Will Cunneyworth survive the meat grinder?

Montreal Canadiens interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth stands behind the team's bench after losing...

Montreal Canadiens interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth stands behind the team's bench after losing against the New Jersey Devils in Montreal, December 17, 2011. (REUTERS/Olivier Jean)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

MONTREAL – So maybe we will finally see “ability to speak French” removed as the first criterion to coach the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s a legitimate thought after the Canadiens fired Jacques Martin Saturday and promoted unilingual anglophone assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth to the top job, the first non-French speaking coach of the Habs since Bob Berry in 1984.

“Anyone can learn a language,” said Canadiens GM Pierre “The Ghost” Gauthier when asked about the always sensitive language issue and its implications on coaching candidates.

For now, Cunneyworth will get a chance to show what he can do, his first priority to get the Canadiens underachieving veteran core of forwards back on track.

The Canadiens will revisit the coaching situation in the off-season and you can expect a groundswell of media and public support for former Habs goaltending great Patrick Roy, who’s had a successful run as coach of the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, to get the job.

Whether he wants the job is another question.

Coaching in Montreal is a meat grinder with Saturday’s change the eighth in the last 15 years.

That is an incredible turnover for the NHL’s most storied and decorated franchise and speaks to the incessant expectations in the city.

The Habs lost 5-3 to the New Jersey Devils Saturday night in Cunneyworth’s debut. The same issues which took Martin’s feet from beneath him, according to The Ghost, cost the Habs Saturday night: the inability to protect a lead and a poor third period. The Canadiens led 3-2 before giving up a late goal in the second and seeing the winner scored on a bad turnover up the middle by Habs defenceman Chris Campoli.

The Canadiens held a players-only meeting after the game.

Cunneyworth, about as honest and hard-working a guy as there was during his 16-year playing career, which concluded as captain of the Ottawa Senators under Martin, said he’ll bring that same approach to coaching.

“I would hope that my coaching style is similar to the way I played. I felt for the most part I competed very hard. Hopefully, I’ll coach very hard. I think that it’s important this team, when it has the puck, has everybody in involved, we are utilizing all our assets. I think one of our biggest assets is our speed. We’re not a big team but we are certainly a team that can move and move a puck well. We’ll be asking that the players get right to that. Just being on the puck, competing and never giving up is something that I’ll demand.”

Look for that to be one of the changes compared to Martin’s more cautious style. Cunneyworth will want more speed, more of an attacking, north-south game, as he put it.

Canadiens assistant general manager Larry Carriere will be an assistant coach now, though he was upstairs Saturday night and goaltending coach Pierre Groulx was behind the bench.

The Ghost himself now has one foot in that meat grinder.

This is the second time this season Gauthier has made a move behind the bench on a game day. He fired long-time Martin assistant Perry Pearn at the end of October, 90 minutes before a game.

“Jacques is not the reason we weren’t winning games,” said winger Erik Cole, who made three trips to the penalty box Saturday night. “We haven’t been playing well enough. This is a good wakeup call.”

If the job of the coach is to get his best players to play their best, then Martin deserved his fate.

Injuries have been a factor, but the line for the Canadiens veteran offensive players is not good this season:

- Michael Cammalleri: six goals and 11 assists, -4 in 28 games.

- Brian Gionta: eight goals and seven assists, -5 in 29 games.

- Scott Gomez: no goals, four assists, -3 in 13 games.

Martin was ripped here for his dour public personality and Cammalleri made an interesting comment after the game when he was asked if he was disappointed about not getting Cunneyworth a win in his debut.

“Yes,” he said. “He’s got a personality that makes you feel he’s in the game with you. We would have liked to have won that one for him.”

Gauthier said he didn’t like the way things were going for the Habs lately - especially the blowing of leads and their play late in games - and had contemplated making a change behind the bench for the last couple of weeks.

“The primary reason is the team wasn’t performing as well as it should in my mind,” said Gauthier. “One thing that is my observation, especially in the last few weeks, we didn’t really know what was coming out of the box every day, every night and the way we were losing the leads. The way we were approaching the games wasn’t very consistent and that’s what we hope to change.”

But for the first night, it was “plus ca change, plus est la meme chose.”

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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