MONTREAL (AP) -Jacques Martin was ready to go. After all, the Montreal Canadiens were calling.
He was hired as the Canadiens' coach Monday, leaving his job as Florida Panthers general manager for a storied NHL franchise that was swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Martin, introduced at Bell Centre news conference, said his fourth NHL coaching job was a "tremendous opportunity."
"When you look at the players who are in the organization, there is a strong nucleus, a strong base, to build a winning team and I'm really looking forward with excitement to leading this team next year."
The 56-year-old Martin replaces Montreal GM Bob Gainey behind the bench. Gainey took over after firing Guy Carbonneau on March 9.
This is the first time the Canadiens have hired a coach with previous NHL coaching experience since Jacques Demers was fired four games into the 1995-96 season.
"It was a priority for me that we find a head coach that had seen a lot of situations," Gainey said. "We love Montreal as a marketplace, if that's the right word, but it comes with the demands and expectations and pressures. And I think Jacques has already proven that's well within his capacity to handle not only the coaching but the environment in Montreal."
Martin has been the Panthers' GM the past three seasons and coached the team from 2004 to 2008. He also coached St. Louis and Ottawa and was coach of the year in 1999 with the Senators. He has a career record of 517-406-119 for a .551 winning percentage.
Martin praised the Detroit Red Wings as an example of the two-way style of play he espouses.
"When I started with Ottawa I was categorized as a defensive coach and when I left, the last five years in Ottawa we had one of the highest-scoring teams," Martin said. "I really believe when you have the puck, you're on offense, and when you don't have the puck, you're on defense."
Martin also grew up in Canada, a fact the Panthers found hard to ignore when Montreal asked to speak with him about 10 days ago.
"I'm sure it's almost every young kid's dream to coach the Canadiens or play for the Canadiens," Panthers president Michael Yormark said. "Clearly Jacques was interested."
Martin's deal with Florida runs through the 2011-12 season. Yormark said NHL rules stipulate the Canadiens do not have to compensate the Panthers.
"Is it the ideal situation? No," Yormark said. "But there was a window of opportunity whereby the Canadiens needed to act on their head coaching position. We felt this is something that we had to let Jacques pursue."
Montreal is the second team to hire a coach in less than a week, following Pat Quinn at Edmonton.
Carbonneau's dismissal was part of a season that began with Stanley Cup hopes but ended with a first-round playoff ouster by Boston. Montreal had a strong first half, but its season unraveled amid injuries and the coaching change.
Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins were among several Canadiens to struggle this season, along with brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, defenseman Ryan O'Byrne and goaltender Carey Price.
Finding a new coach was one of Gainey's main offseason tasks. The other will be to decide on 10 unrestricted and four restricted free agents.
Those free to go on the open market are Alex Kovalev, captain Saku Koivu, winger Alex Tanguay, center Robert Lang, checking forward Tom Kostopoulos and defensemen Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon, Mathieu Dandenault, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Schneider.
"Just putting the head coach in place now allows me to go and speak more clearly to some of the players who are under contract to us, who we still have a month to address and see if we can sign them," Gainey said.
Cohen thanked Martin and said a search for a new GM will begin immediately. Martin became the Panthers' GM in 2006. He was stripped of his coaching duties in April 2008, but had a hand in selecting successor Pete DeBoer.
"I got a guy that on a day-to-day basis really supported me and gave me room to make my own decisions but also had some great advice at key times for me," DeBoer said. "I can tell you that you don't just stop coaching after 20, 25 years of coaching and it leaves your blood. I think it's always going to be in your blood."
But, DeBoer also said he had no indication that Martin wanted to return to the bench.
"I'm not sure I saw it coming," DeBoer said. "I think he really threw himself into the GM role."
Bill Torrey, Florida's first team president, will lead the Panthers' GM search. Torrey helped build the 1995-96 Panthers team that reached the Stanley Cup finals. He spent 20 years with the Islanders, helping form the team that won four Stanley Cups (1980-83).
He and Florida assistant GM Randy Sexton will work together until a replacement is selected. Torrey was vague when asked what he sought in the next GM.
"It's not just one type or one person," he said. "It's the best all-around individual - the one that brings the most to the table - that we're going to bring here as quickly as we can."
Associated Press Writer Sarah Larimer in Miami contributed to this report.