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Is Guy Boucher Ready for Montreal?

This post is an extension of a conversation that started with this blog post.

I may be getting ahead of myself, as Habs fans have been known to do, but as the team continues to make a push for the playoffs sans 2 of their top scorers, the questions are swirling concerning the futures of General Manager Bob Gainey, and Head Coach Jacques Martin. The former is in the last year of his contract, the latter is in the first year of a 4 year deal that pays him $1.6 million dollars per season.

In the case of Martin, there are 2 types of people:

1- those who think he’s done a good job considering the injuries the team has endured,
2- those who think he’s a square peg for a round hole. A guy who brings the exact opposite system than is needed in Montreal, considering the personnel Gainey brought in during the summer of 2009.

As alluded to in this blog, the next few days (or even hours) may give us a clue as to what kind of ownership we can expect from the Molsons. Will they demand that their new half billion dollar toy bring in playoff money, or is this really about putting the best team possible on the ice? What kind of vision do they have for hockey; both the business and sporting sides of the game? A move now by Gainey to acquire a rental likely means that the Molsons want to be in the playoffs. Acquiring a rental also unfortunately indicates that the Molsons believe the Canadiens are on the right path, or worse yet, that striving for 8th is an acceptable strategy so long as the stands are full. Standing pat, or selling players before the deadline probably means that they are looking to the future, and thus waving the white flag on this year. In this case, are they going to grant both Gainey and Martin mulligans for this season? After all, it is Martin’s first season; a season in which the Canadiens rank near the top of the league in “salary lost to injury”. Check out this blog post which tracks the league’s teams in terms of dollars lost to injury. Would it be fair to fire a coach with his experience after just 1 season? Jacques Martin is not Barry Melrose. Is it realistic to expect the Molsons to pay $1.6 million for the next 3 years for Martin to stay away, while paying Carbonneau for one more year to do the same? (Of course, they could always find something else for Martin to do within the organization). It’s at this point where we need to talk about Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Guy Boucher. It goes without saying that when he was plucked from the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs to coach the Canadiens top farm team, that he was also being lined up as an eventual head coach in Montreal.

The reviews of Boucher’s work through less than one season have been rave, and the Bulldogs’ record speaks for itself. The ‘Dogs lead their division by 9 points, and sport a sparkling 31-12-7 record. Recent Canadiens callup Mathieu Darche had this to say about Boucher in an article featured in the Montreal Gazette on January 26th:

Darche said that Boucher “thinks outside the box” and employs a “new-age” system. But the fundamental principle is one that mirrors Jacques Martin’s old-school approach.

Mathieu Carle said he had learned more in a month under Boucher than in his 2 previous seasons in Hamilton combined. Bingo. It is this sort of review that makes it so tantalizing to turf Martin and bring Boucher and this “new-age” system to Montreal. This begs the question of what Don Lever was doing down there?

A more important question to ask may be “is Boucher is ready for the NHL?” Yes, Boucher’s a Quebecer, and is more than aware of the pressure and expectations of the fans and media. Despite management’s apparent insistence on mediocrity, the fans still expect the cup. Being aware of this is one thing. Being subjected to it is another. Coaching kids, busts and career-AHLers is not the same as coaching pampered millionaires. Granted, Boucher carries some heavy credentials besides his considerable coaching chops: He has Arts and Engineering degrees from McGill and a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology from the University of Montreal. He’s going to be the real deal. The question is when.

Another angle of this conversation again lies with the Molson’s motivations. If you bring a star-coach-in-waiting to Montreal, you’d better be doing it because you want to keep him for a long time. The Canadiens spent a decade pollinating the league with Quebec-born rookie coaches like Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Claude Julien and Guy Carbonneau, only to fire them within a couple years. All with the exception of Carbonneau have gone on to have success elsewhere (and I’ve long believed that at least one of those names will once again be behind the Habs bench some day).  This must be avoided with Boucher. The Canadiens cannot afford to be the league’s coaching feeder system any longer. It is both costly in terms of money, and organizational stability. By bringing up Boucher now, one would assume that the Molsons are opting to rethink the way the team approaches hockey. With the relationships Boucher is developing with his players in Hamilton, it would be a natural progression to have them mature together in Montreal. Don’t let premature expectations interrupt this.

Are the Molsons forward-looking enough and strong enough to send the message that a new direction is needed? Can they stay the course when attendance dips or when media & fan scrutiny reaches a fever pitch? A hot topic of conversation this morning on the Team 990 was that of rebuilding the team from the ground-up. The results of Marinaro’s very unscientific poll were overwhelming. The vast majority of fans were pro-rebuild. And by rebuild, the understanding was to finish dead last for 3-5 years and draft the elite. It meant installing new management, new coaching, and a new culture under the Molsons. But what this poll does not take in to consideration, is the thousands of people who pay many thousands of dollars for season tickets. A couple season ticket holders called in and said they would not pay the outrageous prices to watch a team get their brains beat in every night for 5 years. And therein lies a big hurdle. Money talks. Either the Molsons flip the mouth that feeds the bird and rebuild anyway, or they keep their coffers full and maintain the status quo.

Bringing up Boucher doesn’t really hint at what Gainey’s future looks like. He’s the one that slotted Boucher in Hamilton after firing Carbonneau and poaching Don Lever from the Bulldogs, thus bringing him to Montreal doesn’t violate the sanctity of the “GM having his own guy in place”. Hopefully Gainey’s had himself a heart-to-heart with the Molsons about what has transpired over the last 7 months. It’s the least that needs to happen. Gainey, for his part managed to convince the Molsons that he can rebuild a team with his free cap space (the space he gained by allowing nearly a dozen free agents walk away). He had to know in his own mind that this approach was at best a risky proposition. So far, the results have been less than expected. Can he convince them again that he’s worth keeping around?

I think if they’re serious about having a good team for years to come, they at the very least need to look around at who’s available to run the team from the GM’s chair. Failing a suitable candidate, I can probably find it within me to extend Gainey for another 2 seasons, but under the condition that the focus be on the future. If I’m the Molsons, I just spent $575 million dollars on this team. I probably have $4.8 million somewhere to get rid of Jacques Martin.

It all boils down to going down 1 of 2 roads: Keep Gainey, get Boucher here and keep him here, à la Lindy Ruff: through good and bad times. Instruct Gainey that all moves are about the success of the team 2+ years down the road.

The other road is a good old fashioned house cleaning. Let Gainey walk away with his head up, and cut Jacques Martin loose. Find a new GM with vision, and let him do his thing here, while Guy Boucher continues his good work in Hamilton. There will be plenty of time for him to make his mark in Montreal. In this case, Habs President Pierre Boivin, head of Marketing Ray Lalonde and head of PR Donald Beauchamp would need to craft messaging that helps sell a total overhaul to a fan base hungry for Stanley Cup success.

Either way, it’s time for the Molson Brothers to reveal their plans and motivations.

What do you do if you’re the Molsons? What do you think about Guy Boucher coming to Montreal as soon as next year? Is he ready for that?

  • http://www.cowhideandrubber.com Kyle

    @Prax I agree. It’s a fine line between letting him develop and adjust in Hamilton and losing him to another team. That can’t be allowed to happen, and I don’t think it will. A bonus to McGuire as GM (if you think he’d be a good GM) is that I don’t think he’d go looking for his “guy”. He’d gladly employ Boucher.

    @Olivier I think we are all in agreement, but just stating it in different ways. We all strongly believe that Guy is a can’t-miss coaching prospect, and he won’t make the same kind of money as a sexy name would. And we all agree that when he comes to the NHL, he will adjust. But you have to admit that the gaps between juniors to pros, to NHLers are big gaps. I think to bring him to Montreal *now* would be a risky proposition.

    Bringing Boucher to Montreal now would have to come along with the message from high up that Boucher is here for the long haul.

    Can anyone see the half-measure of bringing Boucher to Montreal as an assistant coach to Martin next season?

  • http://enattendantlesnordiques.blogspot.com/ Olivier

    I think there are two things regarding Boucher. First of all, he won’t call for a big contract like Martin or Carbonneau called for. So sacking Martin and hiring Boucher isn’t that big of an additional cost. Being the coach of a franchise whose playoffs appearances means huge piles of cash, that means Martin (who is not an idiot) is feeling the pressure *right now*.

    About the hiring of rookie coaches: Boucher will, the day he is given a NHL bench, adapt to the job, I have no doubts about it; track record means something and Guy’s is stellar. Our last rookie coaches were either on the hot seat because he was the previous guy’s guy (Julien) or because he just didn’t have coaching experience (Carbo). Boucher doesn’t have those two problems with Gainey and I think Gainey isn’t done yet as a GM.

    It actually kinda annoys me that we could loose Guy to somebody else, because I think wherever he ends up, he has a very, very good chance of going Ruff/Trotz on the gig he’ll land.

    Came here via lions in winter. I’ll be back for sure.

  • http://www.thecheckingline.com Prax

    Boucher was obviously hired with the intention that he’d eventually be coaching the Canadiens. But as a fan of a team that’s had A LOT of first-time coaches as long as I can remember, maybe he’d be better off simmering in Hamilton for a while. I think we should give him the same treatment we’ve decided to give our prospects — let him develop.

    The only problem? If he stays there for too long, he’ll certainly be wooed by another team, and this isn’t someone you want to lose.

    I was listening to McGuire on the radio and apparently the reviews coming from scouts and a bunch of other hockey people are that Boucher is doing trememdous work down there, and I would not be surprised to see the Bulldogs holding the Calder Cup for the second time in 4 years.

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