The Montreal Canadiens have a unique situation when it comes to coaching. It's not like they just prefer to hire coaches who can speak both French and English, they have to. No, it isn't because a few people protested when Randy Cunneyworth was named interim head coach in December of 2011, it's because the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens essentially functions as the public face of the most revered company in the province. More than that, the Canadiens are a cultural icon.
There will be times when this restriction holds the Canadiens back, but there are a relative wealth of French Canadian coaches with impressive track records, and even without that restriction, having a job opening at the wrong time, there could be very little available.
Instead of wondering if the Canadiens will ever be able to remove the language restriction on coaches, fans should be demanding more foresight from the organization in training future head head coaches for the job. There aren't many things that you can say Bob Gainey was better at than Marc Bergevin, but this may be one.
While Gainey went out and grabbed Guy Boucher as an up-and-coming coach in the QMJHL, and brought him to the Hamilton Bulldogs (Before Pierre Gauthier let him go to Tampa Bay then panicked and fired Jacques Martin anyway the following year), Bergevin has hitched his wagon to Sylvain Lefebvre, who had never been a head coach before he joined the Bulldogs in 2012-13.
Since being hired by Bergevin, Lefebvre led the Bulldogs to three straight losing seasons, missing the playoffs for three straight years for the first time in franchise history. In fact, since the current iteration of the Bulldogs began in 1996, they had never missed the playoffs two straight seasons. On the way to the Franchise folding out of the NHL, they missed the playoffs four straight times.
And it's not like Lefebvre has had a lack of talent. His first year in Hamilton, he had Brendan Gallagher for half the year, along with Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn, Michael Bournival, Patrick Holland, and Morgan Ellis as rookies, all of whom were excellent players in the leagues they graduated from, every single one of which underperformed under Lefebvre. In fact, Gallagher produced at a higher rate in the NHL than in the AHL.
Lefebvre wasn't just handed a bunch of talented rookies and told to win either, as he had veteran help in Gabriel Dumont, Louis Leblanc, Mike Blunden, and Frederic St-Denis. He lost Aaron Palushaj and Blake Geoffrion early in the season, but there was more than enough talent there to make the AHL playoffs, especially with a veteran goalie like Cedrick Desjardins, and later Dustin Tokarski, yet they finished last in the AHL.
The following year the Bulldogs were boosted again by talented graduates in Sven Andrighetto, Magnus Nygren, and Darren Dietz, and veteran free agent Martin St. Pierre, and Christian Thomas in return for Danny Kristo. While Andrighetto had a solid season, Nygren found the situation so intolerable that he went back to Sweden, Dietz and Thomas struggled with injury and underproduced, and Martin St. Pierre went from averaging 62 points his previous two seasons to just 48.
In 2014-15, the Canadiens traded Louis Leblanc, who had gone from promising prospect in his rookie year, to perennial disappointment under Lefebvre, but once again, the Bulldogs gained more than they lost. Graduating to Hamilton were Charles Hudon, Daniel Carr, Jacob de la Rose, and Mac Bennett. Magnus Nygren was lured back, and veteran help was brought in with T.J. Hensick, Eric Tangradi, Drayson Bowman, Davis Drewiske, Jake Dowell, and eventually Bryan Allen. The Bulldogs were one of the most stacked teams in the American Hockey League, yet still they couldn't score, and couldn't win.
Through three seasons with the Bulldogs, Lefebvre has a record of just 96-115-14-13. Even if you're charitable and count the 13 shootout losses as ties, 96-129-13 is a horrendous win/loss record, accumulating just 46% of the possible points on the board, winning just 40.3% of his games.
Excuses and development
Marc Bergevin has brushed off the lack of AHL success as Lefebvre being forced to use Michel Therrien's system, which is an odd thing to say when you're so insistent that Therrien is a great coach. Considering that we know Therrien's system is a disaster, that's a legitimate excuse for Lefebvre's results, but the problem is, the second part of Bergevin's excuse doesn't hold up. Bergevin claims that he's happy with the way Lefebvre has developed prospects, but which ones exactly? Let's go down the list just to be sure.
Louis Leblanc: Completely stagnated under Lefebvre after a promising rookie year, traded and looks like a bust.
Brendan Gallagher: Barely played under Lefebvre, but produced at a higher rate in both points and shots in the NHL than AHL.
Michael Bournival: Was put on the wing for no discernible reason and struggled, was given very little ice time in spite of clearly being one of the best players on the roster. Made the Canadiens out of camp the following year, but has since fallen out of favour.
Patrick Holland: Was put at center for no discernible reason at the same time Bournival was switched to wing. Struggled mightily, took a big step down in year two, and was traded to Winnipeg.
Nathan Beaulieu: Dominated the AHL for parts of three seasons while generally looking bored, has been NHL ready for a long time but held back by the organization. Finally seems to have cracked through, but always seems to struggle after spending time in Hamilton and needs to work his way out of it.
Jarred Tinordi: Has looked NHL ready in essentially every call up, he just needs seasoning at NHL speed, but there has been no discernible improvement from Tinordi in three years. If anything, his game is slowly getting worse as he's encouraged to play more physical, and fight more, leading to injuries.
Greg Pateryn: Stepped seamlessly into the AHL and played three consistent seasons, slowly improving until he seems to have pushed himself into the position of seventh defenseman in the NHL. You could call this a victory for Lefebvre, but it sure looks like natural progression for a 24-year-old.
Morgan Ellis: Consistently impressive to the eye, but struggles to get ice time under Lefebvre, a common healthy scratch, even spent most of last year in the ECHL, before being called up and playing as the #1 defenseman down the stretch, because that makes sense.
Sven Andrighetto: Had a solid rookie season, but didn't improve as a sophomore, actually scored less. Was made a healthy scratch by Lefebvre and reportedly butted heads with the coach.
Magnus Nygren: Fled to Sweden 16 games into his first season, suffered a major concussion 15 games into his second and missed the rest of the season. Has since signed a new contract in Sweden, likely not factoring into the Canadiens' plans again.
Darren Dietz: Went from a goalscoring machine in junior, notching 24 goals his final season, and 39 his final two, to just four goals in 105 AHL games under Lefebvre.
Christian Thomas: Looks fantastic in the NHL, but abysmal in the AHL. Thomas' shot rate skyrocketed in his NHL call up, but even after that when he was sent down, he barely factored for the Bulldogs. Another offensive minded player stagnating under Lefebvre.
Charles Hudon: The great junior scorer was the first prospect in awhile to fully translate his talent to the AHL, coming within a couple points of the AHL rookie scoring lead.
Daniel Carr: An older prospect out of the NCAA, Carr led the Bulldogs in goals in an impressive debut.
Jacob de la Rose: The 19-year-old Swede was the shutdown force for the Bulldogs, and graduated quickly to the NHL. Scored at almost the same rate in the NHL as the AHL.
Mac Bennett: Had an okay rookie season, but underwhelming for an older prospect. Was a frequent healthy scratch early in the season in favour of veteran face-puncher Joe Finley.
I look at this list, which includes some pretty legit prospects, and there are some who've done well and some who haven't, but I don't see a single example of a player overachieving because of AHL coaching or development. It seems like the players who stick in the AHL longest get worse, with the best of the bunch being Gallagher, who got out of there after half a season and dominated in the NHL.
As far as the Canadiens are concerned, there are two questions they need to ask when it comes to the AHL head coaching job.
1. Is this coach doing a great job developing prospects?
The answer to this seems to be, at best, "meh". Even if Lefebvre is doing a mediocre job, which is the best you can surmise from the evidence we have, he's also created a miserable, losing environment.
2. Could this coach be the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens?
Even with having to use Therrien's system, between lineup decisions and the record, there's absolutely zero evidence Lefebvre will ever be cut out to do the highest pressure job in Montreal.
If you can't get a resounding yes to either of these questions, it's time to move on. Whether it's paying Guy Boucher an NHL salary to wait in line and not sign with another NHL team, or scooping up a talented QMJHL coach like Benoit Groulx, the Canadiens need to think ahead.