers. So it’s no wonder why we lose.” Despite stating that he had been misinterpreted, Cammalleri was pulled from the ice between periods during the next game against Boston and notified that he had been traded. Not the manner in which a professional athlete is generally treated, leastwise by a franchise famous for its class.

Finally, with five games remaining in the season, Montreal relieved GM Pierre Gauthier of his duties without naming a replacement. The Canadiens announced that Serge Savard would serve as special adviser with Bob Gainey leaving that position. I don’t understand why they couldn’t have waited until the season was over, unless the fact that they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs signaled the end. There is a lot to do this off-season for a Montreal franchise that, in my memory (granted, I haven’t been around that long), has never dealt with such myriad controversies.

I cheer vigorously for the Maple Leafs, but I do not enjoy seeing Montreal in such a mess. A great deal of the turmoil they have experienced this year, while stoked by the poor performance of the team, has more to do with off-ice activity than the product on it.  I, the Habs fans and the rest of the league expect more of the historic organization. May they find their way soon and restore their franchise’s reputation.

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