I have been watching the Habs play hockey for close to 50 years now, and I have to say that finally, after a half Century, I am truly fed up with the conservative approach.
I put up with it in the Scotty Bowman years because he kept winning Stanley Cups, but even then I used to get frustrated when a Pierre Larouche, who had scored 50 goals at 19 years of age in the NHL, was benched over Doug Jarvis, Rick Chartraw, Pierre Mondou, Jimmy Roberts and even Cam Connor his first two seasons on the club, especially in the playoffs. The thing was. . . Scotty had a team full of superstars, and he felt he needed six or more grinders on the bottom three lines and, most importantly, it worked so how critical could you be?
Mind you he had Dryden in nets, the Big 3 on defence and Lafleur and co. up front. He had no business coming within a goal of losing to Boston when Lafleur scored that famous power play goal while “coming out rather gingerly on the right side”. The difference in talent between the Bruins and Habs on that team in 1979 was substantial, but Bowman got the Cup ring (and a few more after that on other stacked teams) and Don Cherry eventually got the HNIC gig and the opening montage that shows him saluting the Montreal crowd that infamous night when the Habs somehow prevailed over the Bruins when all looked lost.
I always felt that the Habs won Cups in the 1970’s despite the defence-first approach. I think if Don Cherry was behind the bench from 1972-1980, he wins at least five Cups with that lineup as well, but we’ll never know. .. and today Bowman is revered as the greatest coach ever. Boston should not have been a goal away from stealing that series in 1979 – not with the differences in talent.
Cherry took a bunch of “lunchpail players” like Stan Jonathan and turned them into 27-goal scorers. The Bruins had 11 20-goals scorers one season, a record that is not likely ever to be broken. Despite that defence and goalie in Montreal, Cherry’s Bruins pushed the pace. Cherry wasn’t conservative, and he truly out-coached Bowman with his approach, even if that’s something Habs fans don’t want to hear.
What happened next, after Bowman left the Habs to be GM/Coach in Buffalo, was that the Habs hired an offensive-first coach in Bernie Geoffrion, and Boom Boom lasted 30 games before packing it in and being replaced by Claude Ruel. Geoffrion hadn’t done poorly – the club was playing .600 hockey – but it wasn’t the same team as Bowman had. Gone were his Hall of Fame goalie Dryden and center Lemaire. Savard and Lapointe weren’t the same defencemen they’d been in the 1970’s, especially Savard, who now was in his mid 30’s, and Lafleur would have his final 50-goal season in 1979-80 as his decline started after hard living.
Bob Berry took over and would also try to play an offensive style for three seasons, but the Habs were going through a turnover with the veteran core having aged, and legendary GM Sam Pollock having moved on to be unwittingly replaced by the incompetent Irving Grundman.
The frank conclusion at that time was that the Habs had made a big mistake trying to win with an offence even if there was little chance that a defensive system would have propelled any of those teams past the Islanders from 1980-84.
The club’s deep thinkers decided that they would get back to the glory years by employing a conservative approach like Bowman had with a huge emphasis on defence and relying on veteran teams and ,frankly, since 1984 that has been the team’s playbook with two notable exceptions.
Since 1984 the Habs have had 14 head coaches, and in many cases, it’s a who’s who of “defence first” names, most notably Lemaire, Burns, Tremblay, Carbonneau, Gainey, Martin, Therrien. . . and now Julien.
None of these defence-oriented coaches, with the exception of Pat Burns, came close to taking the Canadiens to a Cup championship. Burns, in fact, is the only one of that group who took the Habs back to the Cup final.
Two coaches have guided Montreal to Stanley Cups in the past 38 years, and it’s interesting to revisit those teams and the coaching styles and team approach.
Jean Perron was a young coach who had little to lose in 1985-86 as Montreal was not expected to get out of the east having finished fifth overall with 87 points. Philadelphia and Washington were the class of the east that season with 110 and 107 points, and Montreal was expected to win one series, two at the most if they were lucky, as Quebec was the top team in their division. Certainly, if they ever got to the Cup Finals, they would be demolished by the Edmonton Oilers who were winning with high-octane offence.
Perron took a lot of gambles that season. He handed the starting goaltending duties to a raw 20-year-old with tons of promise in Patrick Roy, gave a rookie Swede Kjell Dahlin a scoring role, had 19-year-old Petr Svoboda in a top-four defence role, and kept giving rookie players who were called up a chance to play.
GM Serge Savard was fairly new to the job and also wasn’t afraid to take some risks; he called up Brian Skrudland, Mike Lalor, John Kordic, Stephane Richer and Claude Lemieux during the season, and all had regular roles by the playoffs. He signed David Maley out of college hockey and the Habs played him in seven playoff games despite having three games of NHL experience.
In the 1985-86 playoffs, the Canadiens took an unconventional approach in comparison to past Habs teams and relied heavily on their youth. They had nine players under the age of 23, and five who were 20 years old or younger. They brought tons of energy and enthusiasm to the lineup, and it was infectious not only on the team, but in the stands, as the Forum was rocking that playoff year when the club went on its terrific run with the indomitable Roy leading the way.
As luck would have it the division winners Quebec and Philadelphia lost in the opening round, Washington would fall to the Rangers in Round 2, and Montreal would defeat New York in the eastern finals to advance to the Cup finals.
The luckiest thing that season for Montreal happened out west, as one of the biggest upsets in NHL playoff history occurred in Round 2 when the Calgary Flames defeated the powerhouse Oilers in seven games. As magical as Montreal’s run was that season, they would not have beaten the Oilers that season.
The Habs would win the Cup, and the two key players were the two 20-year-old rookies that carried that team: Roy and Claude Lemieux, who scored ten goals in the playoffs after having netted just two in his NHL career to that point.
The other coach employed in the past 38 years who also wasn’t afraid to take chances with young players and employ an offensive system was Jacques Demers, and in 1993 he would guide Montreal to the last Cup won by a Canadian team.
There were a lot of familiar scripts that season when compared to 1986.
The Habs were by no means a Cup favourite when the playoffs got underway. Pittsburgh was the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions with Mario in his prime, and no one was expected to stop them in the east.
Montreal finished third in the Adams Division behind Boston and Quebec and the Bruins won eight straight going into the playoffs.
They don’t call it the “second season” for nothing though, as Buffalo would sweep Boston while Montreal got by Quebec. After sweeping the Sabres, the club watched the Islanders take Pittsburgh to seven games, and miraculously beat the Penguins at home 4-3 in overtime on an unforgettable goal by David Volek.
The Habs would dispose of the Islanders in five and then defeat Gretzky and the LA Kings in five games to win the Cup for the last time.
The Habs once again benefited from the spectacular goaltending of Roy and won an unbelievable ten overtime games that season that set a record that may never be broken, but just as importantly Demers was not afraid to gamble with young players and an offensive system that relied on energy and risk-taking.
There were 12 playoff regulars who were 24 years old or younger, including a preponderance of rookies who would play key roles, including Paul DiPietro, Gilbert Dionne and John Leclair.
Fast forward to last year’s team, and we were looking at a division winner that looked to have a shot at getting to the eastern final, backed by a franchise goalie in Price.
GM Marc Bergevin decided to tinker with team chemistry at the trade deadline by picking up veterans Steve Ott, Dwight King and Andreas Martinsen while dealing Sven Andrighetto.
Entering the playoffs, no young players were called up from the AHL, even though de a Rose had ended the season strongly, Hudon had another productive season and Scherbak hit his stride offensively late in the year. None were added to the roster as the club decided to go with NHL veterans only.
Mike McCarron and Brandon Davidson found themselves in the stands as the playoffs started; Nesterov getting the nod over Davidson even though Davidson had clearly been playing better. Why? Well. . . Nesterov had played 26 career playoff games and Davidson had played none. You couldn’t possibly ask someone to play in the playoffs with no previous experience. Wayne Gretzky and Ray Bourque had never had a first NHL playoff game, had they?
McCarron had been bringing lots of energy and some grit to the lineup and had been playing better than King, but Bergevin had traded for him at the deadline and he had been part of two Stanley Cup wins, so surely there’s no way that a playoff veteran could be worse than a playoff rookie.
Well. . . it didn’t work. Nesterov was horrible as was Emelin. King and Martinsen were no better, while Hudon, de la Rose, Scherbak and McCarron (until later) were nowhere to be found. There was one rookie in the lineup unlike 1986 when there were ten or more, and it’s arguable that the one rookie – Lehkonen – was the best Habs player in the first round of the playoffs.
I wondered last April why Hudon wasn’t called up, and the way he has played so far this season, does he not look like someone who could have contributed more to the Habs last playoff than King or Martinsen?
This was not a juggernaut Canadiens team. Much like in 1986 and 1993, the Habs of 2017 were by no means favourites in the east, so why didn’t the club look at their past two Cup winners and have some young legs available when it was clear that the series was in jeopardy and the veteran pickups weren’t cutting it? I expressed my reservations with that decision before the playoffs got underway, and when you look at the results – losing in the first round after winning a division – I don’t think my criticisms were unfounded.
Why was there so much caution? Was Julien reluctant to upset Bergevin if he benched the trade deadline pickups? Why was Bergevin reticent to call up any young players as insurance in case some of the veterans weren’t contributing as they should? Why were the last two Habs Cup winning teams not considered or reflected upon when it came to the playoffs? Why, instead, follow the Scotty Bowman approach (defence first and veterans) with a team that didn’t have a Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire or Steve Shutt on the first line, as well as unreal depth that saw a future Hall of Famer in Bob Gainey playing on the fourth line or the Big 3 on defence?
John Tortorella once famously said “Safe is death” the season he took Tampa to the Stanley Cup title. Well, the Habs organization seems to have become stuck on safe for decades. . . and it has been pretty deadly.
Did Bergevin learn from his playoff conservatism? The offseason started promising enough when he made a deal for Jonathan Drouin, but that would be the pinnacle. After that it was back to old habits: picking up Alzner, Schlemko and signing a 39-year-old Mark Streit, playing hardball with the club’s only other offensive defenceman in Markov and ultimately losing him along with Alex Radulov, signing a 33-year-old Alex Hemsky instead of letting young players battle it out for a roster spot as he has the Habs continue the recent tradition of never having more than two rookie forwards start an NHL season on the opening day roster.
The Habs started the 33-year-old veteran Hemsky on the top line in camp and it soon became evident he was a step behind almost everyone in the league. Same thing with Streit who, despite being noticeably slower than every other defenceman vying for a spot in the eastern conference, is handed a top-six role out of training camp. Only after flopping around like a seal in front of his own net on a particularly embarrassing goal against did the club finally decide that perhaps Streit won’t be the answer. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh both determined that last season. It’s not signing Streit that is frustrating, as players who sign cheap one-year contracts can always be released, it is the reluctance to cut him because he’s a veteran when 12 other defencemen have looked better.
Jordie Benn has struggled mightily so far this season as has Petry in his pairing with Alzner, but there is no indication that Petry will be moved back to a third pairing role until he improves or that Benn might sit out a game or two when Schlemko returns from injury.
Even though Davidson has been one of the Habs’ two best defencemen since he got a spot in the lineup, I fully expect him to be back in the stands when Schlemko returns because, well. . . Benn is the veteran. Streit will likely be kept on the club even though he looks to be washed up, while Jerabek and Lernout won’t get called up any time soon. That is the feeling I get as that has been the pattern over and over again, and it is frankly frustrating.
Al Montoya struggled in the preseason. He did not have one strong outing, and did not play particularly well last year either. Charlie Lindgren, on the other hand, was excellent, and clearly deserved the backup role out of training camp. The Habs decided to go with the veteran though. Familiar refrain, n’est-ce pas?
If Lindgren had a shot at being the number one goalie in Montreal in the next decade, I would understand the decision to send him to Laval to get in 60 games, but Price is going to be the main man regardless. I see no reason in not going with the best possible backup, as those games where Price isn’t playing look like they will be extremely important given the slow start. Yet another example of the conservative “veteran over better player” approach that isn’t going to improve this hockey club today.
Bergevin has done a pile of good things as Habs GM. He has given up very few tangible assets while building the team’s depth significantly over the past five years, and had four playoff appearances in that time. He has, for the most part, kept draft picks and the club has rebuilt the prospect depth admirably after a stretch where the club had very few top 90 picks. Bergevin’s worst trade in 5.5 years was the Andrighetto deal; there are plenty of GM’s who wish that they could make the same claim. While it wasn’t a good deal, Andrighetto was by no means a player that was indispensable on a club that already has a bunch of undersized wingers.
The longstanding Habs penchant to embrace conservatism and veterans is at some point going to have to end in my opinion if this club is ever destined to compete seriously for a Stanley Cup again. There needs to be a Jake Guentzel-type performance in the playoffs, and you aren’t going to get that from an Andreas Martinsen or Ales Hemsky – it will be from a Scherbak-type player.
The Habs were noticeably better against the Rangers with Hemsky out of the lineup, but he got put back in to replace de la Rose versus Chicago, and he was noticeably worse. It’s the same old. . . same old players.
I would really like the ultra-safe approach to stop. It’s not working. Make life uncomfortable for veterans by giving young players some looks. Cut or bench the ones you made mistakes on, like Hemsky and Streit, and bench the ones who aren’t good enough for the playoffs like Martinsen and King.
My wish is that they call up Scherbak now and put him on the top line instead of trying to fill that spot with a player like Gallagher who has been in a scoring slump for 18 months. Develop young players at the NHL level who may be able to help offensively instead of always waiting until they have no waiver eligibility left and the team has no choice but to keep them on the roster.
Yes, I understand that you want players to fully develop and not be rushed. . . but the needs of the team have to come first. If he can help the team now, why not? Scherbak looked like an offensive NHL player the last three games I saw him play. He looked like he would be much more effective on the Habs top power-play unit over Hemsky or Gallagher right now – a power play that has gone 0-for-14.
It needs to start today. Cut Hemsky and Streit, sit out Benn and try Davidson in the top four, call up Scherbak and give him a look on a scoring line. . . be proactive beyond giving Mete a chance. If the lack of scoring continues, try Galchenyuk at second-line center for a game or two just to see if he’s inspired. Give the talented players an opportunity to play with talented linemates if all else fails, instead of the opposite approach where you become even more defensive and hope to win 1-0 in a shootout with Danault centering the top line and Galchenyuk on the fourth line, even if he is clearly struggling and driving the coach crazy.
There were a lot of empty seats for the home opener last night, and I think it’s a signal to the brass, and Geoff Molson in particular, that fans are finally fed up with the ultra-conservative approach that the club has taken since firing Demers in the mid-1990’s. Defensive coach after defensive coach has been brought in and veterans other teams aren’t particularly enamoured with persistently obtained and given the benefit of the doubt over the kids in the system at the start of the season and to start the playoffs. Not only have they not won, they have bored the fans going to games with defence-first systems while never getting beyond the conference finals.
Safe is death. Time to ramp it up and live a little.