How does one explain the delusional? One becomes delusional.
Here is my journey into the craziness and back, and why an impossible scenario, when daydreamed, improved my mood about the Montreal Canadiens.
It’s been noticed by some that Habs fans are a passionate bunch. If you grow up a Canadiens fan, there’s an emotion that you attach to the club that defies logic and reason. When a glimpse of good comes along, the sun is bright, life is good. One deviation from success and panic sets in.
This season has tested the limits of die-hard fanatics though it is only 52 games old. ‘Roller coaster ride’ does not begin to describe the season that has so far made up the 2015-16 one for the Montreal Canadiens. It’s tempting in this crazed frenzy to point the finger and one or two parties that fit any convenient narrative depending on the person to whom that finger belongs. Let’s remind ourselves just how hard it is to pinpoint an exact cause for a team’s success or its meltdowns.
There are many components to running a successful sports team from scouting (amateur and pro level) to drafting, from development to special teams coaching. Nowadays most teams employ analytics people and every team has at least one salary cap specialist. Oh, and the players themselves. Already we can begin to appreciate how complex a machine this really is.
I am going to discuss an idea somewhat like the notion of tanking, but that doesn’t include management asking the players to tank. What if the front office of a team purposely managed and coached a team to the bottom? Players would still be trying, this would be a less toxic solution than coming right out and asking your team to throw games intentionally. Let me make it clear that I do not think the team is purposely tanking. I also hate the idea of it here or in any city for any sport – I also don’t believe the players are lacking in professionalism to actively do this. However this historic collapse (so far) of the Montreal Canadiens is not only the worst in team history, but it’s approaching the NHL history books as well and for the wrong reason. This has caused anguish for the fans. Questions, just so many questions.
In the corner of people who blame the players, they question why someone like Dale Weise went from a 65-goal season pace to… being Dale Weise. They question how a player like Markov was totally fine until he totally wasn’t. Tomas Plekanec will be questioned for his disappearance from the stats sheet shortly after inking a nice contract extension that will see him earn $12M in the next two seasons. So name the player you blame and you see where I’m going with this.
For those who blame the coach, they will question his unwillingness to play Alex Galchenyuk at his natural position. Some of these fans question his “line blender” which comes up with every pairing except the couple of options which seem the most logical based on available talent and previous success. They will question his dump and chase style which causes many neutral zone turnovers and lost pucks deep in opponent territory.
And yet another camp blames the general manager, especially after his January 21st press conference. They question why his team has so many grinders and bottom six players on it (love them as we might). Contract extensions to Michel Therrien and aging players have left some scratching their heads.
Not unlike every other fan, I try to figure out the secrets that lie behind these questions. Probably not unlike most of you, I fail to come up with reasonable answers. Until I jokingly starting thinking of the least likely, completely impossible scenario. Against all odds, this started making everything seem like it made sense. It still doesn’t, because what I am about to propose is preposterous. It was fun, however, to briefly feel like I understood what was happening with the Habs leadership. It made me feel like they were smarter than all of us. We had all just been had.
What if the Canadiens are already actively handcuffing their players’ performance, and we just didn’t know it until now?
Your Canadiens flew out of the gate this year. Fans are constantly reminded of the 9-0 start. I would counter: ‘who watched that first game against the Leafs and thought this was a contending team?’ Sure they corrected a lucky win with some convincing games, and indeed the club seemed to be showing a trend of improvement with their current team and coaching staff. Possession stats improved when compared to the last couple of seasons. Of course the pace they had achieved was not sustainable, but the signs were almost exclusively positive early on.
Losing Brendan Gallagher for 17 games and, in the same week, Carey Price having presumably aggravated an old injury are, when combined, the turning point of this season. And unless you are living under a very large rock, you already know what’s happened in the standings since then. I will spare you going over it again, it’s not pretty.
This impossible scenario would have Canadiens management decide to abandon ship between Christmas and early January. The first potential sign to the outside world came on January 15th, when Daniel Carr and Sven Andrighetto (at that time, 2nd and 6th in even-strength goals/60 minutes played) were sent down to St. Johns in the AHL in favor of defensive forward Jacob De La Rose. Before anyone had time to unleash any fury, the Canadiens announced the trade of Jarred Tinordi, for players not likely to see any time with the Canadiens, later that same day.
I watched the team collapsing. I watched the coach continue to make bamboozling choices with his lineup and in-game strategy. I listened to the fans go crazy. The players blame themselves. The coach says blame should be shared by everyone including himself. The GM says it’s all on him. Throughout it all, change has not come.
I jokingly considered that Canadiens management has outsmarted us all, and have been trolling us since Christmas. In jest, I played out the scenario of a “management-only-tanking initiative” in my mind and it seemed like I could almost explain the madness we are witnessing. I know I am 100% definitely wrong, but read through this and tell me it doesn’t make more sense than… whatever we see happening in real life.
Carey Price gets hurt early in the year. It doesn’t require surgery, it’s early in the year, and he’s a competitor on a team that is contending. A committee of Carey, coaches, trainers and doctors make the wrong call to bring him back quickly. After a relapse of his mysterious lower body injury and some deeper medical investigation, the Canadiens now have strong reason to believe that Carey Price will not coming back this year; at the very least they knew his absence would be much longer than what they will have to admit to publicly.
By late December, Price’s absence has unexpectedly exposed weaknesses in the team, whether they be attributed to the players available (the GM), the system (coach Therrien), locker room chemistry (the players) or any combination of these and other factors. Marc Bergevin, as a man who is said to be in constant contact with his peers as well as a former player, cannot be so blind as to not identify the gravity of the team’s problems. He now understands some serious changes have to come. It doesn’t mean that he has to clean house, but that as constructed, the team will not win the cup.
Either Bergevin himself, or a small committee of people in upper management, make the decision that this team will intentionally throw the season in hopes of getting a top-tier prospect to pair with their budding star Alex Galchenyuk. Marc Bergevin, despite being a good friend to Michel Therrien, has an honest conversation with his pal and lets him know that he’s not going to be coaching the Canadiens next year. That he will get to play out the rest of the season, which is sliding beyond control but he’s going to have to be the scapegoat for the debacle of a season that will have been.
The team keeps losing, a result of real hockey games with players trying their best, but this helps drive the tank narrative forward for Habs leadership. Bergevin at this point informs the players that Carey Price won’t be back this year, and for the long-term benefit of the team, they will avoid making any big changes to the roster or coaching and the team will have to sink or swim with what it has. He doesn’t tell them the team is tanking. Perhaps this explains Michel Therrien’s lineup decisions. The ice time choices. Centers playing wing. Young prospects not getting a bigger opportunity, It would all make sense.
As media and fan pressure increases on players and coaches, Michel Therrien came to the public defense of his players, particularly Andrei Markov, in an effort to remove the mounting shear on the squad. Almost two months to the day after Price’s injury, Marc Bergevin comes out and takes the blame on his shoulders, knowing that he needs to deflect attention from the team’s struggles. This then lightens the public scrutiny of Michel Therrien, J.J. Daigneault, Dan Lacroix and Clement Jodoin.
Tony Marinaro showed the courage to ask a very direct and honest question to Marc Bergevin, who vehemently defends his coaches. At this point, the General Manager knows they are actively throwing the season, and thus changing the coach would be more detrimental in the long term. He cannot be expected to tell the media that the team is tanking – there would be far worse consequences to those we have seen through the actual inaction of the organization. I love the Montreal Forum host for asking, but Bergevin answered in the only way he can.
The team is not being managed in a way that it can win many games, so the status quo makes sense. Keep a coach, system and roster that is struggling to achieve anything resembling good hockey. There might be some fallout, but you want to wait for the off-season to make a change. Hopefully several changes.
I know that is preposterous to cough up as a theory – but thinking about that makes me feel better about what’s going on. What if Marc Bergevin actually now knows what the team needs to win, and is willing to sink one season for a chance to draft another solid young forward? What if it worked, and he could pair a top prospect to a shiny new coaching staff in the fall, with a clean slate, fresh hopes, and a fan base that won’t have seen hockey since early April; they will be more than willing to hang their hopes high for 2016-17.
Close your eyes and consider the following. Montreal could enter next season with: Max Pacioretty (perennial 30 goal scorer and top tier shooter), Brendan Gallagher (the on-ice leader by example who is having a career year, points-wise), Alex Galchenyuk (still improving, having his career best points/60 minutes season despite questionable usage by the coach), a top 5 prospect forward like Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine, P.K. Subban in his prime and a healthy Carey Price. A new coaching staff. Now open your eyes and tell me you wouldn’t be excited to see that team in October.
Even though this “tanking” scenario is completely fake, and not at all possible, I believe it is important we note that the Montreal Canadiens, as with any professional sports team, will not disclose injury information about any of its players, let alone the best player in the world. To expect real information is crazier than a team’s unwillingness to talk to the press about it.
What is a General Manager supposed to say about his coaching staff when pressed about their job security? You have to back up who you have until the day you don’t have them any more. It’s not perfect but Marc Bergevin’s lack of action since this presser is more bewildering than his public statement backing Therrien and crew.
The team’s motto is supposed to be “no excuses”. The players are admirable in their willingness to take responsibility for the team’s slide without leaning on excuses. If they know there’s a problem in the room, with the coach, with the lineup, they do a great job not bringing it up. We shouldn’t expect media-trained athletes to give us anything more than that, except perhaps for the odd hot take from P.K. or Max.
Michel Therrien has his strengths and his weaknesses. Like him, love him or hate him, he’s the coach. Until he isn’t the coach, the players will stand up for him, and the GM will stand up for him. Therrien will go on coaching the way we does. Availability of candidates available mid-season, as well as language, restrict the pool of candidates the Canadiens could consider if they were shopping for a new bench boss. Maybe we have to accept that despite record-setting awfulness, this team will have to wait for the off-season before undergoing the face lift it needs to achieve the next level.
Call me delusional (I know I do!) but I might just stay in this fantasy world, because since I entered it, I haven’t wondered why Therrien still plays Desharnais 3 minutes more than Galchenyuk. Why Chucky is on the wing. Why our top three offensive threats don’t get to play together. I haven’t worried about why Bergevin got us so many pluggers and energy guys at the expense of real top six scoring. I haven’t worried about tension between players or off-ice shenanigans. It helps me laugh off the sheer comic urgency of our decline.
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