Monday, March 9, 2009

Gainey going down fighting?

He tried, as hard as he could, not to disparage Guy Carbonneau as a hockey coach.

But when asked specific questions about the performance of the Canadiens of late, Bob Gainey simply couldn't help himself because everything he said in response was a direct attack on how Carbonneau was coaching the club.

And really, when you fire a coach, what else is there to say? You obviously didn't fire him because you thought he was doing a good job. But from that to assuming that anyone who's been watching the Canadiens play over the last month must have had the thought of Carbonneau being fired pop into their heads, that's a pretty strong indictment.

"I would like to see us protect our goalies, I'd like to see us play better defensively," Gainey told the Bell Centre media horde Monday evening. "Our goaltending is one of our strengths, but I don't find it normal that we're giving up twice as many scoring chances as we're creating ourselves."

Goaltending being a strength of the team may have been one of the areas that Gainey and Carbonneau did not agree. Carbonneau had his ideas of what a goalie should bring to the team, and whenever that standard wasn't met, he wasn't shy to share it with the world. I don't know how many times I've heard him say "In the NHL you need strong goaltending to win, and we haven't had that."

Somehow, I don't think we'll be hearing that from Gainey any time soon, and I also think we'll be seeing a steady stream of Carey Price in nets from here on in. Price is the piece Gainey is trying to build this team around, as evidenced by all the defencemen the team has drafted over the past few years in an effort to get Price the support he'll need.

Carbonneau didn't want to play Price last year when he had Cristobal Huet to fall back on, so Gainey went ahead and traded Huet away. This year, Price obviously struggled for the better part of two months after returning from his ankle injury, and before that it was Jaroslav Halak that was unreliable. Gainey must have got the message that Carbonneau would be riding the hot hand the rest of the season, and I don't think that's what Gainey wanted to see.

Gainey's description of his team's defensive play, lack of opportunism offensively, and tactical changes he planned on making, on top of admitting that certain veterans spoke to him about their role under Carbonneau and that the players seemed to lack "emotional engagement" in certain games all showed that the GM and the coach were no longer on the same page and hadn't been for quite some time.

Which leads us to the main question of the day: if this was a move Gainey was capable of making on a personal level, why did he wait so long to make it? I always assumed that Gainey wouldn't fire Carbonneau because in essence that would be a huge black mark on his own track record as GM, and also because the two men were pretty close friends. He more or less confirmed that last summer by extending Carbonneau's contract, and a few weeks ago when he mentioned Carbonneau was his best move as Habs GM.

But by firing him Monday with 16 games left in the regular season, Gainey admitted he had no such personal limitation, and if that's the case then this move should have been made weeks ago, or it shouldn't have been made at all. He hinted toward this at the trade deadline when he mentioned the coaching staff had to get the players playing to their full potential, but really it started becoming clear in early February that the team either wasn't following the coach's orders, or that those orders weren't the good ones to make. By mid-February that culture appeared pretty ingrained, and here we are a month later making a coaching change.

"The game in Atlanta was an important game for us," Gainey said, talking about Friday night's 2-0 loss. "On paper we should be able to beat or at least play as well as teams below us in the standings...That was below our potential."

Gainey added that it wasn't only the Atlanta game that led him to make this call, but it was the final straw. That final straw should have come quite some time ago.

Gainey sidestepped questions about his own future with the Canadiens on Monday, saying he did not make this move in an attempt to save his own job (though he would never admit to that anyway), and also dancing around a question about whether or not he's built a good enough team.

Personally, I feel the team Gainey put together was indeed good enough, but it required some adjustments from Carbonneau, adjustments he wasn't able to make. No more big shot from the right point on the power play? OK, but there were two new highly-skilled forwards added to the group and a player in Andrei Kostitsyn who as on the verge of exploding last year into a star. But losing that big shot remained a bigger loss than maybe it should have been.

Finally, Gainey bit the bullet and got that big shot from the point in Schneider after it became clear that Carbonneau and Doug Jarvis couldn't make the power play work without one. But while the change had a positive effect on the power play, the team continued to play poorly and it was only Halak that stopped the bleeding by reeling off four straight wins in goal.

Injuries can't be anticipated by either the coach or the GM, but unfortunately it falls on the coach to make it work when they come because the GM's hands are tied by the salary cap. If those adjustments aren't made, the inevitable often happens sooner than later.

Gainey is taking responsibility for a situation he has created in part, and he may indeed pay the price if the Canadiens make an early exit from the playoffs or, worse yet, miss the playoffs altogether. If I were him and thought my job was on the line, I think I'd rather go down knowing I made the final decisions that led to my demise.

I feel that's what Gainey did Monday, and his final evaluation starts Tuesday with the Edmonton Oilers in town.

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