The coaching meat grinder that is Montreal spit out Canadiens bench boss Jacques Martin Saturday morning, bringing the number of NHL coaches walking the plank this season to six.
With the appointment of assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth as interim head coach for the rest of the season, that brings the number of Canadiens coaching changes to eight 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.
After Gauthier met with and fired “Mr. Martin,” early Saturday morning, Cunneyworth, 50, led the club through the morning skate in preparation for Saturday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils. Canadiens assistant general manager Larry Carriere is moving behind the bench as an assistant.
Gauthier 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.
The Habs are 13-12-7 and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with 33 points – two points back of the Devils, who hold down the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
“Jacques is not the reason we weren’t winning games,” Canadiens’ winger Erik Cole said. “We haven’t been playing well enough. This is a good wakeup call.”
“I’m very surprised,” said Canadiens veteran defenceman,m Hal Gill. “You never want to see anyone lose their job. I know Jacques is a guy who gave everything he had to this team. It’s not just him. It’s everyone in this room. We’ve got to come and play and hopefully that’s a wakeup call for us. We have to do our jobs and do them better.”
“It’s an honour to be chosen as the coach of this team,” said Cunneyworth, who played 15 years in the NHL - he was captain of the Ottawa Senators at the end of his career under Martin - and has spent eight years as a head coach in the AHL and three as an assistant in the NHL. “I go back to when I was first hired as assistant coach, the excitement that I felt. I have mixed emotions this time around. There is still the excitement, but my thoughts are with Jacques. As many of you know, we go back a long time and I have the utmost respect for Jacques and everything he does and the wealth of experience I’ve learned over my times with 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,” Gauthier said. “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.”
I guess when you’ve got a reputation as defensive coach, as Martin does, and you can’t defend leads, that’s not a good thing.
The Canadiens have had more than their share of injuries, the most significant to top defenceman Andrei Markov, who has yet to play a game because of knee surgeries. Despite the fact he was coming off his second reconstructive surgery, Gauthier signed him to a three-year deal with a cap hit of $5.75 million.
Martin, who had a 96-75-25 record with the Habs, was criticized in Montreal for his emphasis on defence when he had a speedy and skilled team and for his bland public persona. The club’s trip to the conference final in Martin’s rookie year, riding the hot goaltending of Jaroslav Halak, also likely created some unreal expectations for the franchise.
Cunneyworth is the first unilingual anglophone to take over as Habs coach since Bob Berry in 1984.
Cunneyworth has paid his dues in the American Hockey League as a head coach. After a 15-year career as a player, which included a stint as captain of the Senators, Cunneyworth was with the AHL’s Rochester Americans for nine years, seven of them as head coach before moving to the Atlanta Thrashers where he was an assistant for two seasons (2008-2010).
Last year he was coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Habs’ AHL affiliate, taking a team with average talent to 44-27-2-7 record and a run to the conference finals.
He was respected as a hard-working player and has brought that same work ethic to the coaching ranks. He’s regarded as a good communicator.
“We have to figure out ways to get more out of our individual players,” Cunneyworth said. “It’s the responsibility of the coaching staff, but also the responsibility of the players themselves...I think it’s a lot to do with the execution. We have to demand better from each other and the players have to be more on board as a team rather then trying to do things on their own. I think it’s important we get that across very quickly.”
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