Hab nots will be a challenge for Gainey

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:37 PM ET

The odds, time and circumstances finally caught up to Claude Julien.

The Orleans native was fired as the coach of the Montreal Canadiens yesterday during a telephone call from Habs GM Bob Gainey, who's taking over behind the bench for the rest of the season.

When the phone rings at 7:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning, it's usually not good news.

"After looking at this team since the beginning of the season and since mid-November, I arrived at a difficult decision, but a necessary decision," said Gainey yesterday.

Gainey didn't like the way some of his key players were underperforming and called out goaltender Jose Theodore, and defencemen Sheldon Souray and Andrei Markov.

He didn't like the lack of progress by some of the club's young players, his team's fitness level or its failure to take advantage of its speed.

You could make the case Julien was never Gainey's man, much like Jacques Martin wasn't John Muckler's guy when he took over the Senators.

Gainey has hired one of his guys, former linemate and Canadiens captain Guy Carbonneau, to become the club's head coach next season.

Carbonneau, who had worked with Gainey in Dallas, will be an associate coach under Gainey, along with Doug Jarvis, for the rest of this season. Assistant coach Rick Green was let go as well.

Gainey now puts himself on the firing line and will have to find a way to overcome the problems which sank Julien, who leaves the Habs with a 72-62-10-5 record, four days shy of his third-year anniversary with the club.

The main challenges:

- No coach in this league can be successful without great goaltending and Theodore has been inconsistent this season. If Gainey can't find a way to get Theodore going, the Habs won't be any better than they were under Julien. It's as simple as that. Gainey opted to start Theodore for last night's 6-2 win against the San Jose Sharks (Julien was planning on starting Cristobal Huet).

- The difficulty of trying to balance the development of young players with immediate results. "I believe we can do both now," said Gainey.

- Reversing a slide that has seen the Canadiens lose 18 of their last 25 games after starting the season 12-3.

- Finding a way to get underachieving players like Theodore, Radek Bonk, Souray and Markov to play to their potential. Gainey can clean up a mess of his making with Bonk. The deal to bring in Bonk at the expense of goaltender Mathieu Garon (excelling in L.A.) doesn't look good right now.

- Reconciling a Canadiens dressing room which is divided by cliques. There is one group of Theodore, Pierre Dagenais (sent to the minors last week) and underachieving Mike Ribeiro. There's another with captain Saku Koivu, Souray and Craig Rivet. Another has Alexei Kovalev with the younger Russian players.

"One of the challenges is to get them to work and think and play and succeed together. That's perhaps the biggest challenges of coaching is to bring that group together and have them perform like they're all very happy to be with each other," said Gainey, not denying there were problems.

"When things are difficult, cracks show and nerves get frayed and frustration comes to the top. We need to address those things in a way that will allow the players to be intense and passionate and determined and at the same time, relaxed and comfortable with each other."

With his selection of Carbonneau as coach starting next season, Gainey is taking the Habs down a familiar, but only moderately successful, path.

Not counting Gainey, Carbonneau will become the fifth straight head coach to call the Habs' job his first in the NHL, joining Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien and Julien.

Carbonneau's not taking over now because of his unfamiliarity with the Habs' personnel and the Eastern Conference.

"There really was no reason to drop him into a pot of boiling water when we can drop him in and warm it up gently," said Gainey.

Gainey's the one who will need the asbestos Speedo now.

chris.stevenson@ott.sunpub.com


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