Commentary

Tough Therrien proving to be right balance for young Pens

Updated: April 28, 2008, 11:55 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Trying to determine whether an NHL coach is good or not is a bit of a mug's game.

It depends an awful lot on the tools he's got in his toolbox. Coaches are often considered top notch if they get more out of less. Just as often, players don't like a coach, yet those players sometimes end up with Stanley Cup rings as did players who toiled, often unhappily, for Scotty Bowman, Ken Hitchcock, Mike Keenan and Bob Hartley.

There is a similar sandpaper-tough veneer to Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien.

[+] EnlargeMichel Therrien
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMichel Therrien has led the Penguins to two straight postseason appearances after the team finished last in the East in 2005-06.

Just take his view on dirty dishes.

After dinner, Therrien, a single parent, does not get angry if his two teenage children don't take their dishes to the dishwasher when he asks. Not the second time or the third or even the fourth time he reminds them of their duties.

"The fifth time, I'm going to say, 'That's enough, you're going to stay in your room and no PlayStation,'" Therrien told ESPN.com on Monday. "Coaching is about the same."

But when it comes to his on-ice "kids," Therrien is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Because the Penguins are blessed with a handful of the game's most talented players, the coach's role in the team's successes will always be undersold. "Ah, anyone could coach those guys," the radio call-in guys will suggest. But if the team falters, the blame will fall squarely on Therrien's shoulders.

"I'm not afraid to make changes and keep the players on their toes, too," Therrien said. "To be a Stanley Cup champion, it's demanding."

He's trying to teach his players that.

"They're young. They could easily lose their focus because they're young," Therrien said.

So he's on them. Constantly.

In terms of learning the system and putting in the effort to make the system work, Therrien said, "I'm really strict with these young kids. But I got their back. They know that."

Therrien's decisions have already been met with raised eyebrows in this second-round series against the New York Rangers. Before Game 1, Therrien reshuffled his defensive pairings, moving Hal Gill with Rob Scuderi and placing Ryan Whitney with Kris Letang. After giving up three goals early in Game 1, the Pens have allowed just one in almost five periods of action and hold a 2-0 series lead with Game 3 set for Tuesday night in New York.

Before Sunday's game, veteran Gary Roberts told Therrien he was pretty close to being ready after missing three games with a groin injury. Roberts wanted a little bit of time to decide, but because the game was an afternoon contest, Therrien didn't want to wait. He didn't think it would be fair to Adam Hall not to know whether he was going to play or not, so Therrien told Roberts to take another day. That takes courage because having Roberts in the lineup -- a healthy Roberts -- makes the Penguins better.

But Therrien wanted all his players in the lineup to be thinking about the game. In the end, Hall was on the ice for the final seconds of Game 2 at the end of a Rangers power play and banked in the empty-net goal in the Pens' 2-0 victory.

We often talk about teams maturing or playing with confidence in the playoffs. Coaches, too. Therrien is one of them.

The 44-year-old native of Montreal was one of the youngest coaches in the NHL when he took over behind the bench of the NHL's most storied franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, during the 2000-01 season.

"I didn't know much about the NHL other than watching the games on TV," Therrien admitted. "But coaching that team, it's like going to Harvard University. When you're done, you know you're ready."

Therrien's education in Montreal lasted 190 regular-season games and 12 more in the postseason. Then-Penguins GM Craig Patrick hired him to take over the Penguins' AHL team in Wilkes-Barre. Then, when Ed Olczyk was fired 31 games into the 2005-06 season, Therrien faced an uphill battle.

The squad he inherited was filled with overpaid, underachieving players, and Therrien rustled feathers by implementing a boot-camp mentality and publicly questioning their effort.

"I did it the hard way," he said. "I tried to change the culture there. I tried to change lots of things."

That summer Patrick was out and Ray Shero took over, and the theory was Therrien would be on a short leash given that he wasn't Shero's guy. But Therrien, who had coached many of the young Penguins in Wilkes-Barre, where the team had success, guided the Penguins to a stunning 104-point campaign, a 47-point improvement over the previous season, and a wholly unexpected berth in the playoffs.

"No one was expecting that, not even us," Therrien said.

The Pens were knocked out in five games by the powerful Ottawa Senators, but when the current season began, the expectations had risen appreciably. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Penguins didn't roar out of the gate, but rather muddled along with an 8-11-2 through the first quarter of the season.

"We didn't start smoothly at all. It wasn't easy. I had to make adjustments," Therrien said.

There was grumbling that Therrien might be in trouble and some criticism about his propensity for juggling lines. Not that Therrien pays any interest to the criticism.

"Honestly, I don't pay too much attention to that. That's the market. That's the way it is here," he said. "There's a saying: It's not how you drive, but how you arrive."

When the Penguins lost starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury in early December with a high-ankle sprain and Sidney Crosby the next month with a similar injury, the pressure on Therrien grew as did the whispers that maybe he was in trouble.

One of the first things he did after Crosby went down was talk to Evgeni Malkin, along with Sergei Gonchar acting as an interpreter. Therrien told Malkin he didn't want the young forward to try and do too much; he just wanted him to play his game, even though there was going to be more pressure on him in Crosby's absence. The talk worked as Malkin went on a tear, finishing second in league scoring, and the Penguins soared with him to capture the Atlantic Division crown.

Petr Sykora, a veteran who's played for coaches of varying personalities and demeanors, from Larry Robinson in New Jersey to Mike Babcock in Anaheim to Craig MacTavish in Edmonton, was asked about Therrien.

"Oh, don't put me on the spot," he said half-jokingly.

But Sykora is a perfect example of a player who had to earn Therrien's trust. After spending much of the first quarter of the season playing on the team's third line, he has meshed nicely playing on the wing with Malkin and has four goals in six games this postseason.

"He's a tough coach," Sykora said. "It took me some time to prove myself here. I don't blame him. I would have done the same thing as a coach. Now, I feel that I'm part of the structure. I'm just very happy that I think I proved to Mike that he can rely on me in a lot of situations."

Therrien knows coaching isn't forever, it's for now; but he has settled into a nice groove in Pittsburgh.

His kids like it, and this summer, instead of returning to Montreal for summer vacation, they'll remain in Pittsburgh.

As for Therrien's other kids, the ones in the dressing room, as long as they keep playing hockey in May and beyond, we doubt he'll have to ask them more than once to put their dishes in the dishwasher.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.