Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
This year was supposed to be one of celebration for the Montreal Canadiens franchise. Instead, the Habs' 100th season has been one filled with disappointments, the latest coming in the form of a head coach firing.
Guy Carbonneau was relieved of his coaching duties on Monday with just 16 regular season games left for Montreal. It seems like a harsh move considering the Canadiens were the fifth seed in the East at the time of the firing, but Montreal has a tenuous hold on that spot at best, thanks to the conference's tight race for the playoffs.
Carbonneau's Canadiens were just one year removed from a first-place finish in the conference during the 2007-08 season before suffering a disappointing five-game series loss to Philadelphia in the second round. He was also last year's runner-up for the Jack Adams Trophy, which is given annually to the league's best coach.
General manager Bob Gainey, a friend and former teammate of Carbonneau's in Montreal, made the decision to change coaches and, not surprisingly, he chose himself to handle bench duties for the remainder of the season. This marks the second time in Gainey's nearly six years as Montreal GM that he has fired a coach and taken over on an interim basis.
The last time Gainey used this strategy was in the middle of the 2005-06 campaign when he fired Claude Julien. Interestingly enough, Julien, who is currently enjoying immense success as head coach of the Eastern Conference- leading Boston Bruins, was also replaced by another GM a year later when Devils front office whiz Lou Lamoriello fired him and became the interim head coach.
Gainey is just one of many general managers with too much power and not enough accountability. Certainly, he had cause for firing Carbonneau, but the main reasons for Montreal's struggles this year can be traced back to moves the GM made.
First and foremost, it was Gainey's idea to anoint Carey Price as his team's No. 1 goaltender at the not-yet-ripe age of 20 years old, when he traded the club's former top goaltender Cristobal Huet at the 2007-08 deadline. The Habs would have lost Huet to free agency after the season anyway, but the move had a whiff of arrogance since Montreal was the No. 1 seed in the East at the time of the trade and Huet had been a big reason for Montreal's success up to that point.
Price went on to struggle in his first NHL postseason, going 5-6 with a 2.78 GAA and .901 save percentage. The rookie goaltender appeared lost at times, specifically in the series against Philadelphia when he let up a handful of soft goals. Price's growing pains have continued into this season, and Montreal has increasingly turned to Jaroslav Halak as the starting goaltender.
Not to say that Price won't at some point be a great goaltender for Montreal, but Gainey certainly made a blunder in deciding the young netminder's time was now.
Another problem for the Habs this year has been the decreased production of Alex Kovalev, who had a career renaissance with an 84-point season a year ago only to have just 47 points through 64 games this year. Kovalev's lack of scoring became such an issue that Gainey decided to order his star player to stay home in Montreal while his team was out on the road playing the final two games of a road trip.
To say that this scenario was predictable would be an understatement, considering Kovalev's history of taking years off. Of course, the 2007-08 campaign happened to be the final year of the Russian winger's contract. After Gainey opted to sign Kovalev, who is now 36 years of age, to a three-year, $13.5 million deal.
To be fair to Gainey, allowing Kovalev to walk to another team would have been an extremely unpopular decision in Montreal, where the hockey-crazed fan base refers to Kovalev as L'Artiste (The Artist) due to his world-class stickhandling skills.
Still, Gainey's job is to make difficult decisions such as allowing a beloved player to test free agency if it is the best plan for a team's future.
This is still not enough to excuse Carbonneau for his erratic approach to coaching this season. The former Canadiens captain shuffled his lines so frequently that his players couldn't have helped but feel confused. Also, The constant reordering invariably caused some players to suffer a loss of confidence in their own play.
Essentially, what Gainey is out to prove is that the players he has accumulated in service of the Canadiens are better than Carbonneau has made them look this season. That is ultimately the best way Gainey can prove he still deserves to be the general manager of the most storied franchise in NHL history.
Gainey had a telling moment Monday at the press conference to announce the coaching change. He said, "I can't say there could be anybody who follows our team who hasn't had this [firing] in their mind at some point in the last month."
That's true, in a town where hockey is king, Carbonneau's demise was likely predicted by many folks. In the end, however, the decision was made by Gainey, and now that he's added the title of head coach to his resume once again, it's he who bears the burden of proof in making the case for his own job.