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End of an error: The Montreal Canadiens finally make changes at the minor-league level

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The dismissal of Sylvain Lefebvre is the first step toward righting the ship in the AHL.

Club de hockey Canadien, Inc.

After six years on the job and just one playoff series to show for it, Sylvain Lefebvre has been relieved of his duties as the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate. With a record well below .500, Lefebvre guided his clubs to a combined record of 188-210-37-21 and a single playoff appearance, in which the St. John’s IceCaps lost 3-1 against the Syracuse Crunch.

In the interest of fairness, this season’s disaster cannot be blamed solely on the man at the helm, as his assistant coaches failed to live up to their expectations, and a rash of injuries throughout the organization crippled the club.

However, it’s impossible to ignore six years’ worth of results — or lack thereof — so it’s now time for a new regime in the AHL. There have been a number of questionable events that have taken place under Lefebvre’s watch, and when you take a look at his team’s overall performance, many questions about his coaching style arise.

Andrew Zadarnowski

The above chart offers a stark view of how poorly things have gone for the Habs’ AHL clubs over the last six years. Even with the advent of the loser point, they still barely managed two seasons with more wins than regulation losses, making the playoffs in just one of them.

Even if the front office was happy with how the development path was progressing, you cannot ignore the pure fact that this team just did not win games. This past year saw the Laval Rocket finish dead last in the AHL despite having one of the highest-producing defencemen in the league on their roster and the man who won the AHL scoring title play the entire year in Laval. It’s simply inexcusable.

Watching a team that for several years relied on a system consisting of dumping the puck around the boards and hoping someone like Charles Hudon or Chris Terry could make a play on the puck was maddening. The players were capable of so much more, as we saw when they were given the time to carry the puck and learn from their mistakes instead of being benched.

Teams like the Toronto Marlies are able to adjust to injuries and call-ups on the fly because their system works the same at every level. Calling up a player from the Marlies to the Leafs isn’t a cause for panic because the adjustment period is made easier by having a system in place that works to the players’ strengths.

As divisional rivals, the Rocket and the Marlies faced each other a lot this season, and even if players like Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen were missing, their replacements were able to step in and perform the same job with ease. The Rocket weren’t able to do that, and players were forced into roles well above their punching weight. You can’t have David Broll in your top six and expect anything other than abject failure.

The handling of prospects also left much to be desired at times. Admittedly, some of Lefebvre’s teams were not loaded with high-end talent, but in the last few years he had more than enough to get the team over the hump, but fell short.

There was the year where leading scorer Sven Andrighetto was made a healthy scratch in order to “learn some things about the pro game.” Without their Swiss sniper, the Hamilton Bulldogs collapsed like a house of cards in the wind.

Morgan Ellis was sent to the ECHL for the better part of a year, while Bobby Shea and Joe Finley received regular ice time for Lefebvre. Between the duo of Finley and Shea, they combined for one goal and seven assists. In an end-of-season call-up, Ellis had three goals and six assists before being named an AHL all-star the following year.

There was the extremely strange treatment of Nikita Scherbak who, despite injuries, showed a ton of promise and just needed a stable development plan to grow into a potential star. Instead, he was forced to centre the top line for the IceCaps. When he struggled in that position, he was demoted to centring the fourth line where he predictably struggled once again, and was then benched as a result.

At no point in his career had Scherbak been a centre. If the plan was to teach him better defensive responsibility, the plan should have been to work with him, not force him to learn it in a new position. Above all else, don’t humiliate a star player by refusing to scratch him, then bench him for the entirety of the game’s opening period, only to play him later in the game because his talents are needed in a game you’re now trailing. That’s neither good coaching nor development.

Few NHL-ready players came through the system, with only Nathan Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn, and Andrighetto etablished as NHL regulars. Charles Hudon looks like he’ll be another one turning out well, as will Scherbak in the end, though those players had overwhelming talent going in that could have simply overcome the poor system.

Michael McCarron’s rookie professional season showed a lot of promise after an OHL stint, but his game has regressed significantly. With most of his time being spent in the AHL, that blame has to shift in large part to those in charge of his development.

By all accounts, and from personal experience, Lefebvre is a good person, but after a certain point it becomes obvious that things just aren’t working out. Quite honestly, that point was two years ago when the IceCaps missed the playoffs; the fourth straight year under Lefebvre where the AHL club didn’t qualify for post-season play. It’s up in the air as to whether the assistant coaches will remain, but wiping the slate clean should be the way to go.

It’s the end of a long error in the AHL, and with several quality candidates looking to take their first steps into the professional coaching ranks, a brighter future lies ahead in Laval.