Ron Cook: Therrien doing a lot right, even if it gets little notice

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At first, it seemed so silly, so unprofessional.

The Penguins' sole mandate is to win, yet tough-guy coach Michel Therrien was making lineup decisions Saturday night based on -- can you believe it? -- sentimentality.

Jocelyn Thibault's father came from Montreal to join the dads' weekend for the Penguins' games in Dallas and Phoenix, a brilliant team-bonding idea by general manager Ray Shero. There was no way Therrien was going to send him back home without seeing his kid play. Thibault got the start in goal against the Phoenix Coyotes even though the Penguins' go-to goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, was rested and had played well the night before in a win against the Dallas Stars.

Ronald Petrovicky's dad traveled even a greater distance -- all the way from Slovakia -- with no guarantee that his son would get into a game. But there was his boy, dressed and ready to go in Phoenix after being a healthy scratch for six consecutive games, even though Therrien is loath to change his lineup after a win.

The moves didn't seem nearly so silly after Thibault had a big night and Petrovicky a goal and an assist in the Penguins' 7-2 win. They didn't seem so unprofessional once their significance was clear. It's pretty safe to say an appreciative Thibault and Petrovicky will have Therrien's back the rest of the way. Not just them, but all of the players who weren't oblivious to what happened.

"I'm a demanding coach, yes," Therrien was saying in his tiny Mellon Arena office yesterday after practice. "But I want to be able to look those players in the eye every day and feel good about myself.

"It was the right thing to do."

That got me to thinking.

That and the Penguins' surprising 23-17-8 record, which, if the season ended yesterday, would have them in the playoffs.

How many other times has Therrien made the right move?

For sure, Therrien was right to immediately give Sidney Crosby the "A" as the Penguins' assistant captain when he took over for fired Eddie Olczyk in December 2005. Sid the Kid was just 18 and a rookie, but Therrien had seen enough of him at training camp as coach of the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre/Scranton minor-league club to know he was the team's best player and hardest worker. "Such a great leader," Therrien called him. The promotion wasn't made with just the moment in mind, either. "I have a plan, a vision," Therrien said. The move was made for two or three years down the road when Crosby will be wearing the "C" as the face of the franchise, not that he isn't that face already.

Therrien was right to demand discipline and accountability from his players. The Penguins' free-wheeling days were over. No longer could they ignore their defensive responsibilities. They had to play in a structured system. It was the only way their young team could improve and ultimately win.

Therrien was right to blow his cork less than a month on the job after a third consecutive loss when he felt the players weren't responding. "That was a pathetic performance. Half of the team doesn't care," he growled that night. Who can forget the way Therrien publicly savaged his defensemen -- "I'm really starting to believe their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league. ... They're soft" -- who just happened to be the unfortunate vehicle he used to deliver his message?

"I did it the hard way, but I had to do something," he says now. "That team was going in the wrong direction."

Say this for the man: He got his guys' attention. They didn't make the playoffs, but they improved the rest of the season.

Therrien was right to put the Penguins through their toughest training camp since the Badger Bob Johnson days. That hard-earned conditioning base, not to mention the confidence that went with it, contributed to their 7-3 start this season.

Therrien was right to call in Crosby for a little talk after Crosby was stopped again in a shootout loss to Boston Jan. 18 and he noticed the kid was starting to doubt himself. "I told him I didn't care if he goes 0 for 100, he was going to be out there for me. I'm not going to lose because my best player is on the bench." You know what? Even a superstar needs to hear something like that once in a while.

It was the right thing to do ...

Are you getting the idea that maybe we should appreciate Therrien a little more than we do?

If Mike Tomlin has the Steelers overachieving like this next season, we'll be calling him a genius and saying "Bill Who?"

If Jim Tracy ever has the Pirates six games above .500, we'll be nominating him for the Hall of Fame.

Why shouldn't Therrien get the same love?

Actually, you could argue he deserves more.

For one thing, Therrien works in a league that routinely fires its coaches quicker than any other. That imprudence is one of the NHL's more significant flaws.

For another thing -- and this has been pointed out at least a zillion times -- Therrien is not Shero's guy. He was hired by Shero's predecessor, Craig Patrick.

That combination explains why there was speculation during a five-game losing streak earlier in the season that Therrien's job was in jeopardy. That seems so ridiculous now for a couple of reasons. The Penguins aren't just a young team, they have flaws, no matter how sparkling their record is at the moment. They need a little help on defense and at least one goal-scoring winger. Shero didn't give Therrien any big-name free agents in the offseason, choosing instead to evaluate his players and build slowly. Beyond all that, Shero doesn't give the impression he's a guy who will panic, either in dealing with his coach or making a future-sapping trade just to give the Penguins a chance to limp into the playoffs this season.

But Therrien had to face the whispers, nonetheless.

"Of course, I care," he said, quietly.

Yes, the tough guy wants to be liked and appreciated.

Don't get the idea Therrien is going soft, though. Don't be fooled by his weekend gestures with Thibault and Petrovicky. "We're still going to be demanding as coaches," he said. "This is a young team that's learning how to win. We have to be demanding. We have to make sure the guys continue to buy into the way we have to play."

The players know.

"I don't think he's changed at all," said forward Maxime Talbot, one of nine players on the Penguins' roster who played for Therrien at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

"We feel his presence. Today, he was in a good mood and laughing a lot at practice. But we know we still have to work. We have to be sharp every day because he's going to be sharp."

Said Therrien, "I believe in what I do."

Maybe it's time the rest of us start believing, too.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Penguins coach Michel Therrien had a couple of unique lineup changes on the team's trip Southwest.
Click photo for larger image.


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