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Stephen Brunt

Habs choose orderly system Add to ...

It is has been a long-standing conceit in the hockey world that in Montreal, it is not just about winning. It is about winning with style, with élan, following in the aesthetic footprints of the glorious anciens.

To be ordinary and successful is not enough for supporters of the Canadiens. When they cheer one of those occasional moments of genius from Alex Kovalev at the Bell Centre like folks hurling bravos at the opera, it shows that they appreciate the game on an entirely different level than those drawn by free-hot dog-and-beer-night in Sunrise, Florida.

That notion is about to be put to the test.

The surprise hiring of Jacques Martin Monday as the Habs' new head coach, after he managed to extricate himself from his deal with the Panthers, suggests very strongly that Bob Gainey isn't much concerned with piling up marks for artistic impression.

Martin's sides have been consistent in their disciplined, responsible, defence-first style, and his press conferences, in both official languages, have been among the driest in all of professional sport.

He has been successful, at least during the regular season (his Stanley Cup playoff record includes five first-round exits in seven appearances), and he gets credit for lifting the Ottawa Senators out of the mire and setting them on the path to an eventual appearance in the Final - albeit after (and perhaps, in part, because) he was gone.

What Martin gives you is a system, a sense of order, a chance to win most nights, even against more talented opposition.

What he doesn't give you is anything to set hearts aflutter.

His hiring, then, offers a pretty clear sense of Gainey's thinking right now, in a time of ownership uncertainty, entering a summer of widespread free agency on his roster, still dealing with intimations of off-ice scandal, coming off a season that began with great promise and ended with a coach firing and a first round playoff sweep.

Damn the firewagons, it is apparently time to tighten up, to impose order, to give the pyromaniacs in the local press corps far less flammable material with which to work, and perhaps, just perhaps, to embark on a path towards the first Stanley Cup for hockey's most decorated franchise in 16 years and counting.

In other words, hiring Martin is the polar opposite approach to hiring Patrick Roy, who having turned down the coach and general manager's jobs in Colorado was still available, and whose return to the Canadiens would have been the sports/media/cultural equivalent of spontaneous combustion.

There's logic here. Carey Price is a better goaltending prospect than Martin ever had in Ottawa, and would certainly welcome a new level of defensive support. Andrei Markov might already be his Zdeno Chara. With the Senators, his talented forwards still scored plenty of goals while playing within his system. In Montreal, the trick will be to take the likes of the Kostitsyn brothers, Christopher Higgins and Tomas Plekanec and get their NHL careers back on track, to get the best out of Kovalev more nights than not (if he returns), and to instill a sense of purpose in a squad that last year seemed to come apart at the seams, especially after Markov was hurt.

Under Martin, the big highs, and Gainey obviously hopes, the big lows, will be fewer and farther between.

But in the wake of the crazy Centennial season, when it seemed each day of 2009 - whether it was stories of George Gillett's finances, or players' unsavoury social connections, or his goaltender's flagging confidence, or Kovalev's flagging inspiration - was wilder than the last, maybe the Habs' new motto should be 'Dull is Good'.

It beats the alternative. It beats another slide backwards.

And with a new owner perhaps on the horizon, who might be more tempestuous, more of a headline-seeker than Gillett, who might have some big ideas of his own, it might well be a necessary counterpoint.

 

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