As a Habs fan, the very fact that the Bergevin regime exists at all fills me with hope. True, last year was a shame and a humiliation, and true, the damage that Gauthier wrought will not easily be undone, but at least our ownership is capable of recognizing terrible management and incapable of tolerating it, which is more than can be said for a few fair owners in this fine League. Why, in the frigid reaches of Edmonton, on the concrete shores of Long Island, on the gentle plains of Columbus children go to bed at night praying that they might someday be so fortunate as to have a new GM. It is a glorious thing to have a new GM. It’s like the rising of a new sun.
Okay, not really. More like the opening of a new mall, maybe? Where maybe it’ll be cool but then again maybe it’ll just be full of those kiosks that airbrush Bugs Bunny on T-shirts? Yeah, more like that.
In the ‘cool’ column, we have the fact that Bergevin is in the big chair. In the ‘airbrushing kiosks’ column, though, we have most of the things he’s actually done. Although his reign is still young, the new GM has already shown a penchant for dubious personnel decisions. On UFA day, he bought grinders of high cost (Prust) and dubious value (Armstrong). He hasn’t shown much interest in repairing the holes Gauthier blew in the top lines by trading away Cammalleri and Kostitsyn. He overpaid Carey Price, which may have been unavoidable after the Quick deal but is still a frightening amount of money to have invested in goaltending. And, just recently, he low-balled PK Subban, who is young and awesome and nice and probably Montreal’s single biggest hope for a bright near-future.
For the off-ice positions, his choices are similarly ambiguous, and if one was in an unkind temper one might say that this smells like a manager more interested in hiring his best friends than the best minds. He brought in Rick Dudley as assistant GM, a man with an glowing reputation and trail of bad teams in his wake, followed by a succession of ex-players with not much in the way of either reputation or experience. And, of course, in the fine tradition of hooking up with your ex because you’re desperate and maybe it’ll be different this time, he re-hired Michel Therrien.
And yet, despite the many red flags one might see in some of these moves, I’m still hopeful. Because you know, it actually could be different this time. In the front office, unlike on the ice, the past need not dictate the limits of the future. History is not necessarily destiny.
When Therrien was hired, much and more was made of his weak record with the Penguins. For the past three years, the man has been entirely defined by an unflattering comparison with Dan Bylsma, who many fans have already beatified and some are almost prepared to deify. Therrien- tyrant, fool- was the thing holding the Penguins back from greatness. So says the narrative, and for once the underlying numbers back it up- the Pens were nowhere near the possession-dominating force under Therrien that they became under Bylsma.
But dig a little deeper and Therrien’s record is not unambiguously awful. Jonathan Willis observed that, although Therrien’s coaching record is not long, three of the four teams he’s taken over got better when he came in and worse when he left. Even the Penguins improved when he arrived, although they improved even more without him. Consider that the team’s awful possession record in 2007-08 included 29 games without Crosby, and at that time the Pens were not so as resilient of a squad as they’ve since become- their WOWYs without the Venerable Sidney were uniformly terrible. Coaching may not be entirely to blame for their underwhelming underlying stats.
Not, of course, that I’m suggesting Therrien is a good coach. After all, the Penguins’ possession numbers before he was fired in 2008-09 were terrible even with Crosby. Moreover, the anecdotal evidence is against him. He has a record of alienating his players with dramatic hostility, which is a significant negative even in a ‘tough’ coach- being a hardass SOB only works if the players have some degree of respect for you, and Therrien is going to have a difficult time commanding respect with his recent history AND a bitchy attitude. No, Therrien definitely has flaws and has made mistakes. But the beautiful thing is that he doesn’t have to keep doing so.
Coaching is made of entirely of choices. Playing is mostly made of innate abilities and disciplines, lightly glossed and manicured by choices. A player cannot just choose to play differently, he cannot choose to be better. He can choose to work harder or train more, but whether that work pays off in improved performance is up to his genes and the hockey gods. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But a coach can change his strategies whenever he wants. He can choose to try a diamond penalty kill or a box formation, he can choose to allocate ice time to rookies or veterans, he can choose to control his anger or let it fly. Not all of these choices will bear immediate fruit, but if some of them have been demonstrated failures in the past, he can choose to try different things. A player whose wrist shot is indifferent at 25 is going to have an indifferent wrist shot at 26 and probably at 36. A coach whose line-matching was a disaster at 45 can correct it by 46.
So when we look at Therrien’s past record and tear our hair, we have to remember- as he should- that he doesn’t have to do that anymore. Therrien is not stupid. Eyes on the Prize did a little digging and found that, unlike Cunneyworth, he seems adept enough with the various hammers and wrenches in the coaching toolbox. He understands how to match, how to shelter, how to strategize. He’s smart enough to have thought long and hard about how he screwed up in Pittsburgh, and he’s smart enough to have thought up a modified approach. The only question is whether he’s humble enough to have done so.
This wonderful liberty- the ability to choose not to be terrible- doesn’t stop at coaches. It applies to all the suit-wearing positions. Managers, scouts, doctors; they can all recognize their mistakes and turn on a dime. All it takes is the intelligence and diligence to interrogate failure. In the aftermath of a terrible trade, ask: what did I undervalue or overvalue that made me vulnerable to this bilking? Reflecting on a weak draft class, ask: what principles was I following that led me wrong? When a player’s injury is mismanaged or aggravated, ask: how did I misjudge the severity? No matter what his background, be it 4th line enforcer or Harvard-educated economist or both at once, a person in the front office can always improve his knowledge, his practices, and his team. With an open mind, any manager or coach can be a good one.
The sad question is why open minds seem so pathetically rare in hockey management. So many GMs are proud to get up in front of a microphone and trumpet their complete lack of interest in numerical analysis, their utter indifference to criticism, their absolute and unshakable devotion to their plan, as if incuriosity, deafness, and blind faith were the greatest virtues a man can have. So many coaches are willing to rip, bench, and bully players for failing to live up to their strategy rather than questioning whether or not the flaw might be in the strategy itself. Cunneyworth called out PK Subban for the “nonsense” in his game, but in an an honest world, it would have been entirely fair for Subban to call out the nonsense in Cunneyworth’s allocation of ice time. Hockey is subject to the worst kind of BECAUSE I SAID SO authority, where stubbornness is reckoned he same as confidence, and laziness masquerades as certitude.
So, speaking purely as a fan, to each member of my new management team and my new coaching staff, I ask only for this: don’t be that guy. Don’t be the guy who just does whatever he does and assumes it must be great because he did it. Don’t be the guy who puts ideology ahead of research. Don’t be the guy who has no better justification for his moves than obvious lies and tired cliches. Be thoughtful. Be self-critical. Be open to new ideas. When you fuck up- and you will fuck up- don’t double down on your errors. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes, to yourself if not to us. Don’t be afraid to change.
They say you’re an old-school crew. They say you’re not the kind of men to try new approaches. Maybe you were. Maybe you still are.
But you don’t have to be.