Perhaps there’s something liberating about second chances. Whatever the reason, Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien is clearly bent on whistling while he works in his most recent tenure with the NHL’s oldest franchise.
Therrien, who enjoyed only middling success when first coached the Habs a decade ago, claims he’s mellowed considerably from the shouting taskmaster who once publicly tore into his “soft” Pittsburgh Penguins defence corps for “not trying.”
The evidence of the past few days suggests he is indeed a sunnier, more relaxed coach, but it’s not to say he’s become a soft touch – Therrien still favours the direct approach.
“He’s still demanding of his guys … but he’s really patient when he’s teaching us about what he expects and the reasons why. There’s no grey area out there, it’s: ‘This is how I want it, and this is why I want it,’” said winger Colby Armstrong, who played for Therrien in Pittsburgh and in the minor leagues. “There’s no in-between with him. You play good or you play bad, guys know what to expect.”
Therrien is a forceful presence – he keeps meetings and practices moving briskly along – and said the key element a coach can bring to a team isn’t Xs and Os, rather, “it’s the mentality.”
In this case, it’s fairly straightforward: clarity of purpose and personal responsibility.
“We know where we’re going with that team,” he said this week. “I believe there’s a trust that we’ve got to earn from the players and they have to earn our trust, that’s where we’re at right now.”
Therrien is a meticulous organizer – every drill and meeting of this week’s training camp was planned down to the minute months ago – and has spent a good deal of time focusing on minutiae this week.
The ever-elusive “little things” hockey teams love to talk about – zone breakouts, defensive coverage, fore-checking, blueline entries – have been the main staple as Therrien eases his charges into his new, aggressive system.
But the outlook is the thing; from the “No Excuses” sign emblazoned on the dressing room wall at the Habs facility, to the new team logo on the carpet at the centre of the room (no stepping on it, please), the focus is on pride in the jersey.
It’s easy to dismiss such gestures as sloganeering, but Therrien’s methods have proven successful in the past – though he was fired a few weeks before the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, he’s the guy who got them to the final round the previous year.
Defenceman Francis Bouillon has known Therrien since he played for him in the QMJHL, and says the 49-year-old bench boss’s particular talent is in creating something to rally around, a strong common identity.
“He’s a winner, and a guy whose talent is in putting the team first and unifying the guys. We have a lot of new faces and a short camp, the idea is to create an atmosphere of unity and he’s always been good at that,” Bouillon said. “You have to be willing to pay the price, though. He likes character players … the player who doesn’t give it his all for a night or two is going to hear about it.”