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sean gordon

On Oct. 26, the first time this season Pierre Gauthier fired a member of his coaching staff, the Montreal Canadiens general manager offered a mea culpa of his own.

"We need to look in the mirror, and it starts with me," he said after dismissing assistant coach Perry Pearn.

In an unusually expansive discussion with journalists, he later added that he doesn't ever worry about his own position: "I don't have time to think about that ... fear doesn't get you much in life."

Fast-forward six weeks to the much harder decision to part ways with head coach Jacques Martin – their friendship and collaboration stretches across two decades and three NHL organizations – and there was no mention of Gauthier's future.

Visibly pained at firing Martin, he was also somewhat less prompt to put his hand up for his role in crafting what is currently a mediocre hockey team.

"We are all responsible," is what he eventually answered on Saturday after a string of insistent questions from La Presse columnist François Gagnon.

Maybe that tack is part of a strategy to jam the goat horns on the players – new coach Randy Cunneyworth also put the onus squarely on the team – but it can also be interpreted another way.

The Canadiens, 18 months removed from a conference final appearance, are in rough shape.

And if Martin is the guy who paid the immediate price, the next five or six weeks could quickly become a referendum on the choices, personnel and otherwise, his boss made as well.

They are reflecting beyond the Bell Centre's mirror-like ice surface.

The Habs' early season viewership numbers revealed a 14-per-cent decline, there are tickets available on many game days (unheard of for most of the past half-decade).

The general level of enthusiasm both at the Bell Centre, where the team is a pitiful 5-7-6, and in the hockey hot-spots around town is several notches below fever pitch.

"It's almost like its hurts too much to see us lose, so they'd rather not watch it happen," is how one Habs player summed it up privately.

The paying public will tolerate stifling, defence-first hockey of the sort Martin and Cunneyworth, his former assistant, preach.

But the team better win.

By choosing to replace Martin with Cunneyworth, whose head coaching experience is in the minors, the GM is doubling down: same message, new messenger.

The personable Cunneyworth has been given a difficult mandate – like five of the six other replacements appointed this year, he lost his first game, 5-3 at home to New Jersey.

Beyond the fact he is the first Habs coach since Al McNeil in 1971 to not be able to make even rudimentary post-game remarks in French – yes, that still matters – that Cunneyworth has an 'interim' tag indicates Gauthier wants to keep his options open.

The other possibility is majority owner Geoff Molson signed off on firing Martin, who has 18 months left on his contract, but stopped short of letting his GM hand a two- or three-year pact to a replacement – he may not be around to see it through.

There's also speculation Cunneyworth is a test-case for whether fans will accept an Anglo coach if a more decorated one were to become available next summer.

Perhaps, but the speculation on who will replace Cunneyworth – that's right, it started the day he was appointed – centres on former Habs goalie Patrick Roy, currently the coach, GM and part-owner of the powerhouse Quebec Remparts.

But conventional wisdom holds Roy would probably demand total control of the hockey department.

Gauthier tried to shake things up by firing Pearn – which can now be interpreted as a shot across Martin's bow – then he made a bold trade to pick up Tomas Kaberle (and his hefty contract) from Carolina. Now he's fired the head coach.

It may work, Cunneyworth could reveal himself to be the next Bruce Boudreau, but if the Habs don't come back from a six-game Yuletide road trip with a bunch of points, the pressure will intensify.

And if they're still out of the playoff picture by the trade deadline?

Given the financial implications of missing the postseason, it's not outside the realm of possibility that an 'interim' tag might be needed in the Habs front office at some point.

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