Sylvain Lefebvre, the head coach of the Laval Rocket, is set to join a very exclusive club. When he takes his position behind the bench for the 400th time on Friday against the Utica Comet at the Place Bell, he will become only the third head coach in the Canadiens’ farm team history to hit the mark.
Lefebvre has been a divisive figure among the fanbase, with few supporting his work in developing the next generation of Canadiens players for the past six seasons. Many point to the multiple losing records, lack of playoff appearances, and the failure to regularly graduate players to the NHL successfully.
Yet Lefebvre continues to have the support of Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, which is probably the only thing that matters in reality. Bergevin says he is satisfied with the work that Lefebvre has done in the uncertain and volatile world of the AHL where rosters are rarely stable, as they were two seasons ago when the Canadiens were dealing with a tremendous rash of injuries. At one point that season, the St. John’s IceCaps were playing with four players on PTOs to make up the gap between their contracted pros and several junior-aged players one season away from being able to join the AHL team.
Obviously a career win percentage of 43.4% does not show very well without perspective, but here are the five longest-tenured Habs farm team head coaches.
Lefebvre’s record is in range of everyone except the man at the top of the list, which goes to show that the metrics for success at the farm team are perhaps not always the same as with the main team.
Only two other head coaches have had longer tenures than Lefebvre at the helm of the Habs farm team: Al MacNeil and Paulin Bordeleau.
Al MacNeil began coaching the Montreal Canadiens’ primary farm team back in 1968 with the CHL Houston Apollos as a player-coach, coming off of an NHL career and transitioning into coaching. He moved with the team to Montreal when the Voyageurs opened up shop at the start of the 1969-70 season.
MacNeil was briefly promoted to head coach of the Montreal Canadiens to replace Claude Ruel, and won the Stanley Cup in 1971. However a public fallout with superstar player Henri Richard led to MacNeil resigning as Canadiens head coach and returning to coach the now-defunct Nova Scotia Voyageurs for an additional six seasons, winning three Calder Cups along the way to becoming the single most successful farm team coach for the Montreal Canadiens.
MacNeil was lucky enough to coach some of the brightest future stars of the Montreal Canadiens through their first professional steps, including Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, Guy Lapointe, Bob Gainey, and Steve Shutt. MacNeil was promoted up to the Canadiens to serve as Director of Player Personnel for the 1977-78 season, ultimately resigning to take over as head coach of the Atlanta Flames in 1979. He still works in pro hockey these days as an amateur scout for the Calgary Flames, a management career that will hit the 50 year mark next season.
Paulin Bordeleau was head coach of the Fredericton Canadiens from 1990 to 1997, bringing up numerous players for the 1993 Stanley Cup victory for the Montreal Canadiens, including Benoit Brunet, Gilbert Dionne, Turner Stevenson, Paul Dipietro, and Jesse Belanger.
As a result of the talent drain that season, the Fredericton Canadiens missed the AHL playoffs for only the second time in the farm teams history, the first being the 1985-86 season when the Montreal Canadiens also drained the minor-league club to win the Stanley Cup in.
Bordeleau was also able to prepare a whole litany of players who would go on to have long NHL careers: Oleg Petrov, Donald Brashear, Brian Savage, Craig Conroy, Darcy Tucker, and Craig Rivet to name a few. The team missed the playoffs for a second time in 1997 under his guidance, after which his contract was not renewed by General Manager Réjean Houle.
The two were at odds over Bordeleau’s decision to suit up for the Fredericton Canadiens as a player at age 44 as the team was short on players due to call-ups to Montreal; a decision that Bordeleau took without consulting the beleaguered GM. In his return game, nine years after retiring, Bordeleau got two assists and received the first star of the game.
“I told him I would prefer to not see him in uniform again,” said an unamused Houle when asked about it the following day, but Bordeleau played two more games, adding a goal and an assist to his stat line before retiring as a player for good. The team never won a Calder Cup under Bordeleau’s watch, but did make it to the finals in 1995, losing in four straight games to the Albany River Rats.