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Sticking It Out With Carbonneau, The Only Logical Way To Go

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It is inevitable in hockey reality, that when a team slumps and fails to meet expectations that a coaching controversy invariably arises. It is a common knee jerk reaction by many factions to bail and dump on a coach when things to badly.

The incessant questioning of coaching methods and motives generally leads to calling for a coach's head. Soon, with the clock ticking louder and louder, his days behind the bench are seen as numbered, and in his final steps to grasp the exact ailment and solution to his team's woes, he is seen as a dead man walking.

Occasionally, such a perception has merit. More often than not it is a skewered outlook from fans and followers that has roots ingrained in the misconceptions of what of the coaching profession entails in all its responsabilities.

Presently, there are many who would light such a fire under Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau, whose injury riddled lineup has won but two of their last nine games.

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Injuries are generally never used as an excuse, but they come into play in the evaluation of the situation. In the Canadiens case, injuries have been a distraction much longer than the current losing streak. Prior to the present 11 game swoon, the Canadiens survived through a stretch of 14 games from December 18 to January 17 in which they went 11-2-1, and a majority of them were played without captain Saku Koivu, linemates Chris Higgins and Alex Tanguay and goalie Carey Price. All but Tanguay have since returned, but the team is now without center Robert Lang and winger Guillaume Latendresse.

Incomprehensibly, the team is now losing badly, where it once rose to the challenge of winning with depleted forces.

And with that, coach Carbonneau, who was applauded for keeping the team focused and winning just weeks ago, is now being picked apart at every decision and operational nuance.

As some would tell it, he has appeared to become incompetent almost overnight.

That folks, just doesn't happen. It is not that cut and dried.

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There will be speculation and suggestions that he has lost command of the room, but it is never that simple. That generalization is a well worn cliche often rolled out by those with no access to the room.

Plainly put, it is a guess. Not even a calculated one at that. It is much more complicated than a simple reason or two, or a personality disorder that has come into play.

In dispelling that injuries are at the root of the Habs chronic ills, one must also allow that they set up a series of circumstances that places everyone involved on unfamiliar turf. The situation has to be looked at both ways and weighed out for a proper honest take.

Given that the lineup the Canadiens dressed in their most recent loss to Toronto is still an enviable one, it is honest to suggest that it should be faring much better. One season ago, Lang and Tanguay were not in the picture. Currently missing from that time when the Canadiens were steamrolling along, are Guillaume Latendresse, Mark Streit, who dressed as a forward, and a then ineffective Michael Ryder. In their place are rookies Matt D'Agostini and Max Pacioretty - two of the better Habs in last night's game - and George Laraque.

Last year's Habs versus this year's lineup - call it a draw for argument's sake.

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So in removing injuries from the connundrum, is it the players who are at fault for losses, or a coach without a handle?

There are many things Carbonneau can do and has done to get things straightened out. Onlookers are only privelege to what can be seen, and some of what has been heard. There is much more that they cannot see.

Of the many solutions Carbonneau can attempt, there are specific things he cannot affect directly during a game.

Carbonneau cannot prevent players from shooting wide, missing open nets, and hitting posts square.

He cannot walk onto the ice and loosen the players squeezing their sticks too tightly.

Carbonneau cannot tilt gazes of particular players on the ice who have habitually taken their eyes off the puck when carrying, passing, or shooting it.

Carbonneau no longer blocks shots.

He cannot reach out and yank players off the ice who extend their shifts beyond the desired 40 to 45 seconds.

Carbonneau cannot get out there and clear the puck for players when they become overwhelmed in their own end.

A coach cannot prevent instinctive mistakes being made when players attempt to do too much in the name of team work.

Carbonneau cannot put his hands on the behinds of players who skate back to bench slowly at the end of a shift.

Carbonneau cannot prevent frustrated players from losing composure on the ice and taking untimely penalties.

A coach cannot reprehend and bench players for every single indiscrepancy he sees in these regards during a game. These are all tasks for the players on the ice to wrap their focus around.

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What Carbonneau can do is investigate, explore, preach, guide, encourage, instruct, educate, provoke, probe minds and search souls, have heart to heart chats, play team psychologist, watch videos, call team meetings and group therapy sessions, and have detailed practices on precise facets of the game with players who are having issues. These are recurring themes throughout an 82 game schedule with several players, and is much of what goes on behind closed doors during a season.

After such methods fail to curtail aspects unpleasing to him in regards to players performance, Carbonneau can discipline, punish, bench, scratch, and in certain cases demote or threaten to send down, those whose efforts are still in question.

When a team is riddled with injuries, there are obviously less disciplinary options available.

With certain players, depending on the circumstances and the player's individual work ethic, the first series of methods are employed repeatedly. It is only once they have failed after numerous tries, that the second set of methods are employed.

Coaches don't always run to players to bring about these talks. Carbonneau as a former player, understands that players often listen better, much more willingly and attentively, when it is they who come to him and knock at his door to talk. It also builds character, to allow players to find their own way in dealing with struggles. A coach after all, isn't a babysitter. These players are grown men, professionals.

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One of longer standing criticisms of Carbonneau has to do with a perceived lack of communication on his part. Most opinions speculating such, are fans with absolutely no insight into the goings on inside the team. I'll touch on it later in this post, but one of the more credible traits of Carbonneau as a coach is his ability and willingness to communicate. It has been an aspect of his desire to win that has threads going way back into his career. There are many examles of former team mates, associates, and foes of Carbonneau who will maintain that communication is actually one of his strongest assets.

A coach's job involves managing personalities as much as it does rolling lines and figuring who to dress. In order to deal with players on a personal and professional level, the coach has to get to know them inside and out. A coach without a good reputation for communication simply doesn't get hired in the NHL very often. In the cases when such a thing happens, it is usually when a GM is unaware of a coach having this liability. In that, it is pretty safe to say that Bob Gainey knows Carbonneau's ways.

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Another area of the Canadiens coaching that comes under scrutiny is often referred to as "the system" the teams plays. The quotation marks are my sense of humour at work, because no system in the NHL is so defined, or commonly known, that is has a recognized name other than the one known as "the trap".

When coaches are credible enough to earn NHL employment, it is because whatever their systems are, they work - plain and simple. There are no bad systems used at this level, and what sets coaches apart from one another are the teams they run and their abilities to sell their so called system to the players. Depending on the makeup and context of a team, they will either buy into what a coach preaches, or refuse it and play individualistically.

Understanding Carbonneau's offensive and defensive philosophies and the method in which units are deployment on the ice cannot be summed up in a concise term or definition. The Canadiens practice what many other clubs attempt to achieve, which is a hybrid of many on ice setups for various game situations and for different strengths of opponents.

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There is an old adage in coaching, that says one must coach the players and team one has at their disposal and not neccessarily the one they wish they had. Players must be employed in roles they are adept to succeeding in, and in terms and parameters in which they can envision themselves being successful in. With that, a coach must make the player perform the best he can at what he does best, while finding ways for the player to limit error in the areas in which he is weakest. Between the two extensions, lies the game a player needs to work on to be an effective team player.

Where systems come into play, is on a game by game, period by period, and shift by shift basis. By the time a player reaches the NHL level, they are well informed, or should be, in the virtues, benefits, and calculated risks in following the 1-2-2 or 2-1-2 setups. Players have to be able to adapt from one to another at the drop of a hat, because many coaches, Carbonneau included, will employ different schemes during the course of a game. Depending on the flow of a game, or the tendencies of opponents, various setups are switched back and forth, and often one line plays one system while another line is tasked with a different approach. One particular line, most commonly a team's third trio, may also face offensive and defensive lines and have to play both the 1-2-2 and 2-1-2 setups in back to back shifts depnding on instructions from the bench.

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The setups become more involved when the scalene triangle points formed by the 1-2 or 2-1 forward system rolloff to the left or right in coverage. It also affected by whether a system requires the center to be the highest point in the triangle or whether that judgement call is left to the winger closest to the puck at a given time.

What has been discussed above, involves the forward positions for the most part. The role of defenseman in these setups involves complementing and supporting these systems in the two way flow of play. The defenseman must also read the system enforced upon them and react instinctively to it's constraints while being aware of what their own forwards are up to.

It is important when disecting what evolves during a game to point this out. It is either scientific or boring to you, depending on your involvement in the game. Why it is being brought up and explained, is because you will rarely if ever full scan examples of it on a TV set, as cameras tend to pan in closer to the action, even in neutral zone play. You will catch mere glimpses of it in the course of a game. To the chagrin of most common hockey fans, systems are best viewed from high above the arena seats or at ice level, even with the playing surface.

In regards as to how Guy Carbonneau deploys the men at his disposition, and how he communicates particular assigments, I think it is best said that the benefit of doubt be given to the three time Selke Trophy winner. For those who believe they have a better method, there is surely some ECHL, AHL, or collegiate team waiting for your resume.

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Speaking of Selke winners, some complaints of the Canadiens coaching methods often point to the fact that there are too many defensive specialists behind the bench. It is a point that I have often found has some merit. I would like to see a more dynamic group surrounding Carbonneau, without discrediting the contributions of Muller and Jarvis. In having only mainly defensive minds in the group, the solutions to problems must often resemble each other.

What some people may fail to realize though, is that Carbonneau and Jarvis were actually very offensive players in junior hockey, who reeled in their own games and tendencies to suit a particular role on the Canadiens. Muller himself, played in both roles during his career, and has equal understanding of offense and defense.

My main area of concern lies in the fact that there is no specific coach primarily tasked with handling only the defenseman on the team. It's an area that needs looking into. Larry Robinson is often mentioned, but he is still employed by the Devils, as far as I know. Jacques Laperriere, who followed Claude Julien to New Jersey would be welcomed back.

With all the young defenseman coming up in the organization, a former NHL'er, especially a Cup winning Canadiens former player, would be an especially welcomed addition.

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Another area of curiosity involves why the Canadiens do not play in tigher units of five generally. The transition game is well greased, but the forwards coming back to help is a constant sore point.

While those are valid questions, alone they are unworthy of coaching credibility concerns.

The dilemas that the team currently find themselves mired in have little root in the coaching decisions of the team. Unless of course, one believes that the coaching staff have become idiots overnight and that each player of talent on the club has become worthless because of it.

What is affecting the club presently are the problems of individual players in the areas of confidence and identity. It could be the cumulative residual of losses, or the snowball effect of injuries on the definition of individual roles on the team. It could also be that looming contract issues for up to 10 pending free agent has become a distraction as the team struggles. It could be all of these things grouped together under the constant pressure of performance that has the team coming easily unglued.

A coach is never the cause of such things. A coach simply manages how it all affects the team.

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During the first spate of injuries, Carbonneau managed quite well, to the point where the absentees became unoticed on many nights. As the rash of injuries prolonged, it has been more difficult to deal with, because all of the coaching solutions have been run through. What must play out at this point, is in the player's hands, and all the coach can do when his player's confidence becomes frail is support the work ethic and preach patience.

As the Canadiens players search for their confidence one period at a time, they must learn to rely on their play as a unit, and head back to basics once more. The coach will prompt them to concentrate on the execution of their individual roles inside the team concept.

It is a rough patch for any coach to endure, and they usually come out better for it. The same can be stated for the players, who often learn more about themselves through trying times than on occasions where everything flows smoothly. The coach's most trying task at this point, is in assisting the players in persevering through the trough, but it takes time and faith in one another to get to the other side.

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Regardless of the men in charge of the players, almost every good team reaches it's nadir every few seasons. In being challenged by the adversity, teams and coaches either give in to it, or outlast it and live to have better days.

Many coaches get fired at this point, because the well of solutions has been run dry. When it happens, often all that changes is the face that is tasked with sorting the mess. The problems, personalities, malfunctions, and shortcomings on the team are all still in place just waiting for a new coach unfamiliar with all of this to discover it anew and sort through it from scratch once again. The process is quite a mindboggling one.

The Canadiens, I highly doubt, would change ships in midstream. It would give them nothing but more imbalance to do so

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Hockey teams with enough spine to weather the storm are always rewarded with better days. Teams who have no better recourse than the coaching roulette start back at ground zero every two or three seasons. There are many examples of teams whose coaching door is revolving, and none of them are sturdy franchises with a precise direction. There are some, who despite their particular challenges, hang onto coaches through thick and thin, and because of it, rebound quicker in steering their ships back on course.

Three clubs come to mind - Buffalo, Minnesota and Nashville - who continuously suffer the fate of small market teams in retaining their star players. Talent arrives, matures, and then leaves these teams, and due in great part to the stability behind the bench and beyond, those organizations are always putting together competitive clubs each season. What sticking with Lindy Ruff, Jacques Lemaire and Barry Trotz has done for these teams, is enforce the belief in consistent methods of operation while leaving no doubt as to who is in charge. It also removes the notion that if players are unhappy on these teams, they can purposely underperform and cost the coach his head.

I believe we would all agree on the benefits of Montreal not returning to it's revolving coaching door methods of old. It is a safe bet that Guy Carbonneau is on board until the end of Bob Gainey's tenure. If you happen not to like Carbonneau, you might as well get used to him, because it is not Gainey's m.o. to dump coaches when the road gets bumpty.

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During his decade at the helm of the Dallas organization, Gainey hired one coach to replace himself behind the bench. Ken Hitchcock, for the Stars players, took a lot of getting used to as he was stringent, strict, and severe. Despite the player's general dislike of their coach, he made them perform. After a few years of his routine, the club was moulded into a Stanley Cup winner. Dallas parted ways with Hitchcock after Gainey removed himself from the GM's duties for personal reasons, but stayed on in advisory roles. Dallas has hired one coach since then based on Gainey's approval, and Dave Tippett is now an eight season fixture behind the Stars bench.

Along the way, it might be interesting to note that Dallas had a horrendous start to the season, but stuck it out with their coach and are now being rewarded for it.

Carbonneau has as good a chance to become as much of a fixture in Montreal, and with good reason. Just as you don't trade a player who is just coming into his own after three seasons, you do not trash a coach in the same situation who is progressively learning his trade and earning his stripes. Good coaches are not the easily replaced commodities they are given to be.

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Suitable coaches, who would be a perfect fit behind the Monteal bench, are not running the street. Individuals with the collective acumen of Carbonneau for the job are inexistant. Not a single candidate fits the job description like Carbonneau does. He is ingrained into the Montreal reality and psyche. He is a former player of respect, merit, and achievement. He has the mental tools, the fortitude, and the experience and capacity to know where he wants to go with the team. He has won throughout his career, while playing for coaches who were winners as well.

Carbonneau is also a former played who adapted his game to the needs of his teams, and the lessons and sacrificed involved have never been lost on him.

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I first heard of Guy Carbonneau all the way back in 1978, when he played for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, a club he now partly owns. The Sags were an unavoidable foe of my hometown Cornwall Royals back then, for several reasons, one of which was that they were coached by Cornwall native Orval Tessier - the one time Jack Adams winner with the Chicago Blackhawks, who is still seen about town. Chicoutimi were a strong club one season into Tessier's tenure, and they wore these absolutely horrid futuristic jerseys of green on the right side and blue on the left front, divided by an "S" lightening bolt that looked like it was peeled of the KISS logo.

I became familiar with Carbonneau from my father pointing him out to me. Dad had spoken with Tessier during the off season, when the coach would drop by for a few brews at the local Legion or Army Navy. Apparently Tessier couldn't say enough about Carbonneau and his willingness to do anything to win. The conversation came during the summer of 1979, just days after the Canadiens had drafted him.

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Tessier, a winner himself, (he won a Memorial Cup with the Royals, took the Quebec Remparts and Kitchener Rangers to the same stage, and won a Calder Cup with the Moncton Hawks in his only season there before getting NHL work), knew one when he saw one.

"After having participated in training camp with the Canadiens, Guy could have returned to us with a swelled head and the idea that he has nothing left to learn, but he has proven the contrary", said Tessier. "He is our uncontested leader and the guys have tremendous respect for him. His speed and agility will certainly help him make his mark. In my eyes, he is not only the best center, but the best player in the entire league."

That season, I paid great attention to Carbonneau whenever he was in town against the Royals, often watching him go head to head against Dale Hawerchuk. Chicoutimi gave Cornwall it's roughest go, but the Royals got by and went all the way that season, winning the first of consecutive Memorial Cups.

Carbonneau, after notching 72 goals and 110 assists in 72 games in his final junior year, moved on to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs of the AHL, where he worked hard to fit into the role of defensive shutdown center. As a Canadiens prospect, he was smart enough at that age to understand and realize this was the way for him to go. After two full season in the AHL, he appeared on the Habs scene ready for his role. It was then that he fell under the tutelage of his new winger, Bob Gainey.

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Along the way to winning a pair of Stanley Cups with Montreal, Carbonneau was praised for his astute reading of the game as well as his ability to pass information along to team mates. Players coming up with the team during that era, often mentioned how Carbonneau spent time with them, communicating his attention to detail on the finer points of things such as positioning and winning faceoffs. I believe it was Chris Nilan - a linemate Carbonneau managed to turn into a 20 goal scorer - who first said that his center had the communication methods, mentoring skills and patience of a veteran, and that he could see him in a coaching role one day.

Upon hearing such things back then, I realized that it made perfect sense that Carbonneau would one day be behind a bench. As I continued to watch him play, that impression only grew over time.

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Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who many consider the greatest offensive machine of all time, is recurringly asked two questions about his career. One has to do with when he felt he played his best hockey, and the other concerns who was the toughest player to play against. The Great One's answers both fall into a three week time span in spring of 1993.

Gretzky, many know, considers his series against the Toronto Maple Leafs that season, to be the best hockey he ever played. In taking the Kings to the Stanley Cup final, it is surely one of his proudest moments. His toughest foe arrived days later, in the form of Cabonneau, starting with Game 2 of the finals.

According to Jacques Demers, after the Habs lost the first game in the round, Carbonneau asked, cajoled, begged, demanded and insisted he be assigned to cover Gretzky the rest of the way. Demers acquiesced, and Gretzky was silenced by Carbonneau for the final four games.

That attention to detail former players have referred to, is no better exemplified than in the spotting of Marty McSorley's illegally curved stick during the series - a detail that swung the momentum away from the Kings, that they would never recover from.

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"I’ve played for and worked with a lot of coaches over the years. I've learned a lot everywhere I’ve been," admitted Carbonneau, who served as an assistant coach with Montreal under fiery Michel Therrien from 2000 through 2002 before working alongside his stoic current GM. "Let’s just say that Bob's temperament is a little different from Michel's," quipped Carbonneau as the jam-packed press conference room erupted with laughter. "I figure I’ll end up somewhere in between." 
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Along the course of his long career, the pedigree of coaches Carbonneau played under is quite impressive. Tessier, Lemaire, Jean Perron, Pat Burns, Demers, Mike Keenan (who he couldn't stomach), and Hitchcock were all winners. Carbonneau surely sponged up the methods and picked their brains of many of these greats.

On those experiences, Carbonneau stated when he took the Canadiens job in 2006 that,

As a coach, Carbonneau is as fiery a competitor as he was when playing. He's not so far removed from then, as to have forgotten what it envolved. He understand them. Players appreciate him.

There may be those who question his motives and moves in troubled times, but Gainey isn't one of them. Asked recently, on the occasion of the Canadiens mid - season report, who he felt was his best acquisition as general manager, Gainey replied without a second's hesitation that it was Carbonneau.

Twelve games later, his mind hasn't changed.

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Carbonneau will weather this storm out, and with it, the team will become stronger character wise from having endured through it. Carbonneau's career, and everything he learned from it, has groomed him perfectly to deal with moments such as this. He has the requisit experience to pull it off.

It would be a grave mistake to believe in external cures for internal concerns. No one is better equiped than Carbonneau to get them out of it.

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Below is a scan from a page at an excellent and informative Carbonneau tribute site, that details every step of his career from boy scout to today. It is THE book on Carbonneau, for those who wish to know more.