When Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier announced the firing of coach Jacques Martin on Dec. 17, the team was 13-12-7 and sitting 11th in the Eastern Conference.
Almost four months later, Gauthier no longer is with the club, which will finish last in the conference this season. The team is 17-23-9 for interim coach Randy Cunneyworth and will finish 15th in the Eastern Conference regardless of what happens in the season finale Saturday against the Maple Leafs. However, Martin is finding no joy in the team's failings since he was let go.
"It's unfortunate. You don't like to see a team that you're associated with lose," Martin said. "We're in the business of winning and I had the opportunity to build some relationships with some of the players in my two-and-a-half years here. I firmly believed we were going to make the playoffs. But I think injuries have been a big factor in their season this year."
Of all of Martin's relationships with the team, few were as long-standing as the one he enjoyed with the man who replaced him.
The situation clearly wasn't ideal, but Martin was excited for Cunneyworth, who served as his captain when Martin coached the Ottawa Senators and as a coach with the Rochester Americans, who at the time were an AHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers when Martin was the team's coach and GM. With Gauthier's firing and the team's losing record with him in charge, questions remain about whether Cunneyworth will return next season.
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Martin doesn't think Cunneyworth has been on the job long enough for an accurate review of his ability.
"It's half a season. I don’t think it's fair to evaluate his coaching ability," Martin told NHL.com. "He's had tremendous experience in the American Hockey League and worked as an assistant coach before in the NHL. It's an opportunity for him. It wasn't an ideal situation [for me], but sometimes you don't always control that."
Regardless of who the coach of the Canadiens is at the start of the 2012-13 season, Martin sees a shot at redemption for a club that led the League in man-games lost to injury while also seeing the emergence of a strong first line featuring David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. All three forwards reached the 60-point mark this season, just the second time that has happened for the Canadiens since the 1996-97 season. With the team guaranteed a top-five pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, their first since they selected Carey Price at No. 5 in 2005, Martin sees a club that could be competitive again sooner rather than later.
"I think last year we were a team that improved," Martin said. "We improved to 96 points and then we lost in seven games to Boston, who eventually won the Stanley Cup. We had several injuries to deal with, so I thought we were in the right direction in terms of improving the hockey team. Like any other club, there are moves to be made, but it's not a rebuilding process."
The process of rebounding from a disappointing season in Montreal will begin with finding a replacement for Gauthier, who was fired March 29. On the eve of the team's season finale Saturday against Toronto (7 p.m. ET, CBC), speculation in Montreal has been rampant as to who Gauthier's replacement might be. Still employed by the Habs as a scout and consultant, Martin wouldn't comment publicly on the team's search for a new GM, but he wouldn't shy away from listing his own qualifications for the job.
"I'm still employed by the club and I've been around the League for 26 years, so time will tell."