You may not have realized it, but today marks the two year anniversary of Michel Therrien returning to the Montreal Canadiens. There were many people who didn't think Therrien would last two whole years in the job, and although he's lasted that long in terms of time, the lockout has limited him to just 130 regular season games.
So how has he performed in these two years? I think we have to take into account three major factors when evaluating Michel Therrien. His rapport with players behind the scenes and motivational skills, his player deployment on the ice, and his strategies and tactics on the ice.
Behind the scenes
I'm seen as a very harsh critic of Therrien, but one thing I don't agree with is that he treats players poorly or is hated by his team. As much as it pains some to admit it, Therrien has clearly changed, and this is not 2002. While fans have complained about Therrien's treatment of P.K. Subban on the ice, behind the scenes it seems like the two get along well enough, and the rest of the team seems to see Therrien as a rallying point. Josh Gorges mentioned during the playoff that they draw their passion from Therrien, which is high praise.
The way Marc Bergevin conducts himself and expects his employees to act, I find it difficult to believe, even with a winning record, that Therrien is anything close to his old self, where he badgered and threatened players to get them to perform. In fact nowadays, he seems like an affable character, easy to converse with, and quick to laugh.
Much was made of the 24CH scene where Therrien reamed out Subban and Gorges between periods, but this ignores the tons of situations where the team was joking and happy with him around, especially in the video room.
As a motivator, I don't think anyone could criticize Therrien. No team will come out with their best effort every night, but through 130 regular season and 22 playoff games under his reign, I can't remember many instances where the Canadiens didn't look ready to compete.
In this specific respect, I would consider Therrien to be a good coach, maybe even more than just good.
Therrien is an undoubtedly old school coach. He leans on his veterans, and plays his rookies less often than many would like to see. He's stubborn in regards to players earning his trust, and bullish about players he likes for reasons other than being good at hockey.
This attitude has led to a mixed bag of results through two years, playing veterans like Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta too often, and young stars like P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and Alex Galchenyuk too little. But it isn't always the case.
In the playoffs of both seasons Therrien has coached, Subban got more ice than Markov. Just by a hair in 2013, but in 2014 it was by nearly two minutes.
Therrien is no doubt hindered in this regard by his affinity for Francis Bouillon and the likes of Douglas Murray, but as the games became more important, those players were played less. With his back against the wall, he trusted Nathan Beaulieu over both of them, which was undoubtedly the right call.
With Carey Price injured in the playoffs, Therrien made another gutsy call in going to Dustin Tokarski, which resulted in an extended series with New York when the Habs looked down and out.
Therrien also seems to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of most players on his roster, giving the tougher defensive assignments at forward Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, and Lars Eller, while keeping David Desharnais away from the defensive zone. He struggled at times to keep Daniel Briere in the offensive zone, but eventually figured it out, with Brendan Gallagher taking on more defensive work to free up some offensive starts for Briere.
Overall the player deployment has gotten better over time, with the lone exception of Alexei Emelin continuing to play tough minutes, to disastrous results. It's a work in progress for Therrien, but he's showing signs of getting better.
Here's where it all comes apart.
In the graph above, you can see a rolling average of every regular season game that Therrien has coached since his return, contrasting their even strength performance in terms of possession, with their luck in terms of PDO over that same time period.
When Therrien first took over, the Canadiens played a high tempo, two-man forecheck built upon controlled zone entries and quick transition in the neutral zone. It worked remarkably well, and the Canadiens won their division in spite of Carey Price struggling down the stretch, and relatively poor defensive coverage from the drop of the first puck against Toronto, to the last second against Ottawa in the playoffs.
The Canadiens started the next season the same way, blitzing teams early, only to stray from the method that was working for them just a month in, changing to a much more rigid structure based on safe plays. Chipping and chasing became much more common, and exits out of their own zone would be up the boards, or not happen at all. This led to one of the NHL's premier possession teams in 2012-13 becoming one of the worst in 2013-14. In fact, it was the biggest year over year drop in possession that's ever been recorded.
Yet spectacular play from Carey Price and the team's other superstars kept them in games all through the year, ending up in a 100 point season. Then in the playoffs, Therrien switched right back to the system of the previous year, leading to the Canadiens absolutely demolishing the Tampa Bay Lightning in four games, and defeating the powerhouse Bruins in seven.
So for fans, media, and analysts, this is kind of confusing. Who is the real Therrien?
Well either way, the defensive tactics have been relatively poor during his entire tenure. Carey Price being the best goaltender on the planet has hidden much of the problem, but whenever Subban isn't on the ice, it's a mess. It got a little bit better this season with Andrei Markov adjusting to his hampered mobility, but that was negated by Alexei Emelin being a turnstile of a defensive partner for most of the season.
Part of the problem has undoubtedly been a personnel problem, but that situation was created by the coach in the first place in not trusting his young players enough, so there's nowhere to pass the buck to.
This is an area that needs work, big time. Therrien has all summer to come up with better tactics to deploy, and training camp to sell the team on them. Logically, with dead weight moving out, the Canadiens should be a positive possession team regardless of Therrien's tactics, but there is the potential to be more than just middle of the pack, there's potential to be elite, and he has to unlock that.
Therrien has proven that he deserves his place, but there is a real burden of expectation now, and this season's playoff performance can't be a one off.