It proved all too much for the last-place Montreal Canadiens, who fired coach Jacques Martin on Saturday and put assistant Randy Cunneyworth in charge for the rest of the season.
”The primary reason is the team wasn’t performing as well as it should be in our minds,” general manager Pierre Gauthier said at a Bell Centre news conference.
Assistant GM Larry Carriere was appointed assistant coach, his first coaching job after a long career in scouting and administration.
Martin, who preaches defense, was in his third season with the Canadiens. He is also one of the winningest coaches in NHL history.
He now gives way to Cunneyworth, a Toronto native whose lack of French was quickly noted. He is team’s first unilingual English-speaking coach since Al MacNeil in 1971. On a team that symbolizes French-Canadian pride, he faces a daunting task in his bid to remove the interim tag.
”I have the utmost respect for the language here and I am very aware of how important it is to try and learn the language,” Cunneyworth said after running his first practice. ”Obviously I know a few words, and not all the good ones.”
Montreal remained at the bottom of the Northeast Division with a 13-13-7 record after losing 5-3 to New Jersey in Cunneyworth’s debut on Saturday night.
The 59-year-old Martin has also coached the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. Gauthier hired Martin in Ottawa. In 1996 in Ottawa, Martin inherited Cunneyworth as his hardworking captain.
”I would hope that my coaching style was similar to the way I played,” Cunneyworth said. ”I felt for the most part that I competed very hard.”
Cunneyworth joined his former coach’s staff as an assistant this summer after spending the previous season as head coach of Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton.
”I have mixed emotions this time around,” said Cunneyworth, who began and ended his career with Buffalo and also played for Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, Hartford and Chicago. ”There is still the excitement but my thoughts are with Jacques. … I have the utmost respect for Jacques and everything he does, the wealth of experience that I have learned over my times with him.”
Martin was in his 17th season in the NHL. He reached his 600th NHL career victory last April, making him the ninth winningest coach in league history.
The Canadiens have been hurt by mistakes this season. They are 5-6-6 at home, often squandering third-period leads.
”Especially in the last few weeks, we didn’t really know what was coming out of the box every night,” Gauthier said. ”And the way we were losing the leads and the way we were coaching the games wasn’t very consistent, and that’s what we hope to change.”
There were hints of tension between Martin and Gauthier. After a poor start, Martin’s closest ally, assistant Perry Pearn, was fired just before a game Oct. 26.
”We were on the same wavelength right to the end, but that doesn’t mean that the team’s performances were acceptable,” Gauthier said.
The players were told of the coaching changes when they arrived for their morning skate.
”When we are where we are and expect to be a better team than we’ve been, you definitely are aware there might be changes,” forward Michael Cammalleri said. ”For it to be Jacques was somewhat surprising.”
”We’re in 11th place, that’s what went wrong,” he added. ”I think Jacques was still trying to work on thing and improve the team. I don’t think there was anyone not listening to him.”
In the 50-year-old Cunneyworth, the Canadiens get a more tech-savvy coach, although one who is not expected to make major changes.
”I think the message will be to get back doing the things that the players are potentially capable of,” Cunneyworth said. ”We obviously have to figure out ways to get more out of our individual players. It’s a responsibility of the coaching staff, but it’s also a responsibility of the players themselves.”
Cunneyworth was promoted to the NHL club along with assistant Randy Ladouceur after coaching in Hamilton last season.
”What system is in place doesn’t matter if everyone buys in and plays the right way,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. ”If you only have half the guys doing what’s asked of them, everything is in disarray and I think that’s where we got to.”
”We weren’t playing together and doing the things we need to do to win,” he added. ”And consequently we lost games we shouldn’t have lost and changes needed to be made.”
Martin joined the Canadiens in 2009-10 and took them on an improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals where they lost to Philadelphia. Montreal made the playoffs the following year but was eliminated in the first round.
Martin also won the NHL coach of the year in 1998-99 and was part of Canada’s gold-medal triumph at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
”The bottom line is winning games,” Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill said. ”We weren’t winning and changes happen. I don’t think it was about losing the room or anything like that.”