Once upon a time, a situation like this might have prompted a withering, collar-tugging rant, like the infamous “they pretend to care, but I know they don’t” press conference of 2006.
That one came 11 games into Michel Therrien’s tenure as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he tore into his NHL team using words like “pathetic” and “soft.”
But this is the new and improved Therrien, or so everyone keeps saying, and in the aftermath of a bad, listless loss in the 11th game of his second stint guiding the Montreal Canadiens, the contrast has been striking.
Players confide he’s proven to be a crack communicator, dispensing praise at least as often as he points out failings, and that the needle seldom revs into the red, even during low moments.
The 49-year-old head coach kept his composure immediately after last Saturday’s 6-0 shellacking by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and on Monday, there was further evidence of a mature, wiser coaching style. (Would Therrien 1.0 have allowed a day off Sunday?)
The Canadiens top line from a year ago is mired in a hideous slump – Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais have combined for one point and a collective minus-13 in the past three games, all losses, and have a modest 15 total points this season.
It’s not exactly revolutionary for a coach to dismantle an underperforming unit, what’s interesting is the way Therrien went about it.
“We sat down with that line and went through the steps, I showed them some video where they weren’t having much success, I had discussions with them, and said if I didn’t see an improvement, I would have to conclude that they need to be separated,” he said. “Our plan was to keep them together, they had great chemistry last season, but so far this season, they haven’t.”
No seething, no dire threats, no bulging veins, just calm and reasoned discussion about expectations followed by a decision based on not meeting same.
Therrien and Habs general manager Marc Bergevin are big on dressing room buzzwords such as “accountability,” but the players appear to consider them more than just platitudes. How else to explain Cole’s decision to send out a mea culpa text message to his teammates after the Toronto game?
“I told them that I plan on being better and being part of the solution and judging by the responses it was good,” said Cole, a notoriously slow starter who found himself on a line with Desharnais and NHL penalty minutes leader Brandon Prust on Monday.
Another example of Therrien’s lighter touch: He chatted with captain Brian Gionta to get a feel for the team’s mood in light of Saturday. Only afterward did he huddle with his staff to map out a vigorous, full-contact practice.
He didn’t need to single out any player in particular – Therrien’s message was delivered by the drills, which included a series of battles in front of the net.
Pacioretty, who lined up with rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, said no reminder was required that he needs to get better in tight. “You know. Seven games, no goals, we’re losing, having gotten great chances, we do a drill like that – I mean, I went to college, I think I get it.”
Therrien understands there are limits to what he can do, the best-laid plans only work if the people charged with executing them do so competently – and it’s still an open question whether the Habs have the horses to fulfill his expectations.
Now, the Canadiens travel to Florida for a four-day trip where they hope to clear their minds and collect a badly-needed win or two against the teetering Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the team plays on the two-game road trip,” Therrien said.
There was no incipient sarcasm or menace in his voice.
It will be interesting to see if either or both start to creep should more losses pile up.