The human condition tends to improve when one has something to look forward to, which is why milestones in sports are fun.
On Saturday, Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien topped a peak that only 34 other NHL coaches have scaled, recording his 400th career win, in his 796th game (of the 13 active bench bosses ahead of him on the list, only the Minnesota Wild’s Bruce Boudreau has fewer seasons under his belt).
Therrien wasn’t overly enthusiastic: “Of course it’s a nice accomplishment for a coach, but there are much greater heights. Ask any coach.”
He’s right, of course; whenever a summit is reached, others soon heave into view.
At some point in the next couple of weeks, he’ll overtake Jacques Demers, the most recent Habs coach to hoist the Stanley Cup, on the all-time victories list. Barring a stunning reversal of fortune, he’ll then become the longest-serving Montreal coach since the legendary Scotty Bowman shoved off in 1979; and Therrien’s second stint with the club will eclipse the late Pat Burns’ 320 games before the current season is out.
Pretty good for a much-maligned coach, right?
Because make no mistake, the opinion that Therrien weighs on his club like an X-ray apron is widespread. There are even statistical analyses to support it.
Thing is, his team just keeps on winning.
Results-based analysis is perilous – would the Habs be even better with someone else in charge? – but even the loudest critics must allow that the Canadiens, through half the schedule, are a very good hockey team.
And some of it has to do with Therrien.
The Canadiens have won just one more game than they’ve lost since the beginning of December (9-4-4), but that’s pretty good.
And consider the Habs have used 30 different players through 41 games, resulting in a cascade of minor-league signings as they ransack their farm system.
Yet, the club has played its sharpest, most consistent hockey since the injuries to top centres Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais kicked off a parade to the treatment room.
The injury crisis is easing – just in time for a stretch of eight games in 13 days.
The familiar trope is that the team’s success is a function of the health of goalie Carey Price’s knees, hips and ankles. But while that’s generally true, Price is coming off his second-crummiest statistical month since 2012.
Conveniently, it happened as the Habs became puck-possession monsters. Shooting metrics track fairly closely with sustained success, and according to stats database Corsica Hockey the Habs are second in the NHL when it comes to generating shots and third over all when you consider the differential with shooting attempts allowed. In other words, elite.
Therrien is known for playing hunches, and at least two have led to heavy payouts recently. Waiver claim Paul Byron is on a 25-goal, 50-point pace, and handing the keys to the top line to 23-year-old Phillip Danault – not an obvious candidate for the job – was inspired.
Players report more video instruction and one-on-one sessions – at odds with the criticism from several former players that Therrien doesn’t communicate much.
He has been canny with the practice schedule, prioritizing recovery.
“You have to credit the coaching staff for that,” defenceman Nathan Beaulieu said. “The teams that go far aren’t necessarily the best teams all year, but the ones who stay healthy and have energy in the playoffs.”
Continuity and having the right horses for the right courses have helped – summer arrivals Alex Radulov and Shea Weber are both Therrien’s kind of player – and so has the sterling performance of established players such as Jeff Petry and Torrey Mitchell.
Therrien famously leans on veterans, but youngsters such as Beaulieu and Danault and rookies Artturi Lehkonen and Michael McCarron all occupy key roles. So much for the old saw that Therrien can’t coach younger players.
As befits a man who was given a reprieve last season under circumstances that usually lead to a firing – full collapse, missing the playoffs – there are signs Therrien is evolving.
Is he still the old-school guy who once drove his players to the puking point and beyond at a practice in Pittsburgh? He is. Compulsive line juggler? Sure. Wound tight? Yup.
The special teams continue to be iffy, and you can quibble with his player deployment and ice time, but it’s getting hard to argue against the job Therrien is doing. He has largely avoided the obvious game mistakes he was criticized for a year ago. He’s shown tactical flexibility. He’s made adjustments.
It could all still end in tears and moving boxes, and at some point it will.
In the meantime, the scrappy Montreal native will keep the focus on winning, thank you very much. It’s taken him this far.Report Typo/Error