Cross Checks: Jacques Martin

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun break down Montreal's decision to fire coach Jacques Martin:

Burnside: Good day, my friend. I trust your Saturday is going better than former Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Martin, who was relieved of his duties Saturday morning. Talk about a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking. But I guess we shouldn't be surprised by any of the machinations of the Canadiens, who continue to operate one of the strangest organizations in pro sports.

GM Pierre Gauthier made the move after the Habs lost at home against an injury-depleted Philadelphia Flyers team Thursday night. Gauthier replaced Martin with longtime NHLer Randy Cunneyworth, who is sliding into an NHL head-coaching gig for the first time after a long stint as an AHL head coach and NHL assistant.

Cunneyworth, one of the few Anglophones to coach the storied bleu, blanc et rouge in recent memory takes over a team that is just two points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference (the Canadiens seem a lot further away given their lackluster play for much of this season). Have to admit, even though Martin is an easy guy to dislike given his lack of emotion and prickly demeanor with the media, I figured Gauthier would stick with the coach until at least the end of the season. But this is just the latest in a series of rather curious moves by the Habs dating to this past summer. Your thoughts?

 Jacques Martin
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJacques Martin was in his third season as Canadiens coach.

LeBrun: I suppose you could read the tea leaves that there was something not quite right between GM and head coach in October, when Gauthier fired assistant coach Perry Pearn (Martin's good friend and colleague). Remember, Martin has been a GM in this league, and my belief is he and Gauthier did not see eye to eye on how this team should play or be constructed.

My colleague Luc Gelinas of RDS (French sports network) in Montreal tweeted that he heard there was a lively confrontation between Gauthier and Martin after Thursday night's loss against Philadelphia, so that may have spurred this on quicker than Gauthier had originally planned. Like you, my thought was the Habs would decide whether or not to make big changes in the offseason. Of course, that would still happen if ownership decides Gauthier should no longer be running this team. If it was me, I would make a GM change, no question.

The Canadiens made sure to announce that Cunneyworth was taking over for the rest of the season. In other words, Gauthier was not going to hire another head coach at this point. Is that ownership saying they don't want to allow Gauthier to hire another coach until it is sure about the GM?

In my opinion, this team needs new direction. The Canadiens are among the softest teams in the NHL and Gauthier did not address that in the offseason. The Canadiens are only contending for a playoff spot because they've got an all-world goalie in Carey Price, the same reason they made the playoffs last season.

Burnside: I admit I've been critical of Martin in the past, especially with his failure to get a talented Senators squad over the top all those seasons he was in Ottawa. I also didn't like how he handled himself in Florida, where he appeared to throw his old friend Mike Keenan under the bus. But you cannot argue with what he accomplished in Montreal in recent seasons with a less-than-stellar squad. It was Martin who guided the Habs to upsets against the top-seeded Washington Capitals and the defending Cup champs from Pittsburgh in 2010.

This season, he still had the Habs near the top of the league in penalty killing, although the power play has struggled. That will be a priority for Cunneyworth, but this simply isn't a very good team and a lot of that falls at Gauthier's feet. What was he thinking giving Andrei Markov that three-year deal worth $5.75 million annually in the offseason? Markov hasn't played a game yet this season with ongoing knee issues. The Erik Cole contract (four years at $4.5 million annually) is risky at best given his streaky play.

So, whether this was born out of desperation or some real belief that Cunneyworth is the one to get the Habs back into the postseason, it's hard to imagine Gauthier will survive the offseason if the Canadiens fall short. Not that the Canadiens are unique in pulling the trigger on coaches even if they aren't buried in the standings. Martin is sixth NHL coach to go over the side and we haven't even reached the midway point of the season. Is this just a function of trigger-happy GMs looking to save their own bacon, or the league parity that allows for teams to play poorly for long stretches and still be in the playoff hunt?

LeBrun: I wrote about this in a weekend notebook a couple of weeks ago, quoting an NHL coach who requested anonymity. I asked him if he felt firing coaches was the only magic pill left for GMs who can't make big trades in the first half of the season to shake up their roster. Dating back three and a half years, there have been 19 in-season coaching changes.

"And I ask you, how many times did the team make a trade before they fired the coach? Not too often," the coach told ESPN.com. "It's hard to make trades in this system. So I wonder if this system doesn't lead itself to firing more coaches as some form of cure-all when teams are struggling? Because the GM feels he has to do something. There's pressure on him to do something."

I think that explains this recent trend. The cap system has tied GMs' hands in the first half of the season on the trade front, so they take the only route left. Going back to the Habs, what will be interesting is how well Cunneyworth performs. He's long been one of those names always bandied about as the next can't-miss NHL coaching prospect, much like Kevin Dineen was. Dineen has proved so far to be a marvelous hire in Florida this season. Perhaps Cunneyworth can also do the trick?

Burnside: It's funny you mention trades and how difficult they are. I know Tomas Kaberle has played well in his first couple of games with the Habs; but after seeing him shrink as the competition got tougher during the playoffs last season, it's hard not to see that this trade (one that cost the Habs popular veteran defenseman Jaroslav Spacek) will be yet another albatross to drag the team down. Oh well, guess that's what buyouts are for.

Of the coaching moves already made this season, only the St. Louis Blues' decision to dismiss Davis Payne and hire veteran Ken Hitchcock has paid immediate dividends. The Blues are a bona fide playoff team and have the look of a club that could make some noise in the spring. The rest -- Anaheim, Washington, Los Angeles, Carolina and now Montreal -- all look like teams that will be lucky to make the playoffs.

As we wait for the Darryl Sutter shoe to drop in Los Angeles, where he's expected to take over for the dismissed Terry Murray, it's hard to imagine any more than one of these teams actually qualifying for the playoffs. I wouldn't be shocked if none of them did.

LeBrun: Good on you to mention the Kaberle trade. At least Gauthier tried to give Martin a boost that way before firing him. But, like you, I think that Kaberle contract ($4.25 million a year for two more seasons past this year) will represent another failure on Gauthier's part. The Habs have a shot at a playoff spot because of the mediocrity at the bottom end of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket and having Carey Price in goal. But I wouldn't bet any of my money on it. Enjoy the rest of the weekend, Scotty. Hopefully we can reach Monday without another NHL coach getting fired.

The Montreal Canadiens' poor start continued Monday night against the Florida Panthers. Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the future in Montreal:

[+] EnlargeJacques Martin
Marianne Helm/Getty ImagesJacques 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.

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