Canadiens sorry about French coaching flap

Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier is promising there

will be a French-speaking coach behind Montreal’s bench next

season.

Perhaps looking to head off planned protests by some Quebec

nationalist groups and an ongoing controversy in the media,

Gauthier apologized on Monday for replacing the fired Jacques

Martin with Randy Cunneyworth, the club’s first coach who doesn’t

speak French in 40 years.

”We’re disappointed and we’re sorry if we offended anybody by

hiring someone who is not bilingual right now, but when you’re in

the middle of a season and you’re trying to effect change and

you’re having the difficulties we were having, you evaluate all

your options,” said Gauthier.

”We felt the best option at this time was to work from within

the organization. Those things can be taken care of in due time,

but having a bilingual head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is very

important and it’s something that will be part of our decision

going forward.”.

The outcry that followed Cunneyworth’s promotion to head coach,

which was front page news in Quebec, had prompted owner Geoff

Molson to issue a statement that the team agrees its coach should

speak the language of the majority of its fans and also promised a

bilingual coach for next season.

The move left Cunneyworth in an apparent lame duck position, but

Gauthier said the former player’s mental toughness and commitment

to work would see him through the season. And he did not rule out

keeping Cunneyworth, provided he learns French.

It hasn’t helped that the team is in last place with its playoff

hopes sinking fast, but Gauthier is not ready to throw in the towel

on the season just yet.

The GM wants to see how his club performs as it plays 11 of its

next 15 games at home, starting Wednesday against the Winnipeg

Jets, before he decides whether he will be a buyer or seller at the

NHL trade deadline.

The Canadiens (14-18-7) have lost seven of their last eight

games, including a 1-6-0 mark since Cunneyworth replaced Martin on

an interim basis.

Tempers also look to be frayed among the players, as defenseman

P.K. Subban and center Tomas Plekanec exchanged punches during

practice on Monday.

”Our objective now is to get back to winning and playing better

hockey,” Gauthier said. ”We’re back from a long road trip.

”Now we have 11 of the 15 next games here and we’re counting on

that to change the direction of our season.”

The Canadiens are in an 11-day stretch in which they play only

three times, all at home. It will be a prime chance for Cunneyworth

to make adjustments to a team that has been glaringly short of

cohesiveness and confidence in recent weeks.

The Canadiens prepared with a 30-minute meeting, then had a high

tempo practice followed by a half hour of work in the gym.

Gauthier rarely meets with the media, but talked on this

occasion because he could combine comments on the signing Sunday of

defenseman Josh Gorges to a $23.4 million six-year contract with

his annual midseason review.

For the general manager, the club’s troubles stem from injuries

to veterans such as Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez to sub-par

performances from some veteran players.

He didn’t name names, but team scoring leader Plekanec (29

points, -10) and sniper Michael Cammalleri (eight goals) have been

among the underachievers, while young regulars like Subban and Lars

Eller have struggled.

Gomez, Gionta and checking forward Ryan White skated on a side

rink and are expected back soon, but Gauthier said defenseman

Andrei Markov will not be back before the All-Star break at the end

of the month.

Markov, who has yet to play since signing a three-year contract

last summer, will have his reconstructed right knee evaluated by

doctors this week. Without him, the normally potent Montreal power

play has dipped to 29th in the 30-team league with a 12.8 per cent

success rate.

”It’s a trickle-down effect, because there are people missing

and there are veterans not performing as they should, and now there

are extra demands placed on young players,” Gauthier said. ”And

if you’re going to count on young players to get you out of your

problems and if you’re getting into slumps, it’s going to be very

difficult.”

He said the team has blown a lot of leads this season due to

mistakes by individual players rather than the team’s system of

play, but added many of the mistakes are made by ”young players

that are probably overexposed.

”One problem causes another problem and another problem. So we

have a lot of work to do to turn this thing around”.

The Canadiens went 1-5-0 on their road trip to fall to eight

points out of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference, leaving

a steep hill to climb in the second half.

”Yeah we’re facing some tough times now, but we have a bright

future here,” Gorges said. ”We have some good young players

coming up and I think with the direction the team is trying to head

into, there’s only good things in the future. This is where I want

to be and where I want to stay.”