Montreal's long search for a new coach brought the storied franchise back to a familiar face, with Michel Therrien getting a second chance to run his hometown team more than nine years after he was ousted from the position.
Therrien's re-hiring isn't the kind of move that will elicit a lot of excitement from the fan base, though they may be placated a bit by the fact that he at least speaks French after the uproar caused last season when Anglophone Randy Cunneyworth was named the interim coach. And Therrien isn't a bad choice, especially within the self-imposed constraints the Canadiens were dealing with in largely limiting the pool to bilingual applicants.
When the Canucks extended Alain Vigneault's deal despite Vancouver's first-round ouster this spring, the Habs were denied a chance of landing perhaps a more attractive retread, though it is perhaps fitting that Therrien would return to Montreal only after Vigneault was once again out of the picture. Therrien's first stint in Montreal began in November 2000 when he replaced Vigneault, who had coached Montreal for three-plus seasons.
With Bob Hartley filling the opening in Calgary last week, the Canadiens didn't have a lot of options left. It came down to Therrien, former Colorado, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Dallas coach Marc Crawford, who had learned enough French to take part of his interview in that language, and former Canadiens great Patrick Roy, whose fiery disposition left open the question of how serious his candidacy really was.
With those choices, Therrien appears about as safe a choice as new general manager Marc Bergevin could make. Therrien is the type of taskmaster who has a limited shelf life, as his short stints in both Montreal and Pittsburgh reveal. His approach may not be able to take a team all the way, but he does have a track record of leading floundering clubs back to respectability and competitiveness.
After finishing dead last in the East and 28th overall in the NHL last season, the Canadiens would be more than happy with a quick climb back to respectability.
Therrien's teams were definitely competitive in his first go-round in Montreal. In his only full season with the Canadiens in 2001-02, he guided them to the playoffs after a three-year postseason drought. And as the eighth seed in the East, Therrien's Habs stunned top-seeded Boston in six games in the opening round before falling in the second round to eventual Eastern Conference champ Carolina. Montreal's victory over the Bruins was just the Canadiens' second series win since their last Cup in 1993.
That series was marked by bad blood after Bruins defenseman Kyle McLaren leveled Richard Zednik with a controversial hit late in Boston's 5-2 win in Game 4 to even the series. Therrien vowed revenge and even called up minor-league tough guy Matt O'Dette, but did not dress him as the Canadiens won the next two games to take the series without further incident. Still, after a relatively tame season series between the ancient rivals last year, Therrien's return, and the aggressive style of play his teams favor, could spice up the rivalry once again.
Therrien will have bigger issues than settling old scores though as he tries to dig the Habs out of a hole once again after last year's disaster. There are pieces in place for him to work with in Tomas Plekanec, Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta up front, but the club still needs to sign key restricted free agents Carey Price and P.K. Subban.
"It is my intention to bring back, intensity, pride and discipline," Therrien said at his introductory news conference on Tuesday.
That won't be an easy task. The Habs are handcuffed with the cap-killing deals of underperforming forward Scott Gomez ($7.36 million through 2013-14) and defenseman Tomas Kaberle ($4.25 million through 2013-14), plus oft-injured defenseman Andrei Markov ($5.75 million through 2013-14).
Still, Therrien has experience beyond his brief first stint behind the Habs bench to call upon. He's actually coached exactly 1,000 pro games with a nearly even split between the NHL (499) and the AHL (501). He hasn't run a team since he was fired by the Penguins during the 2008-09 season, but he's stayed involved in the game as a scout with the Minnesota Wild and as a television analyst.
His time in Pittsburgh ended abruptly, but he did enjoy success there. He was hired in December 2005 after leading the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to a 21-1-2-1 start. Therrien couldn't get things back on track in Pittsburgh that season, but engineered an amazing turnaround the following year as the Penguins went from a last-place finish with 58 points to a 105-point campaign.
Therrien was a Jack Adams finalist as coach of the year that season, and led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007-08. But his hard-nosed approach eventually wore thin and his message no longer resonated quite so strongly, eventually leading to his ouster and replacement by Dan Bylsma, who took the Penguins to their first Cup in 17 years that spring.
Therrien will attempt a similar turnaround in Montreal, and even if his approach still may not be conducive to sticking around to seeing the rebuilding process all the way through, he might be able to get Montreal moving the right direction again.