An unfortunate reality for NHL coaches and even all pro sports coaches today is that when it comes down to it, the superstar player is going to win the war in the long run. The coach may win the battles throughout the season but even winning games hasn’t always meant he will survive when push comes to shove. When a general manager must choose between his coach or his superstar player, the GM tends to choose the superstar player. Yes the Boston Bruins went the opposite route with budding young star Tyler Seguin when off ice issues and Seguin’s inability to fit into head coach Claude Julien’s system became an issue and the Winnipeg Jets may do just the same with Evander Kane this offseason for similar reasons. But the majority of the time in the NHL it’s the star players who ultimately win the war.
Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien should know this unfortunate fact of today’s NHL almost better than any of his current 29 brethren in the coaching fraternity. During his tenure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2005-2009, Therrien compiled a 135-105-32 record and in the three-plus seasons as bench boss for the Penguins led his team to the playoffs twice, losing in the first round in 2007 and then in the finals in 2008. But despite that, and despite having a winning record 57 games into the 2008-09 season, he was fired and replaced by Dan Bylsma. Bylsma and the Penguins went on to do what Therrien couldn’t help his team do the previous season, winning the 2009 Stanley Cup in a rematch of the 2008 finals against the Red Wings. Meanwhile Therrien watched from home as the young Penguins squad led by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin finished what he helped start.
When he was let go by Penguins general manager Ray Shero, multiple sources, including two in the Penguins organization, confirmed to this scribe that one of the reasons was his tumultuous relationship with Crosby, Malkin, and some of the younger players. Ironically Therrien, at that time and to this today, is known as a solid developer of young players but it appeared that he struggled with younger superstar talent. Whether it was the egos of Crosby/Malkin and Therrien’s clashing or possibly Therrien’s old school ways unable to adapt to the new generation of star players, only he, his players and the team really know. But there was a consensus within the organization and around the NHL that this wasn’t just simply a case of a team underachieving at the time of the firing but also of a frayed player or players-coach relationship. Fair or unfair, the Penguins organization appeared to side with the player or players they believed weren’t going to bring them success only then but also for many seasons to come. Like it or not, you can replace a good coach but you can’t replace arguably the best player on the planet and they needed to make sure that their superstars knew that they were 100 percent invested in them.
Well, fast-forward to now and Therrien suddenly finds himself in a very similar situation. By no means is Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban on the level of Crosby or Malkin at this point in his career. Yes, he won the Norris Trophy last season and yes, he has 53 points in 79 games this season. But even Subban will tell you he has not reached his potential yet and is not at the level Crosby or Malkin were back in 2009. All that being said, a strong case can be made that he means as much to the present and future of the Montreal Canadiens as Crosby and Malkin did to the Penguins. That’s why instead of getting credit for having his team on the verge of a 100-point season, in second place in the Atlantic Division, and with a playoff spot clinched as of last week, Therrien isn’t getting praised in Montreal but rather bashed for his use of the 24-year-old Subban. Forget the fact that, since being named head coach of the Canadiens for a second time in his coaching career, he is 74-41-12 and already led a team that finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12 season to the playoffs one season later. Or even that the Canadiens have played the best team in the Eastern Conference better than any other team in the NHL going 3-1-0 against their rival Boston Bruins this season. Nope, instead when Therrien’s name is brought up in the media or amongst fans right now it is for what many perceive to be his vendetta against P.K. Subban.
The feel here will always be somewhat old school in that no player, regardless of superstar status, should be treated differently than another nor earn playing time based on his contract or status. But that has to go both ways in the sense that just because a player like Subban may hold more clout with media and fans than others or have more skill than his teammates, doesn’t mean he should always be used as an example when he doesn’t live up to the hype or makes mistakes that plenty of his teammates have made. This past Friday, Subban was out on the ice for all three Ottawa Senators goals in the first period when the Senators opened up a 3-0 lead before the Habs came back with seven straight goals en route to a 7-4 win. Following the third goal at 5:50 of the opening frame, Therrien — and rightfully so — decided to sit Subban. Not for a few shifts, but rather the rest of the first period and for a good portion of the second period. Subban ended up playing just 13:39 in total when all was said and done and instead of Habs fans rejoicing over another come-from-behind victory or the Montreal media crediting Therrien for leading his team to another win, the main discussion surrounded Therrien singling out Subban once again.
The problem that these critics are missing though isn’t that Therrien is making Subban earn his playing time or that he claimed he did so because he felt Subban wasn’t ready for the start of the game, it’s that he doesn’t seem to make other players earn playing time the same way. During the Ottawa game which was broadcast on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada, color commentator Gary Galley criticized Therrien and accused the coach of humiliating the reigning Norris Trophy winner. Galley referenced his time playing with five-time Norris Trophy winner Ray Bourque in Boston and said that while Bourque wasn’t perfect and made mistakes, no coach would ever try and “bench him for that long and humiliate him” as he believed Therrien was doing with Subban.
No one will ever know if that is what Therrien was or has been doing in other instances where he seemed to be making an example of Subban. But one thing is clear right now in Montreal and that is that Therrien may be walking that fine line he crossed over in Pittsburgh with Crosby and Malkin and, unless that leads to a Stanley Cup in a city that has held 24 Stanley Cup parades, it will not end well for the embattled coach. Likely trained well by his agent Don Meehan and Newport Sports, Subban has not complained or even shown the slightest bit of anger publicly over his playing time. But you can guarantee that his playing time and Therrien will be brought up when it comes time for his agent Don Meehan to sit down to negotiate a new contract with general manager Marc Bergevin. Bergevin may be forced to make a choice between Subban and Therrien, if not then, then at some point next season as Therrien’s contract winds down in its last year. But will Subban be in the first year of a two- to three-year deal or an eight-year contract? If the former, then we will know that Bergevin wasn’t ready to make that choice yet but if the latter, he may have a new coach. Therrien has done a fantastic job in his second stint with the Canadiens and he did very good job during his stint in Pittsburgh but the harsh reality of the NHL now is that as Scotty Bowman has said on more than one occasion, “every coach in the NHL is an interim coach now” and Therrien might be on the verge of learning that again as well as losing another player-coach battle despite the fact his teams keep winning.
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