Thursday, March 29, 2012
5 Things: Habs are a mess; Patrick Roy?
By Scott Burnside
1. Habs restructuring starts anew. Well, cue the Patrick Roy frenzy once more in Montreal. When the Montreal Canadiens announced Thursday morning that they had fired GM Pierre Gauthier and begun the search for his successor, it means the return-of-Roy rumors will once again pick up steam. We’ve been curious to see how Canadiens owner, president and CEO Geoff Molson follows up his in-season bumbling and whether he guides the storied franchise back on track or whether he is the catalyst for even more chaos and disrepair.
Molson, of course, dithered when head coach Jacques Martin was fired and interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth was discovered to be -- gasp -- a plain old Anglophone. Instead of backing off the hounds in the French press and angry fans who demanded that their coach speak French regardless of coaching acumen, Molson mumbled via a release that it was important that the Habs’ coach, whomever that might be, speak French and that the position would be re-evaluated at the end of the season. He has made the first -- most would say obvious -- move of dispatching Gauthier, who had made a hash of the club’s roster both in terms of talent and salary structure. Molson’s tepid response to Cunneyworth’s status ensures the Habs will also be looking for a new -- read: bilingual or Francophone -- head coach this summer. Reports had percolated recently that Molson had already reached out to Hall of Famer and Habs icon Patrick Roy about a top-level position with the Habs as either head coach or GM. Roy, who loves to hear his name connected to Habs positions, denied the reports, but with Gauthier officially out of the picture that discussion will no doubt intensify.
Could Roy -- part owner, GM and head coach of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- become a passable NHL head coach? Maybe, although the number of coaches who make a seamless jump from juniors to the NHL is negligible. Check out Brent Sutter and Pete DeBoer’s playoff records since making such a leap, while Dale Hunter is in the process of coaching the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007 after coming aboard from the junior ranks earlier this season.
Regardless, Molson’s first and arguably most important order of business will be in finding a replacement for Gauthier. We don’t think Molson has the stomach to hire outside the language bubble, which means he’s already limiting himself to candidates only with French language skills. That said, there are a number of interesting candidates, including former Hab front office man Julien BriseBois, who spent nine years with the club and is now the assistant GM in Tampa. There’s also Claude Loiselle, who does much of the contract heavy lifting in Toronto as assistant GM. Marc Bergevin, the assistant GM in Chicago, is another name you’ll hear bandied about, as well as that of former Hab captain Vincent Damphousse. The timing is interesting, but one assumes Molson will want to move quickly to name a successor so he can prepare for the draft, which would put BriseBois and Loiselle in good stead given that both their current teams won’t be in the playoffs either, so they are doing a lot of the same work.
2. How about Hartley as coach? When it comes to potential coaching options, Geoff Molson should be looking toward Switzerland if he’s looking at an option to replace Randy Cunneyworth.
We managed to hook up with former Atlanta Thrashers/Colorado Avalanche head coach Bob Hartley via Skype this week. He showed us the view outside his window in a small village just outside Zurich, where he is in the midst of a rather remarkable playoff run.
Hartley’s Zurich Lions squad has come out of the seventh seed to knock off the top two teams in the Swiss elite league and begins the final series next week against Bern. His squad has gone 8-0 in the postseason, including beating a Davos team that had beaten Zurich six straight times during the regular season. Led by former Vancouver Canuck Jeff Tambellini, Hartley’s squad has outscored opponents 30-9 in their eight playoff games.
“He had an unbelievable season, but he’s found another gear,” Hartley said of Tambellini, whom he likened to former Colorado captain Joe Sakic.
Other former NHLers playing for Hartley include Steve McCarthy and Cory Murphy. He also has a 43-year-old netminder in Ari Sulander on his roster.
“I think he played against Tretiak,” Hartley said, joking.
Hartley has embraced the culture in Switzerland, both on and off the ice. The cities in the elite league are so close that the players sleep in their own bed at night, and some opponents are less than half an hour away.
“We could dress in our own dressing room” for some road games, Hartley said, joking.
There is plenty of time for practice and the former Cup winner has enjoyed the teaching element of the game in Switzerland, especially with a team that features a number of 20-something skaters.
Hartley pointed his computer around the balcony of his apartment so we could say hello to his next-door neighbor and assistant coach, Jacques Cloutier.
The Zurich airport is nearby but there are also cows and goats and strawberry fields. His wife walks with a little cart like the locals to the nearby grocery store that is a fraction of the size of the supermarkets in North America.
“I know I wanted to coach. I know I still loved coaching but I love this league,” Hartley said.
When it comes to a return to the NHL, Hartley is cautious, saying he wants to focus on the current playoff run. He has another season on his contract with the Lions and he's loving life in Switzerland. But it would likewise be a shock if a handful of teams -- starting with the Montreal Canadiens and possibly a new team in Quebec City -- weren't interested in talking to Hartley about possible openings.
Another team that might want to start thinking about talking to the Lions and Hartley about prying him away from his new hockey home in the Alps is the Calgary Flames, where old friend Jay Feaster is the GM. Among the team’s players is Alex Tanguay, who won a Cup in Colorado under Hartley back in 2001.
3. Speaking of Patrick Roy and Quebec and all things relocation. What’s the biggest difference between what we saw and heard a year ago from the True North group that was waiting to buy and relocate the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and the folks in Quebec City, who are likewise desperate to see the NHL return to the provincial capital? Do you remember the Winnipeg group clamoring and banging the drums about their plans to make ready for a return of the NHL to their prairie city? The short answer is no. That’s what made Mark Chipman and the new owners of the Jets so attractive to the NHL. Relocation is a touchy subject for commissioner Gary Bettman and the league. It’s an admission of failure on a number of levels and when it happens, as it did a year ago -- and as it might happen in the coming weeks when the Phoenix Coyotes saga is finally brought to a close -- the league wants it done with a certain amount of decorum.
Now, you can’t blame people in Quebec City for being excited that funding has been approved for a new $400 million arena that could -- the operative word is could -- host an NHL club, but having a big news conference last Sunday to announce it (who has a news conference on a Sunday, anyway?) simply runs contrary to the way the NHL likes to do business. You’ll notice that with all the backslapping over the arena plans, there wasn’t one NHL executive on hand to share in the excitement. Bettman has been consistent with his message vis-a-vis all matters of relocation: He understands the excitement in places like Quebec City and Seattle, but no promises have been made, and when they are made it will be quietly and, if Winnipeg is any guide, at the last minute. A press conference like last Sunday's, regardless of whether the main players steadfastly refused to discuss the possibility of the NHL returning to the province, drives up the very expectations the NHL is keen to keep under control.
Rest assured, the NHL was not pleased with those proceedings, and it’s never a good thing to annoy the gatekeepers of the club you’re hoping to join. Remember how Jim Balsillie came in guns a-blazing, trying to make the NHL bend to his will as he attempted to become an owner? How did that work out? The folks in Quebec City would do well to take a page out of the Winnipeg playbook and sit quietly and wait for events to unfold, or run the risk of finding themselves with a new building completely void of NHL hockey players.
4. Blues in a good position. We were chatting with St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock the other day and the topic came up of how he was going to handle his starting goaltenders come playoff time. He immediately recoiled.
“I’m trying to not make that call until I absolutely have to. I’m trying to not think about it,” Hitchcock said with a laugh.
No wonder. This conversation took place shortly before Brian Elliott shut out the Cup-hopeful Nashville Predators on Tuesday night by a 3-0 count, for Elliott’s third straight shutout. The whitewashing gave Elliott nine shutouts for the season, tied with Jonathan Quick of Los Angeles for the league lead. Along with teammate Jaroslav Halak, the Blues’ netminders have combined for 15 shutouts this season, tying a record for the most by a team in the post-expansion era.
The Blues hold down the top seed in the Western Conference and are in the hunt for the Presidents’ Trophy, and that has set up an interesting dilemma for Hitchcock as he begins to contemplate naming his starting goaltender for the playoffs. The prevailing sentiment has been that Hitchcock will turn to Halak, who was outstanding for Montreal in 2010 when the 8th-seed Habs upended Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington and then the defending Stanley Cup champs from Pittsburgh. But Hitchcock isn’t tipping his hand, which isn’t surprising given how good Elliott -- the league leader in goals-against average and save percentage -- has been.
The Blues are in an enviable position in being able to choose between two goaltenders who are on a collision course with a William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals during the season. While other teams are riding their No. 1 netminder just to get in the playoff door, both Elliott and Halak should be well-primed for the postseason without being overworked.
“I’m trying to keep both guys really active and engaged,” Hitchcock said.
The veteran coach said he’ll go “more by feel” when it comes to handling the goaltending duties once the playoffs begin. He also knows if he needs to make a goaltending change at any point he won’t have to wait until the situation is dire.
“We’re in a very unique situation. We don’t have to get into where it’s a last-gasp situation before we decided to try something different” when it comes to goaltending, Hitchcock said.
It goes without saying that the Blues play equally well in front of either goaltender.
Former NHL netminder John Davidson, now the team’s president, said there’s been absolutely no conflict between the two netminders, even though both are highly competitive and want to play.
“There’s not been one iota of an issue, zero,” Davidson told ESPN.com.
As for the theory that a team has to identify a starting goaltender before the playoffs, Davidson understands it exists but he doesn’t buy that it’s not a blueprint for postseason success.
5. Who else has a crowded crease? If we accept, then, that the Blues have the ultimate goaltending tandem heading into the postseason, what other team(s) boast a comparable one-two punch, and could such a tandem be key to a long playoff run?
The obvious No. 2 tandem behind Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak would be the Roberto Luongo-Cory Schneider duo in Vancouver. The Canucks rank fourth overall in goals against per game and there has been a more or less equitable split in duties, with Schneider playing a career-high 30 games and standing second in the league in save percentage and fifth in goals-against average.
While Luongo would be expected to be the Game 1 starter when the playoffs begin, like Hitchcock, Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault won’t be waiting until the Canucks’ backs are against the wall to make a switch if Luongo struggles.
After the Blues and Canucks, there is a significant drop-off in terms of viable goaltending depth come playoff time. If Tuukka Rask is healthy, he has the tools to come on in relief of Tim Thomas for Boston, but his return from injury in time for the start of the playoffs is uncertain. The Devils have an interesting duo in Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, who have split time this season, although Brodeur, the winningest goaltender of all time, is the obvious No. 1. Still, the 38-year-old Hedberg has experience and Brodeur has struggled in the playoffs since the Devils’ last Cup win in 2003.
Chicago fans have enjoyed a high level of angst regarding their goaltending situation this season (they rank a pedestrian 22nd in goals allowed per game), although Corey Crawford has rediscovered his mojo in recent weeks. Still, Ray Emery has turned in some nice stretches for the Hawks and we have no doubt that head coach Joel Quenneville will have no compunctions about making a goaltending switch should Crawford hit a rocky stretch this spring.
Finally, while the Florida Panthers are lightly regarded as a playoff team, the Southeast Division leaders are on the verge of heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2000, and both starter Jose Theodore and veteran backup Scott Clemmensen have done a nice job down the stretch in keeping the team afloat even as the Cats’ offense has dried up.
As for the rest, well, let’s just say there are a lot of coaches and GMs hoping for good health so they don’t have to consider Plan B.