Ron Cook: Former Penguins coach Therrien, Canadiens thriving
February 22, 2013 10:00 AM
Former Penguins coach Michel Therrien shouts instructions during a game against Buffalo in 2005.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They say there is no better sports city in which to win than New York, New York.
Well, they might be wrong.
"This is a pretty good place to have success ... Montreal," Mike Therrien was saying Thursday over the telephone.
There is no more passionate fan base than that of the Canadiens. Therrien has experienced both sides of it. He felt the sting when he was fired in January 2003 after three seasons in his first run as Montreal coach. Now, after getting an unlikely second chance when he was hired again by the Canadiens in June, he owns the city. The Canadiens, who finished 15th -- dead last -- in the Eastern Conference last season, went into their home game Thursday night against the New York Islanders with an 11-4-1 record, the most points in the conference.
It's a remarkable story, one that has surprised the hockey world. But shouldn't the Canadiens' success under Therrien have been expected? Don't hockey people remember the job he did as Penguins coach? Don't they realize he's as good of a turnaround coach as there is in sports?
Therrien took over a Penguins team that was a disgrace in December 2005. His early days are remembered for his infamous rant after a home loss to Edmonton.
"That defensive squad, I think their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league. ... There's a lot of guys who don't care. They pretend to care, but I know they don't care."
But the tough love from Therrien worked for the Penguins. He demanded much-needed accountability, at times to the point that the players hated him. But the team improved by a franchise-record 47 points the next season. They went to the Stanley Cup final in 2007-08.
Eventually, the players tuned out Therrien. Tough love takes its toll. He was fired in February 2009 with the Penguins out of the playoff picture. Dan Bylsma took over as coach and led the team to the Stanley Cup. He deserves big props. But save some for Therrien, who left behind discipline and structure that contributed to the title.
Despite the success in Pittsburgh, Therrien wasn't a popular choice in Montreal. Many remembered his failures with the Canadiens the first time. Others felt he got the job only because he was French-Canadian, a Montreal native. The previous Canadiens coach, Randy Cunneyworth, was the franchise's first non-French speaking coach in four decades. His time with the team was a sporting disaster.
Therrien said he is much better-equipped to deal with the incredible pressure that goes with being the Montreal coach. His English is better, which is important in one of the world's best international cities. He's more comfortable being, well, Mike Therrien.
"I have my foundation as a coach, and that's probably the same," he said. "But you learn through the years. Experience means more than just getting gray hair. I was well-prepared for this challenge."
Therrien talked of "changing the culture" in Montreal, just as he did in Pittsburgh. "I tried to come in and communicate with the players." Therrien brought in a couple of trusted allies to have his back. He coached winger Brandon Prust back in their junior days and had winger Colby Armstrong with the Penguins.
"Those are character players," Therrien said. "You always want to surround yourself with quality people."
The players have bought into Therrien's system. They play an aggressive forecheck. They pressure the puck coming out of the opponent's zone. They believe good defense will lead to offensive opportunities.
"We gave the players a plan that we believe will lead to success," Therrien said. "They realize we're doing things to try to help them. It's been really good so far. We don't give up many shots. We don't give up many chances. If we stick to that, I believe we can be successful."
Goaltender Carey Price has been Montreal's best player, veteran center Tomas Plekanec its best forward. Therrien has been praised for bringing along rookie forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher with a nice touch. But he might have done his best work with veteran winger Erik Cole and star defenseman P.K. Subban. Cole has struggled at times, prompting Therrien to cut his ice time. Subban was a contract holdout until Jan. 28, and Therrien delayed his return to the lineup by a game, then limited his playing time in the beginning.
The team comes above all.
The other players noticed.
"Everyone has to be accountable for their actions," Therrien said. "That's always been my philosophy."
Pittsburgh fans will get their first look at Therrien behind the Canadiens bench when the Penguins play March 2 in Montreal.
"That's going to be a special night," Therrien said. "I enjoyed my time in Pittsburgh. I miss Pittsburgh. I have a lot of respect for those players and that organization."
It's nice to think Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Marc-Andre Fleury and so many others have the same respect for Therrien even if they didn't always appreciate his methods. He did what a good coach is supposed to do. He didn't just make the players better. He helped them win a Cup.