MONTREAL - Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier made a bold move Saturday morning, firing his head coach and personal friend Jacques Martin and replacing him with Randy Cunneyworth.
For Cunneyworth this is his first NHL head coaching position.
"I met Mr. Martin very early this morning," Gauthier said at a news conference Saturday morning. "I can tell you I didn't sleep much last night."
Gauthier said he has been concerned with how the Canadiens had been playing during the past few weeks, a period during which the team has been treading water with a record of 4-4-4 since Nov. 19.
"The primary reason is that the team is not performing as well as it should," Gauthier said. "Especially in the last few weeks, we didn't really know what was coming out of the box, the way we were losing leads and losing games.
Cunneyworth will be taking over behind the bench as interim coach for the remainder of the season, while Larry Carriere, an assistant to Gauthier, will become an assistant coach.
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Carriere has spent nearly 40 years in the NHL as a player, scout and in management, but he has never before held a coaching position in the League.
"Mr Carriere is a very experienced person; he knows our team, he knows the League very well," Gauthier said, while also acknowledging Carriere has never coached at any level before. "I feel he will bring a fresh disposition to the group...if you know him you know that he has a very positive disposition. So I think he can bring that optimism to the group."
Carriere and Cunneyworth also spent six years working together in the Buffalo Sabres organization, Carriere as an assistant GM and Cunneyworth as head coach of their American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester.
Choosing Cunneyworth marks an important departure for the Canadiens organization. Cunneyworth does not speak French. It is the first time in nearly three decades the franchise will not have a head coach that French-speaking fans can watch speaking their language.
It is a sensitive issue in Montreal, and one that has played a role in coaching hires here for years.
"For the moment that's the situation, but that doesn't mean that it can't change," Gauthier said. "Languages can be learned."
When asked about the interim tag next to Cunneyworth's name, Gauthier said it is largely due to the fact that the change is being made midseason.
"We will have a chance to evaluate that in the offseason," Gauthier said. "But we hope we can move forward with this group."
Gauthier himself was hired Feb. 8, 2010 to take over from Bob Gainey after having served as his assistant for four years, a move that team president at the time, Pierre Boivin, said was to assure continuity, but also because Gauthier spoke French.
Boivin said then that no external search was conducted for a GM candidate because there were none available that had experience and who also spoke French.
However, even without that criteria handcuffing Gauthier's ability to act in this situation, he said no external search for a new coach was conducted before hiring Cunneyworth either.
"We didn't do an external search," Gauthier said. "We need to compete immediately."
The Canadiens are a team currently dealing with a significant number of injuries. Star defenseman Andrei Markov has not played all season, underachieving center Scott Gomez has played just 13 games, captain Brian Gionta is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, just to name a few.
Those three players alone represent a shade more than $18 million in salaries.
Factor in that important offensive players like Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri – accounting for another $11 million in salary – have not produced to expectations, and it represents a significant amount of Gauthier's salary structure that is not delivering good value for the dollar.
"It's a team game," Gauthier said. "Sometimes the individual performances of players are linked to how the team is playing."
Gauthier was asked whether he shares some of the responsibility for the season the Canadiens have had thus far.
"I told the players today that we are all responsible for our disappointing performance thus far," he said.
The Canadiens came off the ice Saturday after their first skate under their new head coach preaching the same message – that it was their poor performance as players that cost Martin his job.
"We've been underachieving all season and changes have to be made, but Jacques is not the reason we're not winning games," said leading goal scorer Erik Cole. "It's a good wake-up call that we need to play better."
Gauthier's relationship with Martin dates back to their time together with the Ottawa Senators, where Gauthier served as GM from 1995-98.
Martin, who led the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Final in his first season with Montreal in 2009-10, has been under fire publicly this campaign after the Canadiens got off to a 1-5-2 start, the franchise's worst in 70 years.
The team had managed to stabilize following the firing of longtime Martin assistant Perry Pearn on Oct. 26, a move that preceded a four-game winning streak.
But a pedestrian 5-6-6 record at home has made it difficult for the Canadiens to make much headway in the standings. The Canadiens enter their game Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils with a 13-12-7 record, one that has them 11th in the Eastern Conference and in last place in the Northeast Division.
"The firing of Jacques is a message to us players that the job hasn't been done well enough," said center Lars Eller. "It's not OK to be just OK. We have to be good."
Cunneyworth played more than 800 games in the NHL for six teams, and has been a head coach for two American Hockey League clubs. He was also an assistant at the NHL level for two seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers. He was the coach of Montreal's AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, last season before joining Martin's staff.
The one area Cunneyworth has helped the Canadiens this season is making the use of video more prominent in terms of game preparation and making in-game adjustments between periods, defenseman Josh Gorges said.
Gorges anticipates that with Cunneyworth taking charge, the use of technology may become more emphasized.
However, he was quick to point out that Martin's system – one that focused on forcing turnovers with a trapping style and relying on the counter-attack for offense – was not the problem.
The Canadiens have recently had trouble hanging on to leads in the third period, particularly at the Bell Centre, but Gorges said that was more of a psychological issue than anything else.
"I don't think that was an X-and-O thing," he said. "That came from a false sense of who we are. We got leads against some good teams, and all of a sudden we started thinking we're a first-place team. We would get complacent."
Gionta was asked whether Martin's system – often described as stifling to offensive players – was the reason the team hasn't had any success. He suggested that it was in fact the lack of willingness of everyone to buy into that system that is the root cause of the Canadiens inconsistent season.
"If everybody is not buying into the system," he said, "no matter what the system is, it's not going to work."