As it currently stands, Alex Semin has been a healthy scratch against the Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders; ever since the team put up a miserable effort against the Edmonton Oilers.
Because it's the Montreal Canadiens, this roster decision has caused quite a stir. Some of the fan base is hollering for his return, others want Therrien fired, and still others want to know why, with a 12-2-1 record, anyone cares about a handful of bad games and a healthy scratch.
Here's the thing though: none of the frustrated Habs fans want the coach fired at the start of a 15-game-old season where their team has gone 12-2-1. They want change because the lineup decisions, comments, and sometimes even game play mark a return to a familiar theme from which most of the first nine games of the season had happily deviated: coaching decisions that haven't improved — or worked — for more than three years.
In a vacuum, switching Brian Flynn, Devante Smith-Pelly, or Paul Byron in for Semin isn't the end of the world, or even a big deal. As a player with supposed motivational issues, and only three points to his name on a line that dazzled the world in the pre-season, one could even say it makes sense in some ways.
But there are several attendant circumstances that raise very large red flags. Therrien made two particularly concerning comments after the morning skate in Edmonton, and another one before the Senators game.
For a player who needs to "keep pace" with his team, Semin does an excellent job being exactly where he needs to be. Our own Jack Han broke down just how well Semin is able to read plays and cover for his teammates. Moreover, he was fourth in the league in loose-puck recoveries in the offensive zone, which seems to argue against him being slow. At least not problematically so.
Maybe the 31-year-old Semin isn't as speedy as Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk, but he doesn't often find himself out of position, which ultimately is more valuable than whether or not he looks like he's "keeping pace," or "working hard."
At the time Semin was scratched, the Galchenyuk line was suffering from terrible puck luck, while the rest of the team was scoring on a goofy amount of shots, but Semin was fourth on the team in shot attempts. That kind of bad luck doesn't last forever, and the line was still a dangerous offensive presence. Eller was on pace for more than twenty goals, and Galchenyuk was on pace for 50-plus points. Though Semin wasn't quite on pace for such excellent numbers himself, he was a big part of that line's success, and his absence has coincided with a significant drop in possession and production.
The Semin situation is troublingly reminiscent of Eller's treatment — past and present — for which there has never publicly appeared to be a good reason. Even worse, it's exactly the same treatment Jiri Sekac and P.A. Parenteau received, which led to the squandering of potentially potent scoring help; an established pattern in Therrien's tenure.
Scratching Semin for a second consecutive game immediately after the awful performance versus Edmonton makes it even harder to defend Therrien's lineup decisions. Especially when baffling deployment led to Alexei Emelin and the Desharnais line being deployed together in the last minute of a tied game. The resulting game-winning goal against could be seen coming a mile off.
The Habs returned to their former dominant play versus Ottawa, but the ice time of the forwards remained odd, with Desharnais leading all forwards with 18 minutes of ice time, Weise with 17, and Fleischmann a more reasonable 15. Galchenyuk barely hit 15, and Eller and Smith-Pelly were around 13 and 12, respectively, despite having about three-quarters of the even-strength possession events go in their favour.
The situation was even worse against the Islanders. The Galchenyuk line, despite playing a strong game, played less than every other line on the team (not exactly conducive to developing the chemistry needed to provide offense), with Therrien electing to play Desharnais' trio versus John Tavares' line with the benefit of the last change on home ice.
Finally, the Habs are getting a lot of their winning with lucky scoring, mostly from the over-used Desharnais line, and are barely getting by in just about every stat other than those put up by the goaltenders. Which means that once that line's offense falls back down to Earth, the team is going to struggle, just as it did last year when Carey Price had to save them nearly every game.
That's not how a legitimate contender should be handled. In the last two years, Marc Bergevin has given Therrien the pieces to build a contender, and this team has shown that they are capable of playing a dominant, all-around game. However, when they show the hints of struggling offensively, instead of sticking to the systems that make them a strong team, they go right back to confounding lineup decisions and a less-optimal playing style.
Having the lion's share of the team's goals coming from role players that are getting breathtakingly lucky is a heck of a lot of fun, but it's not sustainable, and when push comes to shove in the playoffs, and your team's luck runs out, there's nothing to fall back on. That's exactly what the Flames discovered last year, and what the Colorado Avalanche experienced in the post-season the year before that.
The Habs are still a very good team, and some of that is down to Therrien, and there are things that have changed for the better, including more focus on controlled zone entries. But this year's team, consistently playing a more efficient system, and with better line deployment, could be more than very good. They could be great. And that's the source of frustration.
The' record is remarkable, but the team is a world-class machine capable of leaving its competition in the dust, and the man at the wheel doesn't seem to know how to drive in top gear.