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Montreal Canadiens - Half Way Home
By Mitch Melnick
TSN 690 and MitchMelnick.com

Montreal Canadiens - Half Way Home
I like Michel Therrien. I do. I don't know him very well but what I do know I like. I covered him from a much closer vintage point the first time he coached in the NHL when I hosted a weekly show on CTV. Therrien would always grab a smoke before the conversation. I know he got a kick out of a couple of stories I told him about a former Habs coach who used to bum cigarettes from reporters (Randy Tieman, Elliott Price) while mumbling his way through post game comments.
PHOTO CREDIT - NHL.com

Montreal - January 5, 2014 - I like Michel Therrien. I do. I don't know him very well but what I do know I like. I covered him from a much closer vintage point the first time he coached in the NHL when I hosted a weekly show on CTV. (Try finding "The Habs This Week" or "The Expos This Week" on YouTube - or anywhere. Let me know if you do.) We would have a weekly on camera sit down with the coach which was usually preceded by some small talk. Therrien would always grab a smoke before the conversation. I know he got a kick out of a couple of stories I told him about a former Habs coach who used to bum cigarettes from reporters (Randy Tieman, Elliott Price) while mumbling his way through post game comments. (Back then you could actually talk to Bob Berry in his own office.) He also got a kick (I think) when I told him I grew up in a home of smokers, both of whom had serious health issues. And that I usually stayed with the green stuff. Anyway, Therrien always had this street quality to him that I admired. A little rough but somebody who really did work his way up the hockey ladder.

A decade later I wouldn't say I was underwhelmed when GM Marc Bergevin announced that Therrien would return to coach the Canadiens (without knowing other possible candidates I was hoping to see Marc Crawford get the job because he stressed a more offensive oriented approach than what Therrien was known for) but having just come out of the Jacques Martin era I wanted to see the Canadiens play a more pleasing style and one which would emphasize the teams' strengths rather than try to protect its weaknesses. But I understood why Bergevin made the hire.

Year one of Therrien II was a success. Yes, his team faded when they hit the 40 game mark - and got kayoed in the first round of the playoffs - but considering where they were coming from it was a good first season. And that promised offensive improvement? They delivered on it - finishing 4th in the NHL in goals scored, sparked by Norris Trophy winning defenseman P.K. Subban and youngsters Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and the slightly more aged Lars Eller.

A season later, the Habs are on pace for 100 points, battling Tampa Bay for second place in the Atlantic Division behind the Boston Bruins. Who wouldn't have taken that? But there are some troubling signs. Since briefly moving past Boston into top spot in the division after beating the Bruins at the Bell Centre on December 4th and following it up with a win over Buffalo three days later, the Habs have gone 4-5-1. Key players have gone long or very long stretches without scoring. Almost every player has under performed offensively. The old Martin formula from the spring of 2010 has seemingly resurfaced (Step 1: use great goaltending and allow opponents to fire away at will while blocking as many shots as possible. Step 2: Rely on the power play to generate offense. Step 3: Chip 'n chase). The end result has been a team that has great difficulty getting the puck out of their own end, and when they do manage to clear the zone they're so tired from chasing it they need to make a line change. Is that really a winning formula or are they hoping to catch lightning in a bottle as they did three years ago? Has Therrien really changed the game plan or are his players just not strong enough to execute it as they did for much of last season? Which Therrien will we see over the next 41 games - the guy who says the Habs are still building ("We're not there yet") or the guy who tells his players they're as good as anybody in the East ("We know you can be the best team in the Conference")? The guy who gets angry when his creative players turn the puck over ("We are a grinding team...chip 'n chase") or the coach who wants his players to push the pace ("Let's attack and attack")? Or maybe he's just moody.

There is no question Therrien and his staff do a terrific job getting the players ready. They work hard. They compete. They're not easy to play against (Unless you're the LA Kings). On the other hand, what happened to all of that offense from a year ago? From a lofty perch of 4th place overall in 2012-13 the Canadiens sit 22nd in scoring. Seven teams in the NHL generate fewer shots on goal per game. Of those 7 the only team currently sitting in a playoff position is the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Canadiens top point producing forward is Tomas Plekanec. He's on pace for a 48 point season. The last time the Habs featured a top scoring forward with a similar point total was back in 2000-01 when Oleg Petrov shared the team lead (with an injured Saku Koivu) with 47 points. That team finished out of the playoffs. It was coached by Michel Therrien.

I'm not connecting dots here. But it does seem strange that a team that was so strong offensively a season ago that it didn't need great goaltending to win now struggles so much to score while its goaltending has been among the best in the NHL. Maybe it's the system. I prefer to see creative players given the opportunity to freelance rather than dump and chase at first instinct (while acknowledging there is a time to chip). Or maybe the power outage has ben brought about by Therrien's strange system of player usage. P.K. Subban is clearly Montreal's best player. Yet he still can't get more ice time than 35 year old Andrei Markov. Subban is at the stage in his career when he can log 27-28:00 per game, sometimes more, instead of his usual 25:00. Best player + more ice time = more offense. Duh. But if you're Therrien you're seemingly more concerned about turnovers than generating offense. How else do you explain the way he uses Subban? Name one other coach in the NHL who would consistently use Francis Bouillon on the power play. Yet Bouillon is a staple of the Habs second power play unit. Why? It can't be because Therrien actually thinks Bouillon can help score more than 10 guys on the bench. Put it this way - as good as Montreal's power play is (but slipping at 21% - 7th overall) would it not be even more productive if the coach found a way to use Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller instead of Bouillon? Why is Galchenyuk - who's offensive strengths are obvious - ignored to the extent that he is? Brian Gionta hasn't scored a goal since Nelson Mandela was still alive. Yet he still gets 17-20:00 a night. The captain is not finished as a player. He can still make plays and is very responsible defensively. He's likely playing his last season here. There is no shame - a la Saku Koivu in Anaheim - in diminished ice time for a popular veteran who's closer to 40 than he is to 30. It would probably help Gionta in the long run if his ice time was reduced to 14-15:00 per game. There are other examples, most notably - Douglas Murray. Murray is a specialist. His job is to make sure somebody on the opposing team feels some pain at some point. He effectively took Mike Ribeiro out of the December 17th Phoenix-Montreal match up by physically punishing him early. Murray's limitations are obvious. His strengths - shot blocking, hitting and clearing the crease - can come in handy on the penalty kill and defensive zone situations especially late in the period and late in the game. He's the blue line equivalent of a 4th line role player. An eight minute a night player, maybe 10 if the Habs have a game under control. But the more he plays the more he's exposed. Therrien has over used him (13:11).

What I am trying to say is that Therrien needs to be more creative behind the bench. Maybe the word creative is ugly to him. But he should know by now who his best players are - regardless of age, experience and/or leadership. He needs to allow the one defenseman on his team who is capable of being a difference maker to do so more often. He needs to recognize the magic hands of Galchenyuk are a lot more effective than any other forward on the team. He needs to show more faith in players who have skill to put that skill to work, mistakes be damned. As Bobby Dollas (@bobbydollas1) has preached since Day One, "Let the kids play".

Therrien likes to call the development of young players "a process". The next 41 games should tell us if he has properly prepared them for a playoff run longer than one round. Or if he himself was just part of the process that eventually leads to a new coach.

Follow Me on TwitterMitch Melnick is the host of Melnick in the Afternoon on TSN 690 - Montreal's Sports Authority. Mitch also has his own website at MitchMelnick.com where you can find his blog, music links, upcoming events, neat photos and more. Listen Live to Melnick - weekdays from 3:00 - 7:00 pm. If you have questions or wish to contact Mitch, you can email him at mitch.melnick@bellmedia.ca







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