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The Montreal Canadiens' poor start continued Monday night against the Florida Panthers. Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the future in Montreal:
|Jacques Martin led the Habs to the conference finals during his first season behind the Montreal bench in 2009-10.|
Burnside: Well, my friend, the Canadiens' ugly start got even uglier Monday night after a 2-1 loss to the reconstituted Panthers in the suddenly not-so-friendly confines of the Bell Centre. This was a pretty good tilt, and the Habs poured 41 shots on Florida backup netminder Jacob Markstrom. But only Erik Cole could find the back of the net (his first goal of the season), and the Habs' record slid to a conference-worst 1-5-2.
The bad news for this struggling team is its next three games are against the powerful Philadelphia Flyers and a home-and-home series with the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins. The buzzards already are circling around Montreal coach Jacques Martin's office, but the team's problems run far deeper than a simple coaching change.
LeBrun: Before I get to the struggling Habs, let's touch quickly on Florida. You mentioned "backup" when highlighting Markstrom's 40 saves. He won't be the backup by season's end. Jose Theodore has been solid, but he's only a stopgap until Markstrom is ready to take on what will be his No. 1 job for years to come. He might be ready faster than the Panthers believed.
As for the Habs, their passionate, faithful fans have littered my Twitter account en masse. As a French-Canadian, I've always had a unique link to that market even though I'm based in Toronto. Les fans du Canadien sont pas content. I think folks can translate that one on their own. It's mayhem in La Belle Province. No other market in the NHL has fans who get as emotional as these do. So, yes, they wanted Martin fired before Monday's home loss.
Fact is, given Martin's long history with GM Pierre Gauthier (the two were together in the old Ottawa Senators days), I don't get the sense that the coach's firing is imminent. I could be wrong, but that's my short-term sense, anyway. If this continues, the front office will have to do something, but Gauthier is an ultrapatient guy. It's also important to remember the Habs started 2-5-0 in Martin's first season behind the Montreal bench in 2009-10 and still reached the conference finals that season.
Burnside: That magical run in 2010, when the Habs knocked out the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins en route to the East finals, seems like a long time ago, no? Maybe the Habs will turn things around, but injuries to key defensive players like Andrei Markov (multiple knee surgeries have left his return up in the air) and a curious mix of underachieving forwards mean this is a big uphill battle.
I mentioned Cole, who was given a lavish, four-year deal worth $4.5 million annually in the offseason. I remember talking to someone familiar with the power winger who was skeptical this would be a good fit playing in the pressure cooker that is Montreal. Early on, Cole has seen little power-play time (that changed a bit Monday). But when your top scorer is checking forward Travis Moen (four goals), you've got a problem that extends beyond one free-agent winger (with all due respect to Moen). So, if Gauthier remains loyal to his old pal Martin, what's his move?
LeBrun: I heard from sources on other teams Monday that Gauthier was phoning around looking for help on defense. The thing is, he's not alone. Tampa and the New York Rangers are among the other teams also looking for blue-line help. It just so happens that Cody Franson is available in Toronto, although I'm not sure whether any of those three teams has interest in him.
It's no surprise that Montreal is looking for help on defense given that Gauthier never expected Markov to miss the opening month of the season when he signed him this past summer. Then, Chris Campoli, whom I thought was a clever pickup, gets injured in the opening game of the season. He's out at least a couple of months. And Jaroslav Spacek was finally back Monday night after missing most of this young season. So, the Canadiens were missing three of their top six blueliners for most of the opening month, which is why they've struggled so much defensively (very un-Martin-like).
Their power play, meanwhile, is 29th in the NHL. That's a toxic combination. Now piling on to all of this is a combustible market ready to explode. It's a lonely feeling if you're the coach. Michel Therrien knows it all too well. (He was let go by Montreal in 2002-03.) I reached him Tuesday, and he certainly felt for Martin.
"It's a situation that's really hard to live," Therrien, who guided the Penguins to the 2008 Cup finals, told ESPN.com. "When you're coaching the Montreal Canadiens, you really have to concentrate on the job and not allow yourself to get bothered by outside factors. The media and fans there are incredibly passionate. When things are going well, that helps your team; you see that come playoff time. But when it goes bad, it can be the opposite."
Should something happen with Martin in Montreal, Therrien is the guy I would put at the top of the list if I were Gauthier. Therrien has been there once, has gained a ton of experience since and came two wins away from a Stanley Cup championship in Pittsburgh. He knows how to deal with the pressure. But that's looking too far ahead at this point. Martin still has time to try to turn this around.
Burnside: At the start of the season, I had the Habs outside my playoff bracket in the East because I didn't like the Cole signing and thought they were still too small up front. Most of all, I didn't believe that goalie Carey Price was capable of replicating his stellar play of last season. I know you thought he should have been in the mix for the Vezina Trophy, but early on, he has suffered from the Habs' poor team defense.
Price is 1-4-2 with a 3.13 goals-against average and .878 save percentage. A year ago, the Habs were winning games in which they didn't play well because Price was so good. I'm not laying the blame at his feet, but if the Habs are to get back in the hunt, they need a whole bunch of things to go their way, starting with the goaltending. It was interesting that Peter Budaj got the start Monday night against Florida; he was terrific. Will we see him in the coming days, especially with the Habs' tough schedule?
As for a coaching change, I agree with you; I'd put Therrien at or near the top of my list to replace Martin if it comes to that. And there's our old friend from Atlanta, Bob Hartley, who is coaching in Switzerland this season. There is time for that debate, though, as I'm guessing things will get worse before they get better in La Belle Province.
LeBrun: I don't agree with you on Price -- I don't put any blame on him at this point. The team has been brutal in front of him. Case closed. But the fact is, the Canadiens were an above-average team last season -- nothing more, nothing less -- and made the playoffs because Price had one of the top five seasons of any goalie in the world. Anything less than that this season, and the Habs are out. Until tomorrow, pal.