Various things have been slipping away from the Montreal Canadiens recently. Now that coach Jacques Martin has been shown the door, the team is hoping for no more slippage.
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Leads and points have slipped out of the Canadiens’ grasp of late. General manager Pierre Gauthier hopes his latest move keeps the team’s playoff hopes from doing the same.
Gauthier announced on Saturday morning that Martin had been relieved of his duties and that assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth was promoted to bench boss on an interim basis.
"Our team is not performing at an acceptable level right now," Gauthier said at a press conference following the Canadiens’ morning skate Saturday. "Certainly injuries have been an issue, but, overall, the team’s approach in terms of games, our third-period struggles, etc., are things that weighed in on the result. Because of that, it was preferable to make a change now."
Assistant GM Larry Carriere also joins the coaching staff as an assistant, the first time he will hold any role behind a bench in his 40 years as an NHL player, scout and executive.
"Mr. Carriere is a very experienced person," Gauthier said. "He knows our team; he knows the league very well. I feel he will bring a fresh disposition to the group.
"If you know him, you know that he has a very positive disposition. So I think he can bring that optimism to the group."
Gauthier said he had been mulling over the decision for a couple of weeks before running it by owner and team president Geoff Molson, who supported his general manager.
It’s the third notable move Gauthier has made so far this season. Back on Oct. 26, he fired assistant coach Perry Pearn after the Canadiens stumbled with one win in their first eight games and struggled mightily on special teams, which fell under Pearn’s duties.
Last week, with the team’s power play toiling at the bottom of the league, he picked up defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for defenseman Jaroslav Spacek.
It’s the first NHL head coaching job for Cunneyworth, who joined the Habs’ staff as an assistant during the offseason, following the departure of Kirk Muller.
Also a former assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers, Cunneyworth is no stranger to calling the shots. He served as coach of Montreal’s farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2010-11 and spent numerous years leading the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans.
The Canadiens have been involved in more than a few close contests in recent weeks but more often than not have come out on the wrong side of the score.
"I think it has a lot to do with the execution," Cunneyworth said. "We have to demand better from each other, and I think the players have to be on board more as a team rather than trying to do things on their own. And I think it’s important that we get that across very quickly."
There were questions by some as to whether Martin had lost the room. A defensive-minded coach, belief from the outside was he was smothering the team’s offensive talent.
"There’s a system in place, and it’s pretty similar to a lot of systems in this league. It’s just a matter of executing it the right way. And when you’re not, it seems like you’re not creating offense," captain Brian Gionta said.
"It has nothing to do with the system or how things are played."
Added winger Erik Cole: "We’ve been underachieving all season and changes have to be made, but Jacques is not the reason we’re not winning games. It’s a good wake-up call that we need to play better."
Gauthier admitted the Canadiens did not look outside for a new head coach, a surprising revelation given the club’s tendency to go opt for the top bilingual candidate. Cunneyworth doesn’t speak French, marking the first time in 30 years the team has had a coach who speaks only English.
"Languages can be learned," Gauthier said.
Cunneyworth is ready to do so.
"I will do my best to continue to learn French," he said. "I grew up taking some French at school, but I think being exposed for a length of time will help me improve. I’m very aware of how important it is to learn the language."
He’ll have 50 games to potentially do that and prove himself behind an NHL bench. And with Gauthier’s seat hotter than ever, the general manager is hoping he can, too.
Northeast Division notes
• Bruins goalie Tim Thomas continues to be worth every penny of his $5 million per season cap hit. The 37-year-old sits third and second among NHL netminders with a 1.83 goals-against average and .943 save percentage, respectively, through 21 starts.
• The Ottawa Senators are hoping the acquisition of another underachieving top-10 draft pick will be a success. After failing — for this season, for now — with Nikita Filatov, the Senators picked up Kyle Turris from the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday in exchange for young defenseman David Rundblad and a second-round pick. Turris, the third overall pick in 2007, is just a couple of weeks into his season after holding out for a new contract.
• Sabres team president Ted Black is preaching for fans to be patient during the team’s struggles. Buffalo took advantage of looser purse strings in the offseason but has faltered on home ice under lofty expectations. "We haven’t had an adequate sample size to find out how good our team can be," he told the Buffalo News.
• The Toronto Maple Leafs continue to search for a solution to their penalty killing woes. Toronto sits last in the NHL with a mere 73.2 percent success rate and has allowed 11 goals on the past 25 opposition power plays.