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Martin firing opens door to more change in Montreal

At 13-12-7, the Canadiens are two points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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At 13-12-7, the Canadiens are two points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

If it turns out that Randy Cunneyworth can’t learn French or improve the Montreal Canadiens power play, does Jacques Martin’s firing finally open the door for Patrick Roy to ascend to the throne?

After all, it’s not unprecedented that a former star who is the owner-coach-head-bottle-washer of a junior franchise is plucked from the team bus to take over an NHL bench. The Washington Capitals have already done that this season with Dale Hunter.

And the Canadiens are running out of candidates. Guy Boucher was once in their organization, but they lost him to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kirk Muller got tired of waiting around for a coaching job and left for his own bench in the American League, where he lasted less than two months before being scooped up by the Carolina Hurricanes.

Regardless of who takes over in Montreal, there’s a good chance he will not be as reviled as Martin, the star of this week’s installment of ‘Look Who Got Gassed This Time!’ TM. For many Canadiens fans, half of their Christmas/Hanukkah gift came true, the other half would be if the Canadiens ownership decided to show the door to GM Pierre Gauthier.

Without question, the biggest criticism of Martin was his insistence on driving a square peg into a round hole in Montreal. And it’s something these defensive geniuses do all the time. You could give guys such as Martin and Dave King the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens and they’d somehow turn them into a bunch of defense-minded automatons. In case Martin hadn’t noticed, Gauthier and his predecessor, Bob Gainey, weren’t exactly assembling the 2007 Anaheim Ducks here. The Canadiens are a small, skilled and speedy bunch of players whose ability to create offense needs to be encouraged, not squelched, if you want to get the most out of them. Instead, Martin insisted on playing a system that was hardly a meritocracy – just ask some of the players – and was based on a defensive system that made it impossible to capitalize on their strengths.

All of which is all right when it’s working. Fans of teams don’t mind watching turgid hockey if it means their team is winning all those 2-1 and 1-0 games. But the Canadiens haven’t exactly been a roaring success on that front. With the exception of the 2010 playoffs, when they made the playoffs by one point and rode Jaroslav Halak’s goaltending to the Eastern Conference final, this is a team that has largely underachieved under Martin.

The whole idea of playing the game the way Martin insisted it be played is to get an early lead, then either bore the hell out of your opponent or at least shut them down and frustrate them to the point where the lead stands up. And that simply wasn’t happening for the Canadiens this season. Case in point was the Dec. 8 game against the Vancouver Canucks, when the Canadiens opened up a 3-0 lead before losing 4-3 in a shootout. At the Bell Centre, the Canadiens had a 5-6-6 record and in their 11 regulation and overtime losses, they had leads at one point in eight of those games.

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What this team needs now is someone who will take the personnel available and coach it accordingly rather than impose his own philosophy on the situation. Cunneyworth, who has certainly paid his dues as a head coach in the American League and an assistant in the NHL, would seem better equipped to do that. He’d better be, because historically a coach who cannot speak French in Montreal has to be successful.

There’s every indication Martin’s message was being lost on the Canadiens, particularly considering Josh Gorges’ comments after the morning skate on Saturday, just hours after the coaching change was announced.

“If you only have half the guys or three-quarters of the guys doing what’s asked of them, then everyone is in disarray,” Gorges said. “And that’s where we got to…so consequently we lost games we shouldn’t have lost and changes needed to be made.”

The fact the players would be in disarray is an indictment of the coaching staff. Again, Martin’s system is supposed result in the exact opposite of disarray. Defensive systems are, by their very nature, based on control and slowing down the game. And Gorges is right. If there was disarray, it’s because some of the players became frustrated with playing that style.

Martin certainly couldn’t control the injuries on the blueline, nor could he have envisioned that number of underperforming players this season. In fact, with the exception of goalie Carey Price and the line of Erik Cole, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, you could certainly argue the Canadiens have been a group of passengers this season.

There are a group of younger players on this team that will be thrilled with this move. You can expect Pacioretty to have an even more front-line role, while other younger players will probably get a better opportunity to show what they can do.

It remains to be seen whether that will be enough. If not, you can expect a thorough housecleaning in Montreal after the season. Geoff Molson and his group paid about $575 million for the Canadiens in 2009 and they need the playoff revenues. If that doesn’t happen, you can expect the bloodletting to make Saturday’s move look like a paper cut. Gauthier will likely be gone and that will open up all sorts of possibilities – perhaps Pierre McGuire in the executive suite and Patrick Roy behind the bench.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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