Who should be next Habs coach?
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Who should the Montreal Canadiens hire as their next head coach?
Scott Burnside: Bonjour, Pierre. Le gateau est sur la table. That means, "Hello, Pierre. The cake is on the table." Pretty good segue into a discussion of the Montreal Canadiens, no?
Never a dull moment with the Habs, from mobsters to party monsters to benched superstars to -- oh, yeah -- the team's 100th anniversary. And now, a new coach, as GM Bob Gainey threw his old pal Guy Carbonneau under the bus earlier this week. That move has sparked debate, not so much about how the team will fare under Gainey (we suspect average, given its tepid efforts in the two games since he took over), but about who will take over behind the bench next season. And oh, the names that have popped up: Patrick Roy, Mario Tremblay, Michel Therrien, Bob Hartley. Has anyone called Scotty Bowman yet? So, what do you think, mon ami?
Pierre LeBrun: Scotty, I get so excited when you try to speak French. But yes, those are the names that have been bandied about in the French media. Let's start with Roy (currently the coach and part-owner of the major junior Quebec Remparts), because, let's face it, what a story that would be. We asked him directly about the Canadiens' coaching job Thursday, when we spoke to him about Martin Brodeur closing in on his all-time wins record:
"I'm very happy where I am right now," Roy told ESPN.com. "This is where my focus is as we speak. The future we don't know. But right now, I'm really happy and I enjoy every minute of what we're doing. We're in a middle of a good run right now. The playoffs will start next Friday. It's something that we look forward to. There was close to 400,000 people that came to our games this year. It's amazing what's going on here in Quebec City and the support that we have from our fans. It's something that's very, very special right now. I'm really enjoying this."
But we pressed on, just to make sure. Would it be too tough to leave the good times with the Remparts and make the jump to the NHL?
"It's a good question and a tough question to answer," said Roy. "There was a time when I said 'No' to that question, but you never know. You should always keep the door open I guess, but, as we speak, my focus is right here. It would be tough for me to move, but you never know."
Well, that wasn't a yes or a no, but likely very much the genuine truth from him. He loves what he's doing in junior, but I think it's clear that if the Habs phoned him this summer, he'd have to give it some serious thought. Would you call him?
Burnside: I'd call St. Patrick just for the spectacle of him returning to Montreal as coach. Could he be an NHL coach? Could he be worse than when Tremblay took over and ended up having to ship Roy to Colorado? I think it's interesting that Tremblay's name has come up. I can't see Montreal as a place where you get a do-over, especially given how things turned out for him the first time. I think Therrien has a better chance at a second shot, given his success with a talented, young Penguins team. And this Habs team promises to be even younger next season with the expected departure of aging free agents. Personally, I think Hartley would be a nice fit. Do you think the Habs would ever consider a non-Francophone?
LeBrun: First of all, I think Roy would indeed be a great NHL coach. He's done a really good job in junior and learned the ropes, unlike Tremblay, who went from the broadcast booth to the NHL bench. Apples and oranges, my friend. I think if Roy wants it and the Habs want him, it will work.
Since his flameout behind the Montreal bench, however, Tremblay has paid his dues as the assistant to Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota. So he obviously would be better equipped this time around. However, he declined our interview request through a Wild spokesman Thursday. Hartley politely declined to comment when reached by ESPN.com, saying he wanted the focus to be on the Canadiens' playoff race. Therrien said this when we called him: "I'm hungry to get back behind the bench for sure, but I have no comment on the situation in Montreal." The topic is such a hot potato in Quebec that most candidates want to stay out of it for now. What does that tell you?
Burnside: Well, the politicking to elect a pope looks like a straw poll compared to the back-room lobbying that will go on before Gainey makes his decision -- assuming he doesn't lead the Habs to the Cup and stay on as coach. No one wants to say the wrong thing or offend anyone or appear out of line at this stage of the game. The Habs routinely have gone with coaches who have no NHL head coaching experience in recent years -- Carbonneau, Therrien, Claude Julien, Alain Vigneault -- and I wonder whether they'll want to reverse that trend. That would point more to a guy like Hartley or Therrien. I ask again, do you think they would ever go to an Anglophone like Pat Quinn?
LeBrun: I don't think so. Given the depth of French-speaking coaches, I don't think Gainey or the Habs' front office would risk that kind of public controversy. Gainey himself said this week that it would be preferable if the next coach were bilingual. For our American readers who might not understand all the fuss, you have to understand that the Canadiens aren't just the most popular team in the province of Quebec; they also are a political and religious symbol for the French-speaking population. The pride and passion of the French-Canadian populace are intertwined with the hockey franchise. Hence, the delicate decision in replacing Carbonneau.
But back to the candidates. Therrien, I think, did an outstanding job in Pittsburgh, taking what was the worst defensive team in the league when he got there and getting it to play two-way hockey all the way to the Cup finals last season. The poor guy got Sergei Gonchar back for only one game this season before getting canned and certainly never saw Chris Kunitz or Bill Guerin. It's hard to argue with what Pens GM Ray Shero has done, since the team is on fire right now, but I would argue the Pens also would be on fire with Therrien, given the improved roster.
But would the Habs believe enough time has passed for his return? Like Paul Maurice in Carolina? As for Hartley, who is in the awkward position of working for the French sports TV network in Montreal right now while all this is going on, he'd be an excellent candidate. A Stanley Cup champion in Colorado who helped nurture young stars like Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay. I think the Habs would be wise to consider him.
Burnside: What do you think about having a former Habs player, whether Tremblay or Carbonneau, behind the bench? Do you think it would be almost too hard to separate yourself from the mystique of being a Hab in Montreal and the job of coaching there? I think, just for fun, the Habs should hire Peter Laviolette. He doesn't speak French and he's American. OK, just kidding. What about Gainey, though? If the Habs manage to right the ship -- again, a long shot given they were booed off the ice Thursday night -- do you think he'd consider staying behind the bench, and, if so, would that be a good thing?
LeBrun: Interesting you should ask that question. I spoke to someone this week who knows Gainey (half the league knows him, so that's not really saying much), and he said it was his gut feeling that Gainey would in fact stay behind the bench next season and that the move to bring Don Lever up from the AHL was Gainey beginning to assemble his staff. I was surprised to hear that from someone I consider a real good hockey source. There is also other buzz in Montreal indicating Gainey may have brought Lever up as somewhat of an audition for a head-coaching spot. Problem is, Lever doesn't speak French. O mon dieu!
But, if you ask me, either way, I still think Gainey will hire a coach. It's too much to do both jobs, even though he's pretty well supported by Pierre Gauthier and Julien Brisebois in the front office. There's one guy we didn't mention -- what if Jacques Lemaire leaves the Wild after this season? That's been the rumor all year long. Could he stomach a return to Montreal? He left because he couldn't stand the media glare. It's only worse now!
Burnside: Well, with all due respect to Lemaire and, by extension, Tremblay, the track record in Minnesota hasn't been exactly stellar, has it? One playoff year with any success (2003), and the Wild are going to be playing for life or death to make the playoffs this season. Can't imagine that's a good fit, other than the fact that Lemaire is a former Habs great. Wonder whether external pressures -- the language, the reverence given many former Habs players -- skew what is a straight-on hockey decision in most other markets. The fact that the team might willingly ignore a more qualified candidate simply because he doesn't speak French seems counterintuitive for one of the great sports organizations. So, before we go, your best guess right now? Me, I am going to go with my Atlanta pal, Hartley.
LeBrun: Hartley would be a great hire. I'll go with St. Patrick. There's a little Hollywood in me, and just judging from his tone in our interview, even though he said he loves what he currently is doing, I just have this feeling that he would jump at the chance to coach the CH. Here's hoping he'll remember to pull his starting goalie if Montreal is down 9-1 to Detroit. Talk to you next week, buddy.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Neither writer is rumored to coach any hockey team.