Michel Therrien is an interesting coach.
For the longest time he has seemingly shunned the traditional idea of worrying about which forwards are sent over the boards on any given shift.
There are certain players that do get special treatment from Therrien for sure. Tomas Plekanec getting hard-matched against Sidney Crosby is one such example, but that may be influenced by Plekanec's ability to frustrate Pittsburgh's best player as much as it is for his defensive abilities.
While Therrien doesn't concentrate on line-matching, he does place an emphasis on zone-matching.
During the 2014-15 regular season, the coach relied on Lars Eller to start a majority of his shifts in the defensive zone, but by the time the playoffs rolled around Torrey Mitchell became the reliable option to start in the defensive zone. All of a sudden Therrien had a reliable second option to start in the defensive zone, which had implications for the lines this season, allowing a move to centre for Alex Galchenyuk.
This is where Therrien's interesting decision-making really starts to shine. When the decision was announced in September that Galchenyuk would be moved to the middle, the obvious response seemed to be moving David Desharnais to wing on Galchenyuk's line. Therrien made the radical decision to move Eller there instead, moving his most-relied-upon defensive-zone centre to the wing of an offensively-focused trio.
Transferring Eller to wing was one way that Galchenyuk's transition could be eased. By making that decision, Therrien was also agreeing to give the lion's share of the defensive zone starts to Mitchell. Because of the lack of line-matching Therrien deploys, it is helpful for Galchenyuk to have a more defensively-minded player on his line, even if that player is playing out of his natural position.
Therrien has also seemingly allowed his mobile defencemen to activate a lot more when in the offensive zone. This aggressive style is reminiscent of the first season of Therrien's current tenure in Montreal when the Canadiens were a possession machine.
The change in philosophy could be Therrien deciding to switch back to the style that brought him praise in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, or it could be a shift in philosophy precipitated by the Canadiens bringing in a noted analytics man in Matt Pfeffer.
Pfeffer recently talked about how he communicated with Therrien on what the statistics represent. He mentioned that he had first tried to explain a bunch of charts and graphs to the head coach when what the coach wanted was a practical way to apply the data to revising hockey strategy. Pfeffer complied with the request, and we may be seeing the results of that translated work right now.
If what the Canadiens are doing right now partly is a result of Pfeffer's work with the team, he deserves praise. But if Therrien is open-minded enough to adapt to Pfeffer's suggestions, then Therrien should also be lauded for his willingness to adapt to a new philosophy presented by someone who could be seen as an outsider.
The Canadiens also deserve a lot of praise in regards to the construction of the defence. They're currently deploying a defence that consists of five puck-movers and one more-traditional defensive defenceman. This has been a major boon to their playing style, but in prior iterations of a similar setup, the Habs were not nearly this good.
What has changed?
It seems as though the team has shifted to a philosophy based more on carry-ins and controlled break-outs from the defensive zone. It is still a work in progress, but the early returns are quite promising.
Therrien may be publicly denying that there has been a change to the Canadiens style of play, but there have clearly been some alterations. Even though they struggled defensively against the St. Louis Blues, they still were better than the team that consistently got run over the previous two seasons. Adjustments have been made and the players have bought in.
The head coach is willing to take risks and has shown that in the past. He has also previously displayed an inability to divorce from the antiquated style of play that he has long been loyal to; a style of play that never fit the roster that he was given.
That has changed this year. Maybe it was Matt Pfeffer. Maybe it was the hiring of coaching consultant Craig Ramsay. Maybe it was a swift kick in the pants from the Forum Ghosts. Maybe Therrien simply decided to change his strategies. Whatever it was, thank god it happened, because what we are seeing now it not scratch-your-eyeballs-out hockey, but actually-fun-to-watch hockey.
Therrien is an old-school coach who likes to do things his own way, yet when he was presented with evidence that his way was not the ideal route for his roster, he seems to have changed for the better.
Michel Therrien is not perfect and neither are the Montreal Canadiens, but they seem a lot better then they were a year ago, and mainly because they were willing to change when presented with evidence.