BROSSARD, Que. - Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier has apologized for offending some of the team's fans and promised there will be a French-speaking coach behind the bench next season.
Perhaps looking to head off planned protests by some Quebec nationalist groups and an on-going controversy in the media, Gauthier made an apology on Monday for making Randy Cunneyworth the club's first unilingual English-speaking coach in 40 years after he fired Jacques Martin on Dec. 15.
"We're disappointed and we're sorry if we offended anybody by hiring someone who is not bilingual right now, but when you're in the middle of a season and you're trying to effect change and you're having the difficulties we were having, you evaluate all your options," said Gauthier.
"We felt the best option at this time was to work from within the organization. Those things can be taken care of in due time, but having a bilingual head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is very important and it's something that will be part of our decision going forward.".
The outcry that followed Cunneyworth's promotion to head coach, which was front page news in Quebec, had prompted owner Geoff Molson to issue a statement that the team agrees its coach should speak the language of the majority of its fans and also promised a bilingual coach for next season.
The move left Cunneyworth in an apparent lame duck position, but Gauthier said the former player's mental toughness and commitment to work would see him through the season. And he did not rule out keeping Cunneyworth, provided he learns French.
It hasn't helped that the team is also in the midst of a slump that has its playoff hopes sinking fast, but Gauthier is not ready to throw in the towel on the season just yet.
Gauthier wants to see how his club performs as it plays 11 of its next 15 games at home, starting Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets, before he decides whether he will be a buyer or seller of talent at the NHL trade deadline.
The Canadiens (14-18-7) have lost seven of their last eight games, including a 1-6-0 mark since Cunneyworth replaced Martin on an interim basis.
Tempers also look to be frayed among the players, as defenceman P.K. Subban and centre Tomas Plekanec exchanged punches during practice on Monday.
"Our objective now is to get back to winning and playing better hockey," Gauthier said. "We're back from a long road trip.
"Now we have 11 of the 15 next games here and we're counting on that to change the direction of our season."
The Canadiens are in an 11-day stretch in which they play only three times, all at home. It will be a prime chance for Cunneyworth to make adjustments to a team that has been glaringly short of cohesiveness and confidence in recent weeks.
The Canadiens prepared with a 30-minute meeting, then had a high tempo practice followed by a half hour of work in the gym.
Gauthier rarely meets with the media, but talked on this occasion because he could combine comments on the signing on Sunday of defenceman Josh Gorges to a US$23.4 million six-year contract with his annual mid-season review, sparing himself one dreaded news conference.
For the general manager, the club's troubles stem from injuries to veterans like Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez to sub-par performances from some veteran players.
He didn't name names, but team scoring leader Plekanec (29 points, -10) and sniper Michael Cammalleri (eight goals) have been among the underachievers, while young regulars like Subban and Lars Eller have struggled.
Gomez, Gionta and checking forward Ryan White skated on a side rink and are expected back soon, but Gauthier said defenceman Andrei Markov will not be back before the all-star break at the end of the month.
"It's a trickle down effect, because there are people missing and there are veterans not performing as they should, and now there are extra demands placed on young players," Gauthier said. "And if you're going to count on young players to get you out of your problems and if you're getting into slumps, it's going to be very difficult."
He said the team has blown a lot of leads this season due to mistakes by individual players rather than the team's system of play, but added many of the mistakes are made by "young players that are probably overexposed.
"One problem causes another problem and another problem. So we have a lot of work to do to turn this thing around".
The Canadiens went 1-5-0 on their road trip to fall to eight points out of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference, leaving a steep hill to climb in the second half.
Markov, who has yet to play since signing a three-year contract last summer, will have his reconstructed right knee evaluated by doctors this week. Without him, the normally potent Montreal power play has dipped to 29th in the 30-team league with a 12.8 per cent success rate.
Last summer, Gauthier signed restricted free agent Gorges to a one-year $2.5 million contract, but followed that up with a six-year deal for his steadiest veteran on defence. At the time, Gorges was coming off reconstructive knee surgery and the team wanted to see if he would fully recover before committing to along-term deal.
Gauthier rarely negotiates during the season, but announced this one right after 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 1, just the time teams are allowed under the collective bargaining agreement to sign played they inked to deals the previous summer.
"I don't think it's Pierre Gauthier's usual way to sign guys during the season but it's more of an extension of negotiations from the summertime," said Gorges. "I said right from the start this is where I want to be.
"Yeah we're facing some tough times now, but we have a bright future here. We have some good young players coming up and I think with the direction the team is trying to head into, there's only good things in the future. This is where I want to be and where I want to stay."
Forward Mathieu Darche called Gorges "our best, most consistent defenceman since the beginning of the year, so it's well deserved."
Gorges will have a $3.9 million annual cap hit. Gauthier has more than $45 million committed to only 13 players for next season, and has five players headed to unrestricted free agency (Darche, Travis Moen, Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and Chris Campoli).
His restricted free agents include two of the brightest young players, goaltender Carey Price and defenceman Subban, of whom Gauthier said "we have every intention of keeping with the franchise for a long time.
"In due time, we'll address those contracts."