Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Don't tell me I have to become a Martin apologist

Unfortunately, it appears I do.

Criticism of Bob Gainey's decision to poach Jacques Martin from the Florida Panthers and install him as the first experienced head coach of the Canadiens since 1995 has been pouring in from all sides, except for the large majority of the French media which have deemed the move as brilliant.

The most stinging criticism I've read came via Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber, simply because I respect his opinion so much. When he reports that every hockey executive he spoke with at the Stanley Cup final feels Gainey blew it with this hire, that has to give fans some reason for concern.

On the other end of the spectrum was La Presse curmudgeon Réjean Tremblay, who considers Martin "tailor made" for the position and gave Gainey a "Bravo" for hiring him, the same Gainey that Tremblay felt needed to be fired as recently as late April.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between, but I would have to say it is leaning ever so slightly toward the brilliant side.

First of all, like it or not, the pool of candidates is severely limited by the language issue, so a lot of the Bruce Boudreau or Cory Clouston types that are so en vogue right now could not even be considered. Add to that Gainey's insistence that the new coach have a long and proven track record in the NHL, and the potential list becomes minuscule.

Essentially, you had Bob Hartley and Marc Crawford as available candidates that fit the bill, and not a whole lot else. Martin was not available, tied to a contract to serve as GM of the Panthers until 2011-12, and therefore flew under the radar a bit.

The fact Florida CEO Alan Cohen gave no resistance to Martin's departure says a little something about what he thinks of the work he did, but much of the Panthers problems right now are tied to Mike Keenan trading away Roberto Luongo for a bag of pucks just before being fired. In fact, I would say the only reason the Panthers came within a point of the playoffs this season was Martin's shrewd move of trading away Olli Jokinen to rebuild a defence corps that was among the best in the conference by grabbing Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton from the Coyotes.

Listen, I am not and never have been a big fan of Martin's simply because, no matter what he says, he's a boring coach who champions an unattractive version of a beautiful game. But I do have to give credit where it is due, and what he accomplished in Ottawa was pretty extraordinary.

He took one dimensional wingers like Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat and turned them into complete players, plus he made Jason Spezza a pretty dominant centre, though not one I would necessarily want leading my team.

While his Senators teams were constantly being labeled as soft come playoff time, and it was largely justified, the fact remains that Martin could never rely on a dominant playoff goalie. He platooned Damian Rhodes and Ron Tugnutt in 98-99, which resulted in a first round sweep at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres. Deadline acquisition Tom Barrasso lost in six games to the Leafs in 99-00, and then it was Patrick Lalime in goal for the next four years.

Lalime's playoff numbers, you might be surprised to know, were actually pretty outstanding over those four playoff seasons. He had a 1.77 GAA and .926 save percentage, but only a 21-20 record thanks to his propensity for allowing bad goals at bad times. Nevertheless, Martin's Senators made it to the seventh game of the 2003 Conference final before losing by a goal to the eventual Cup-champion New Jersey Devils.

The one year Martin coached Roberto Luongo in Florida, he was also handcuffed with aging veterans Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Martin Gélinas and Jozef Stumpel in his lineup. Then Keenan traded Luongo away for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen and Alex Auld, leaving Martin to coach an old team with an aging Ed Belfour in nets.

Listen, I'm not trying to make excuses for Jacques Martin, but I don't really believe he's been given a fair shake for the playoff failures of the Senators. I'm also not saying that Carey Price will provide Martin with a dominant playoff goalie for the first time in his coaching career, because Price clearly hasn't shown yet that he's that guy.

All I'm saying is that Martin has accomplished a lot without necessarily having the best cards dealt to him. For instance, if you look at the Senators lineup in Martin's first full season with the team, Alexei Yashin was 22, Daniel Alfredsson was 23, Alexandre Daigle was 21, Radek Bonk was 20 and Wade Redden was 19. Yet Martin still got the team in the playoffs. Two years later, they finished second in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Canadiens obviously don't have that kind of high-ceiling young talent, but I would have to believe that guys like the Kostitsyn brothers, Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Ryan O'Byrne, Yannick Weber, Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty and maybe even P.K. Subban will all benefit from Martin's presence and will grow far more than they would have under Guy Carbonneau.

In fact, I can see Higgins and Plekanec in particular thriving under Martin because they appear to be perfectly suited to his coaching philosophy, which hinges on defensive responsibility leading to offensive opportunities.

So let's give the guy a chance and see what he can do with what is likely to be the best roster Martin has ever had when starting a new job.

If he can't get it done by Christmas, of course, he should be fired.


Anonymous said...

i'm really starting to dislike farber. he was my idol growing up but these days he seems more opinionated than informed.

some of his reasons against hiring martin make sense but some don't - ie as you well point out, it's hard to fault martin's playoff record as dismissively as he does...who cares if he's dull. i want him to win games...and even the sens under martin had one of the most potent offensive lines in hockey.

i also find it lazy for writers to list the things they don't like without offering an alternative. he thinks another unproven coach in montreal would be better because they would have personality and the style would be more open? good grief.

my two cents...

Anonymous said...

Excellent and well balanced piece Arpon. Great read. Thanks to Engels for turning me on to this site.

The truth is that the Canadiens and Gainey would have been criticized for whomever would have been chosen. I think this is as solid a hire as could've been and being a successful N.H.L. coach, we Habs fans should give Martin the benefit of the doubt.

Anonymous said...

I don't care if he's boring or not as long as he wins. Let's just give him a chance. Plus, it’s difficult to comment since he only has half a team.

I'm not sure when things changed but the media is way too negative. I guess it sells.

BTW great article Arpon

B B said...

Again, a correct assessment... and being Montreal, I figure he will have a 20 game honeymoon. And if we see Boston early and the team gets waxed, the dogs will howl...


Sliver24 said...

Great analysis Mr. Basu.

While I was initially disappointed when I saw the new for the first time (on this very site I might add), I've since reconsidered that knee-jerk reaction.

The reason is simple: I asked myself who I would have preferred in the role (realistically I mean, taking such factors as language into account) and came up with nothing.

I would have been neither more nor less happy with Hartley or Crawford at the helm.

I'd add Pierre Maguire to your list of potential candidates, though I never heard even a whisper of that anywhere other than between my own ears. Lord knows he's be a better quote than Martin!

In the end I'm with you and one of those anonymous commenters. Lets give the guy a shot and see what he can do. While I dread the prospect of following a team that plays like New Jersey or Minnesota I'm pretty sure I'll be able to put up with it if they're winning.

pierre said...

About his hockey philosophy and about coaching the MTL CH Jacques Martin said....

" I believe in an exciting brand of game, one that put pressure on the opponents... one in which people are accountable.... a puck possession game in which the team work hard at retreiving the puck...... I think we ( the CH ) have the skill level to play it ".

If you are a fan of the Wings brand of game and coaching as I am.... then the arrival of Martin shouldn't worry you because he has expressed himself in those terms.... the only thing to worry about now is the quality level of our roster..... will our team have the skill level necessary to play it ? that, is the question.

jkr said...

I have lost respect for Farber's opinions on a lot of things because he is just plain wrong so many times. (Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals of just 2/3 years ago - they won the World Series, Farber picked them to miss the playoffs.) He speaks in generalizations without offering anything concrete.

How many people did he speak to? One, two, ten? These are the same men who fired about one third of their coaches last season. It's fine for Farber to talk about the style of play but Montreal has no high end talent right now. There is no Crosby, Ovechkin or Malkin in the lineup to turn lose. The coach has & his system has to match the roster & right now, Martin is a good fit for the Habs.

I too am tired of lazy sportswriters that tend to mail in their columns with knee jerk reactions rather than do some real analyis that may take some time from their busy day.

Keep up the good work Arpon. I know from my circle of Habs fans/friends/posters that your blog is growing in popularity.

Anonymous said...

Arpon - I have just one minor complaint about your blog... not enough of them!

Although I am sure you have other things to do, one a day would be just great.

Anonymous said...

Hi Arpon,

I'm a Montreal rugby player presently honing my trade in New Zealand. Needless to say, there isn't much in the news about the Habs down here which makes me appreciate your insightful analysis even more. I have one question though, given the choice between lumbermen or voyageurs, where would your allegiance lie?

Dave, Cabin 3

Anonymous said...

Voyageurs - for sure!

Ted said...

I'm somewhere between ho hum and and who cares. I agree that because of language it is amost impossible to come up with someone who has a track record and the list of available candidates reads like a case of fungus to heartburn. Do I sound disenchanted yet!!

Arpon Basu said...

I will be picking up steam on the blog as the draft approaches, I'm just taking a bit of a break because I'm actually kind of on paternity leave here with a two-week old baby to care for. But I'll try to get to the blog more often, and I'm happy to hear that people want more content.
Oh, and Dave from Cabin 3, I am always a Voyageur at heart, though the only time I actually won L & V I was a Lumberman.