MONTREAL — Marc Bergevin is a genius. In case you had any doubts on that point, sportswriters working in both French and English hit upon the same lead after Michael Ryder’s star turn against Winnipeg last week.
All Bergevin needs to put himself in the same category as Albert Einstein is a head of bushy hair and a drooping moustache.
Who are we to argue? Bergevin seems to do no wrong. He has done three years work in the span of a few months, handled the tricky P.K. Subban situation with aplomb, drafted the most talented player in the 2012 draft in young Alex Galchenyuk and pulled off the trade of the year by prying Michael Ryder out of Dallas in exchange for the moribund Erik Cole.
But Bergevin’s most brilliant stroke may have been the one that drew the most fire at the time: the decision to recycle Michel Therrien as his coach. Today, with 10 games to play, the Canadiens still atop the division and threatening to win the Eastern Conference as legitimate contenders for Lord Stanley’s Cup, Therrien is one of the leading candidates for the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL’s best coach.
It’s a tough year in that category: there will be a sentimental outpouring for Paul MacLean, who kept the Senators afloat despite losing three all-star players in Jason Spezza, Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson. Bruce Boudreau has pulled off a remarkable turnaround in Anaheim and had the Ducks tied with the Canadiens at 55 points going into Sunday night’s tilt against the rival Kings, Dan Bylsma has corrected the Penguins defensive deficiencies while dealing with a rash of injuries to his superstars, and Joel Quenneville has another powerhouse rolling in Chicago.
But what Therrien has accomplished is theoretically impossible: He transformed a 28th-place team into one of the league’s best with only a week of training camp to make it happen. All the other Jack Adams candidates were in place through at least part of last season, while Therrien was working part-time in the broadcast world, waiting for another chance.
That broadcast career might have derailed his second stint with the Canadiens. One of the questions in the wake of Therrien’s hiring was how he would fare with Subban. As a regular guest on the Fired Coaches Carousel on RDS, Therrien had been one of Subban’s more vocal critics — and the talented young defenceman was coming off a season during which he had frequently clashed with his coaches, especially Randy Cunneyworth and Randy Ladouceur.
The situation became even trickier when Subban was unsigned as the short season began. He and Therrien wouldn’t have even the short training camp to get to know each other and for Subban to learn Therrien’s system. To top it all off, there were rumours that Subban did not get along with his teammates.
But after Subban signed, Therrien had a chat with him and made it clear what was expected. Therrien’s message was probably not all that different from what Cunneyworth had been telling Subban — and Jacques Martin before that. He wanted P.K. to keep his game simple and to be responsible with his puck management.
Therrien got through. Subban responded brilliantly, to the point where he is now arguably the leading candidate for the Norris Trophy. He picked up two more assists against the Bruins on Saturday night, increasing his scoring lead among all defencemen. He also leads in power-play points with 21 (one ahead of teammate Andrei Markov.)
But the stat that is most certain to gladden Therrien’s heart is the one that says Subban is a plus-13 on the season. There are a number of defencemen having good campaigns, including Kris Letang, Ryan Suter, Nik Kronwall, Slava Voynov, François Beauchemin and Sergei Gonchar (who has done a terrific job filling in for the injured Erik Karlsson in Ottawa), but no one on the list is doing quite so many things as well as Subban.
Therrien’s stellar work with Subban aside, he has also done a masterful job throughout the lineup in giving his players, as he put it after that narrow 2-1 win over the Bruins on Saturday night, the best possible chance to succeed. He has given Brendan Gallagher more and more ice time as one of the strongest Calder Trophy candidates has dazzled with his speed, determination and drive to the net.
He has held Alex Galchenyuk around 10 minutes a game, easing him into the rigours of a National Hockey League schedule. (There was a great moment in the room Saturday when Bob Cole walked up to tell Galchenyuk how much he enjoyed watching the kid play. It wasn’t clear whether Galchenyuk even knew who Cole was — but it was evident that the youngster has impressed the entire hockey world.)
Therrien has handled veteran additions like Ryder and Jeff Halpern in the same way, putting them in situations where they can thrive. In a tough spot after losing hard-hitting Alex Emelin on Saturday, Therrien went to Davis Drewiske, playing the trade-deadline pickup a total of 23:50 (seven seconds more than Markov) as the Canadiens held the explosive Bruins to a single goal.
In a sense, it’s unfair to say that Bergevin recycled Therrien. Therrien recycled himself. He’s a different man and a different coach today, a far cry from the rough-hewed specimen once noted for the mustard on his tie and manners that were more suited to the “Q” than the NHL. Therrien today is a dapper, urbane, experienced head coach, as adept at handling the media as he is behind the bench.
The team Therrien has put on the ice isn’t simply a contender. These Canadiens are fun, more than any edition of the Habs I can recall since the dynasty of the 1970s. They may have precious few Flying Frenchmen on the roster, but they play the swift-skating, roadrunner style of the glory days and they play it well — so well that the Bruins through the first two periods Saturday night looked like a bunch of lumbering dinosaurs trying to catch the shifty, speedy, now-you-see-’em, now-you-don’t Canadiens.
No one knows how this magical ride will end. Therrien himself said Saturday night that this team is less “timid” and more confident than it was two months ago, but that you never want to be satisfied and that you can always get better.
He might not have the all-star roster of the Penguins, Bruins, Blackhawks or Ducks at his command, but Michel Therrien has taken a nondescript organization in a state of chaos and transformed it into an all-star team. For that feat, in my humble opinion, he deserves the Jack Adams.
And if he picks up a Stanley Cup ring to go with it, who are we to complain?
Heroes: Michael Ryder, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Josh Gorges, P.K. Subban, Carey Price, Davis Drewiske, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kabongo, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Mariano Rivera, Wichita State, Daniel Nestor, Marc Bergevin, Michel Therrien &&&& last but not least, my alma mater for helping 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman score a 69-yard touchdown during the Huskers spring training game.
Zeros: Lance Armstrong, Ryan Braun, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Don Cherry, P.J. Stock, Mike Rice, Tim Pernetti, Rutgers, Andy Enfield, Rick Pitino, the NCAA, Tiger Woods, John Farrell, Pierre Gauthier, Jeremy Jacobs, Craig Leipold, Eugene Melnyk, Gary Bettman, Claude Brochu, David Samson &&&& last but not least, Jeffrey Loria.
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