Making A Murdered Season: Anatomy Of The Canadiens' 2015-16 Corpse
It all started off so promising didn't it?
Even with guarded optimism, it was a start that folks were thinking just how far in the Eastern Conference could they go? Would Washington knock them off now that they too had superstar-calibre goaltending too? Were the Lightning going to get in the way yet again? Who in the hell had what it took to take them out in their conference?
Ah yes, but people never learn about jumping the gun in October of an NHL season. So here we are, just three and a half months later and it's being described as the most gigantic collapse in franchise history (within one season that is). The 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens have hit a crossroads indeed. A month and a half ago there was still confidence it would be a playoff spot for the Habs at year's end. It seemed a logical answer that at this time they would be trade deadline buyers. Heck, another first round win perhaps. But now? Sell, sell, sell!
Despite the alarming signs noted by some in the Habs fan community, the players and media told everyone it would be just fine. Who's laughing now? Well, no one actually. This is as grim as it gets. It seems a team destined to plummet with no bottom in sight, perhaps as far as into the NHL draft lottery — a.k.a., the Auston Matthews sweepstakes in 2016.
All of a sudden the Habs are not just bad, but incapable of even defeating AHL-quality talent on the ice. They've become slam dunk, without question, worst-team-in-the-NHL bad. Truly this team wasn't as good as they looked when off to a franchise-best 9-0 start or their 19-4-3 mark early December. But truly, they aren't this awful? And my goodness, we're talking real awful. Not expansion team awful, mind you, but not far off. Think instead like Buffalo Sabres of the last few years bad but — but with more proven NHL talent. Think Quebec Nordiques 1988-92 bad — but in a bigger market. Since December 3rd, this is a team that has gone a dreadful 5-18-1. You read that right.
It has all come shortly after their MVP goalie Carey Price was lost to long term injury (the term fluctuating and being extended continually, but that's another matter to discuss). This has not exactly been over a small sample size. 24 games is nearly a third of an entire season actually — almost as long as they looked great to begin with. But to go from a pace that gives a team 129 points over a full 82 game schedule (.788 win % off of 42 points out of a possible 52) to one that gives 38 (.229 win% off a ghastly 11 out of a possible 48 points) — that speaks not only to their talent's failure but a complete lack of leadership and direction from within.
This sinking ship didn't hit an iceberg last night. There were many small iceberg collisions along the way. Many watching the Canadiens since Michel Therrien was re-hired behind the bench in 2012 felt they were a ticking time bomb, a disaster waiting to unfold if Carey Price was ever gone long-term. When he had a three week absence in November, a collective breath was held. But seemingly the crisis was a myth when Mike Condon performed just fine and the red-hot offence never wavered.
But Price was determined to return shortly. Once he did, it seemed they'd resume their quest for conference supremacy. But November 25 against the Rangers saw Price aggravate thee knee that had sidelined him. A 6-9 week timetable was given. Nine weeks has passed and another 3-4 weeks have been tacked on, delaying what might just be an inevitable announcement that his season is kaput. Even the most negative of Hab doubters didn't believe they'd end up being so far off from maintaining even mediocrity without the 2014-15 league MVP and Lou Marsh Award recipient for Canadian Male Athlete of the Year Price.
Alas, they have been. With this bottoming out, finally the structure and system of Michel Therrien and his coaching staff have been exposed. Therrien's style has generated five measly wins in almost two months of hockey. Absolve him all you want, there's no team that should be that bad unless they've tried to make their roster bad for a good old fashioned tank.
Sure, the goaltending isn't great. By mid-December Mike Condon, an undrafted AHL goalie thrust into the spotlight, began to strain under the workload and it didn't help that his backup Dustin Tokarski (soon to be Ben Scrivens via trade) could do no better.
Where's the excuse for an offence that was supplying them one goal even when they did stop over 92% of the shots they faced? At first, the Habs were losing a lot of games even when they were out-shooting and out-working opponents on paper. That's the rub, the Canadiens have looked productive "on paper" but aren't getting the results. Therrien and his players pleaded that people look at those strong possession numbers, not the actual game's results (pretty ironic considering when people pointed out the mediocre hockey analytical numbers the last two seasons, the response was usually along the lines of "Yeah but whatever, we still won!" So no sympathy forthcoming here, no matter what apologists say), Soon enough, the Canadiens actually were getting outworked, out-thought, out-muscled, out-hit, out-everything — except out-shot. The Habs' possession numbers have improved noticeably from 2014-15, but the scoring chances allowed have not subsided and the popgun offence with a terrible shooting percentage (displayed in a fallow playoff run where Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop seemed godly against them) slowly but surely returned.
Annoyance soon turned to concern which has now become outright panic in Habs nation. Most fans have become so disillusioned with the team and its coaching, that going for a "tank job" has become a legitimate consideration. The Canadiens organization itself has tried to remain steadfast in its collective cool. Marc Bergevin ended his silence of late by delivering a series of sound bites about how the blame was "on me" for the stupendous slide. It won over all but those who looked at the contradictions in what he said. Sure, he put the blame on himself but at the same time claimed he didn't regret anything he'd done and felt he had done the necessary work to make the team a contender. At the conference, Bergevin also reiterated a pledge to develop this team's future and not sacrifice it for short-term solutions. Fine and dandy, but the evidence says that future is not progressing one iota under a head coach he claims he'd go into a "foxhole" with. Bergevin took the time to blame himself, but when pressed to name his mistakes and regrets he defended his work and said he had none. Soooo he wasn't doing a bad job but was to blame for a titanic collapse? Huh?
When Bergevin started out, he seemed such a refreshing change from the business-like but deathly boring Bob Gainey or the secretive, smug Pierre Gauthier. But Bergevin could learn from those two to say nothing at all if he's going to say too much and tongue-tie himself trying to deflect blame from others.
Truly, Bergevin shot his wad on giving the kiss of death stamp of approval for his coaching staff. Once that happened, his team barely squeezed out a shootout win over the hapless Leafs then were swept by the league-worst Blue Jackets in a back-to-back, home-and-home by identical 5-2 scores. What a change that speech initiated huh? Bergevin has a lot of media support mind you, which isn't too shocking considering his humour, openness and sharp-dressing image. But starting last season, a certain arrogance crept in to his pressers. When not given one of the many softball, non-criticial questions from a media either friendly with him in their day-to-day lives or afraid to rock the boat and anger the organization, Bergevin showed an uneasiness and irritation at any implication his coach wasn't doing a great job or that the use of young Alex Galchenyuk away from centre was a short-sighted one.
He implied in that post-season wrap-up in May that Galchenyuk may never work out at centre and may have to settle for being on the wing. Preposterous comments that don't exactly instill self-esteem in a 21 year old player. Bristling at this line of questioning in the off-season was just the start of a deterioration of Bergevin from a smart, wise GM in the eyes of many fans to an in-over-his-head fool.
But they'd better get used to seeing his face at the podium since Bergevin was recently given a lengthy extension- on the day Price re-injured his knee, no less. It's a deal that has him under contract until 2022! All of a sudden, last year's Executive of the Year appears to be just another name that Carey Price helped earn a ton of credit when maybe they really didn't deserve it. The "five year plan" set out in 2012 sounded sexy as Bergevin was promising fans he'd invest in draft picks, prospects and youth in general.
When Therrien's approach yielded results off the bat, the focus suddenly shifted. Bergevin started going after fixes that just kept spots away from any prospects, i.e. Daniel Briere, Douglas Murray, P.A Parenteau, Devante Smith-Pelly, Brian Flynn, Torrey Mitchell.
Meanwhile Therrien did things like playing the hell out of a 39-year old Francis Bouillon with 2011 first-rounder Nathan Beaulieu waiting in the wings. Sure, a trade like getting Thomas Vanek or Jeff Petry for minimal assets showed he had promise for the savvy deal. But ultimately the Canadiens' core stayed preciously thin on top end depth. Almost four years later, "Bergy" is saying the same things but stands by a coach who appears interested in none of that and is paying the price now for his win-at-all costs, conservative, grinding approach. There's no way of knowing for sure but it appears many have tuned out the gruff Therrien, reminding us all why he was fired initially by Montreal in 2003 then Pittsburgh in 2009 just months before they won a Stanley Cup.
Look, Therrien is serviceable, there's no doubt. To a degree though. And you'll be damned to find anyone who got more luck in the star players he inherited. The man has enjoyed three different Hart Trophy winners in his career (Jose Theodore, Sidney Crosby, Carey Price), not to mention other superstars such as Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and PK Subban.
And yet, does anyone put him in the upper echelon of NHL coaches? Was he named to the Team Canada or "Under-23 team" coaching staffs at the upcoming World Cup? Did anyone bother hiring him after the Pens let him go? This bottoming out with Carey Price gone won't do anything to improve his already low chances at another NHL head coaching job either. Yep, anyone who thinks he's in the upper echelon has been greatly fooled.
Therrien's teams tend to play a simple, out-of-touch style involving chip and chase, dumping the puck blindly up the boards and throwing weak, low-percentage shots on goalies hoping for a lucky bounce, bad goal or bad rebound. He gets a lot out of teams at the outset from emotion, conviction and gumption. Then his lack of technical expertise, X's & O's and proper ice time dispersal deep-six the team down the road. Watch Youtube videos from the old documentary show 24 CH, including one where Therrien diagrams these plays himself then exclaims, "We're a grinding team. Accept it!" to a room full of sub-6 foot smurfs. The typical square peg into a round hole dilemma. At times, this style has worked. But not at all anymore.
The majority of the time this system makes for some close defensive struggles. Many a game saw the Habs win 2-1 in OT or shootout based on Price's world class netminding. Without that, the same efforts are now 2-1, 3-2 losses in regulation. Now everyone in hockey sees how exploitable and rickety that system truly is when it lacks a superstar goalie to cover up for the mistakes. No one can name another team that relies on its goalie to be anywhere near respectable as much as the Habs.
One could say "How can you judge anyone with Price being out? It's not fair. Any team would struggle without their MVP. Call it a wash." Well, that's supposing the Blackhawks are a lottery team without Kane, the Kings a lottery team without Doughty or Kopitar. Would those teams excel as much? Of course not. Would they give the 1989-90 Nordiques a run for their money in terms of tank-happy ineptitude as the Habs do? Of course not. They're actually good teams outside of their goalie. Compounding the problems, Bergevin opted to go the "bargain bin" option in the off-season. With expectations raised by two division titles in three years (including a second overall finish last season and a deep playoff run in 2014), he didn't want to have a fallback year. Oops.
The idea of giving youth and drafted talent a chance has been a foreign one in the Therrien years. Scared they wouldn't be ready, or more accurately realizing his buddy Therrien wouldn't feel safe utilizing them, Bergevin too often has opted for veteran talent. And usually not the good kind. Knowing he needed to improve the team and that the offence was priority number one, Bergevin missed out on securing some free agents or completing a big trade in the summer, despite his best efforts. He even offered Calder favourite Artemi Panarin more money than he took on the Hawks. But it didn't pan out so he settled for acquiring beleaguered power forward Zack Kassian and signing former super sniper Russian Alex Semin. There wasn't much harm considering neither would be making big coin on a long term deal.
Then it unraveled, starting with Kassian getting involved in a drunken car crash during pre-season and being forced to attend NHL-mandated rehab. He admitted upon completion that he was an alcoholic, but instead of being plugged into the Habs' lineup at right wing he was dealt to Edmonton for the run-of-the-mill Scrivens. So much for second chances.
Meantime, Scrivens has not proven to be even near Condon's level. Well then, what a solution that was! Kassian does come with serious baggage indeed, but if Edmonton isn't worried he'll poison their young players and turn them into partiers (not a French word), why was Montreal? Kassian was never the player he was supposed to be after being a first round pick of Buffalo, but he at least was a power body that had a scoring touch. Chalk up Kassian's dismissal to the Habs' recent obsession with "character" individuals.
Another Therrien target for disapproval that got cut aside rather quickly was Semin. Semin was no less brutal on offence than some on this team have been during the slide and actually had decent possession numbers but not much to show for it. Sure Semin wasn't looking too good but he ultimately he wasn't even given two months to figure it out. He didn't fit Therrien's mould due to his lack of grinding ability and defensive shortcomings (this from a man who at centre prefers to trot out 5'7 David Desharnais over a number three overall pick in Galchenyuk, an equivalent of if the Avalanche gave Alex Tanguay more ice time than Nathan MacKinnon and that's no joke).
The saddest part individually for this season's downturn really is Markov, a mainstay and silent MVP of the team for a good decade or so. A survivor of two devastating ACL injuries, Markov looks his age of 37 and then some, struggling to keep up night after night. Despite that, "The General" has yet to be given a back-to-back game off or have his minutes scaled back even though Therrien claimed they would and that's with 8-9 defenceman carried on the roster at times. It defies logic considering the Habs' defence corps is struggling in all areas. Bergevin compounded the quagmire on defence when he recently unloaded waiver-eligible Jarred Tinordi- never able to settle himself into a roster spot and seemingly in Therrien's doghouse from the start- to Arizona for a career AHL'er named Victor Bartley and career goon, but NHL all-star captain John Scott (waiver fodder themselves). Even if Tinordi never pans out in the desert, Don Maloney deserves some praise for the pickup of a 6'7 defender who was once a first round pick but ran into struggles then was treated like a charity case by his head coaches in both the A and the NHL. It could only be seen as another move to clear contracts out for the inevitable NHL salary cap reduction coming at season's end but smacks of asset misuse.
Since the hasty release of Semin, the Habs have really gone off the rails. It is just coincidence, but perhaps the move rankled some in the dressing room who felt again Therrien was picking favourites unfairly. Andrei Markov, a good friend of Semin, has been noticeably terrible ever since. Maybe his lack of passion most nights is borne out of having no fun at still toiling under this coaching regime?
Meanwhile, things at right wing got even worse as Dale Weise's goal scoring inevitably cooled off as did another off-season signing, Tomas Fleischmann. Anyone could have seen both coming but not the Habs organization. Therrien's preference for Weise in the top six is particularly confounding. Weise is a tremendous bottom six player but not a good enough talent to rely on the way Therrien wants to as he once again seems to be assuming an unsung playoff performer will translate to regular season gold.
A good comparable for Weise is Brian Bickell, the kind of hard worker that thrived when games get tough in the post-season and matchups aren't keyed in on his line, but can't carry the mail in a top 6 role or in the marathon regular season when it's just too hard to bring that effort consistently. Bickell is back in the AHL, by the way.
Weise isn't even close to the best example of a player now struggling to contribute. Previously reliable Hab veterans suddenly look disenfranchised, almost uncaring if not incapable of contributing much altogether. Tomas Plekanec, Alexei Emelin and Desharnais are big culprits of malaise who've declined further after rocky ends to last season (though two of the three looked great in October). This even with primo ice time still handed out by the coaching staff.
Reliable but NHL inexperienced 24-year old Greg Pateryn has seen the press box frequently too, despite looking no worse than Emelin, Tom Gilbert or Mark Barberio. The moment he makes a mistake, all progress is seemingly cast aside by his coach. An ill-advised abandoning of his side of the ice vs. Pittsburgh that resulted in a goal elicited the Therrien reaction of the year, a palm to the forehead and a silent muttering of "Calisse de Tabernac." As a result, Pateryn has seen the box ever since. What a fantastic way of teaching them how to play in the NHL: barely playing them at all!
Fans and media then lap up the perception Pateryn and Tinordi are lackluster because Therrien's staff implies so with their scratchings. They dictate who's not cutting it and who's a "feel good story." At forward, 2012's prized catch for a lost season, Galchenyuk, is still being shuffled from centre to wing due to Therrien's concerns about him handling the defensive role (though comparing his PDO and analytic numbers to Desharnais' deplorable stats prove that theory delusional at best).
Galchenyuk may be on pace for almost 50 points but is also producing fewer points per 60 minutes of ice time than in his rookie season. Yet he's near the top of the team for points per PP and 5-on-5 minutes! Every time Galchenyuk is paired with Pacioretty as his winger, Therrien has abandoned the project after 2-3 games yet has stuck by Desharnais and others through 10-20 game periods of ineffectiveness and recently tried Galchenyuk on Desharnais' wing for 7 games. That experiment yielded disastrous results, not surprisingly.
Media who usually diplomatically report on Therrien's weird moves were even wondering why he tried the same thing over and over again. Isn't that supposed to be the definition of insanity? Galchenyuk has not proved an elite enough talent to persevere through this all, mind you, and does deserve to share in the blame. But he's not a grizzled veteran that can understand it all either. He's still just 21 and yet is expected to suck it up and figure it out on his own with poor linemates and never knowing where he's playing.
Bergevin, to his credit, has promised not to abandon their development of him and yet, does anyone see it going anywhere as long as Therrien is riding him to become more of his autobot kind of grinder? What exactly would drafting an Auston Matthews really accomplish for the Canadiens if he is yo-yoed around in a similar manner by Therrien or a coach of his ilk?
Now true, Montreal has always been a place where pressure from fans and media screws up a player's development or makes a coach do curious things with his lineup. So it's nothing new. But the Therrien era part two has taken it to new heights. From top to bottom, Bergevin's promises to make the Canadiens an exemplary organization at developing NHL talent have been mediocre at best.
Without the shrewdness of director of scouting Trevor Timmins, it possibly could have been worse. Apparently, Carey Price was truly the man the Habs' players all rallied around. When they wanted to win and play smartly, it was because he was their rock. He led them both on the ice and in the room and without his presence, the total apathy for Therrien and the dearth of true leadership, has taken hold. A cardboard cut-out of Price behind the bench could have sufficed perhaps?
The most shameless part is that Bergevin and Therrien are using Price's injury to make excuses for a 19 losses in 24 games run headed into the All-Star break. For a team that in 2012-13, coming off a disappointing last place in the East finish, adorned their facilities with the motto "Pas d'excuses" ("No excuses") they've had plenty of them this year. All because of one man's injury? Seems convenient enough for them. On top of that, the ascension of Max Pacioretty to captain has not given a jolt to the dressing room. If anything, it's been disrupting things- sparking notions of a power struggle with PK Subban and his faction of the room with Pacioretty's. "Max Pac" has provided his usual goal total but a glut of empty netters has beefed up that number and he is often found floating and not giving his best effort most nights. Perhaps his off-season broken leg was not fully recovered from by the time he returned in October.
The Canadiens indeed have not received much of the puck luck and ran into many hot teams and goaltenders, but the excuses fall on unsympathetic ears given similarly losing outings against the Hurricanes, Sharks, Predators, Flyers, Penguins and Blue Jackets- all non-playoff clubs. When the league's powers beat you, it really doesn't matter when you're blowing games against the bottom feeders. In the process, the Habs have turned into the utmost bottom feeder in the league these days. Since early December, no one is even close to their level of awfulness. Last week's newest "rock bottom" were the consecutive defeats to the lowly Jackets 5-2. It came with Columbus missing their head coach John Tortorella to injury (maybe that's an upgrade?) and playing their third string goalie both times. Injuries schminjuries, there's "pas d'excuse" for that. There have been narrow losses but the wins have been similarly narrow other than a 5-1 win over Boston in the ballyhooed Winter Classic.
Other than that solid showing, since Price's re-injured knee Montreal needed a comeback to beat the Devils 3-2 in a shootout, a late 3rd period goal to beat said Jackets 2-1, a 27-shot first period barrage on the Sens to just win 3-1, a shootout to beat Tampa 4-3, a superb Condon outing to win 2-1 vs the Devils again and a shootout to beat the awful Maple Leafs but only after blowing a 2-0 lead. Not exactly convincing with just 2 multi goal wins in there and of the 5 one goal wins, 3 needing the shootout. 5-18-1 is a stretch that's been the worst by Montreal since 1939-40 and yet nothing has been done, aside from trading Kassian and Tinordi. Patience and calmness are a virtue for an NHL general manager, but this lack of action has hurt the Habs more than it's helped. It makes all other disastrous runs look puny, their coach-removing actions almost overreactionary by comparison. After all, the teams Alain Vigneault, Therrien the first time, Claude Julien, Guy Carbonneau, Jacques Martin and Randy Cunneyworth got canned because of, were not as proven as this one. But it seems they all got more media scorn.
Ultimately, Bergevin's biggest revelation from his presser was insisting Therrien and his staff would finish the season no matter what. It was a bit of a shocker and with the lousy performances that followed, it appears that Bergevin backed himself into a big corner that he can't wriggle out of without tarnishing an already rapidly fading reputation. It also appears nothing is going to change as long as the roster and staff remain the same so that pledge is going to see some severe testing. We shall see what Geoff Molson thinks. The all-star break ends next Tuesday after all. A component to this is how fans in Montreal tend to react more vitriolic to such horrible hockey too. In Toronto most every seat is paid for by some big wig or corporation but the Habs rely more on the average fan than in the Big Smoke. And in the past, Canadiens fans did stay away a bit if the product was not just losing, but also boring- and that indeed has been the case under Therrien's watch.
The loss last week on Tuesday to Columbus saw many seats unoccupied in the lower bowl with a crowd raining boos down on a miserable, rudderless home team. With a crippling Canadian dollar, the prospect of playoff revenue getting further out of reach and tickets being tougher to sell, Molson may just go back on Bergevin's guarantee and axe the coach before the season ends in a desperate bid to save it. Or he'll wait it out and do it at season's end anyway. Either way, this run has done significant work to derail Bergevin's once smooth sailing as GM and exposed the Therrien many Canadiens fans knew was riding the glory of Carey Price like he rode Crosby/Malkin and Jose Theodore before him. Therrien will be paid accordingly either way, as he is due two more years on his contract after this one. Bergevin has that on his mantle since he handed out the extension. But the chain of command in blame does go up to Molson in the end. All of them have got a lot to answer for as they're overseeing an 18-wheeler collapse that previously was only seen in Toronto the last few seasons.
Bergevin indeed will be given the chance to re-tool and rebuild again though. In Montreal, the tanking approach is seen as a sin but maybe it's time to reconsider and ask: What's worse? That tanking option, or falling apart every four years with multiple players poorly developed and slumping, checked-out veterans providing the losing efforts? Apparently the lessons of being the Blackhawks assistant GM until 2012 did not sink in for the fancy suit-wearing, former NHL defender Bergevin.
The future has suddenly taken on a bleak outlook. Clearly the Habs don't have what it takes to be a contender now and probably don't have enough in the pipeline to be one down the road of the next 2-3 years. That can change if they are willing to part with many of their established names. Trouble is, the guys who they should deal are mostly on inflated annual contract values (ie Markov, Plekanec, Desharnais, Lars Eller, Emelin) though luckily not very long terms. For the cherry on top of the garbage sundae, all this is going down with the faces of the franchise- PK Subban and Carey Price- seeing their prime years as NHL superstar perhaps going down the drain tied to an up-and-down, unstable franchise. Price is due a new deal after 2017-18 too.
Price could command the max contract from Montreal but would he go for comfort and loyalty by staying there if they're in an ugly, rebuilding phase? His efforts could be enough to prevent being bad enough anyway. Or will he opt for a better, more Cup-ready team that he could still get top dollar from but also maximize his marketing value and sip from Lord Stanley's mug with? If that ever occurs because Marc Bergevin squandered his best years on blue-collar, loveable oaf Michel Therrien? Well, there'll certainly be hell to pay for years to come and Bergevin could hear his name become synonymous with Rejean Houle or Ronald Corey.
The top spot once occupied in the Atlantic by the Habs now belongs to Florida — who are doing it with the only Therrien assistant who seemed to communicate and take a leadership role with his players, Gerard Gallant. Since Gallant left for greener pastures in 2014, it's been a slow decline in performance with J.J. Daigneault, Clement Jodoin and Dan Lacroix all proving highly incapable at doing their jobs well. Only goalie coach Stephane Waite has cut the mustard. This leads one to believe Gallant was the "player's coach" type and since he left, no alternative voice to Therrien's old-school ways has taken shape.
Hasn't this lack of rebuilding into a contender correctly — and this being satisfied with raking in cash to be a playoff team — been the MO of the franchise since the day Patrick Roy was traded? The more things change in Habland, the more they stay the same.
Evan Dowbiggin @Edowrimple
Evan has spent six years at TSN working on the floor. A stat junkie, Evan operates the TSN stats Twitter account.