(Related Press Release: PENGUINS NAME MICHEL THERRIEN HEAD COACH)
Wherever Michel Therrien goes, winning follows.
Therrien, who takes over head coaching responsibilities from Eddie Olczyk, hopes to bring his successful formula from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to Pittsburgh and apply it to the Penguins.
“Every coach has a different way to address a hockey team. We can’t say there’s one way better than the others because, eventually, a coach is always going to get fired. That’s the nature of this game,” Therrien said. “I really respect Eddie Olczyk. I respect his work ethic and he’s an upbeat guy. I like to work with him. I thought we had a pretty good combination. I like to be surrounded by guys like that. He’s got his way and I have my way. Is he going to have a better way than mine? Who knows? But I believe in the way I try to bring a hockey team to get success. I really believe in the way we do things. I know there are a lot of guys in the dressing room who have spent time with us who really believe about the recipe we try to bring.
“I want to try to bring the same recipe that I had before to Pittsburgh.”
Therrien’s “recipe” has worked at every one of his stops.
It started during his playing days. Therrien, 42, spent three seasons in the American Hockey League and racked up 89 points in 206 games. In 1985, he won a Calder Cup championship with the Sherbrooke Canadiens. His teammates included Stephane Richer, Patrick Roy, Brian Skrudland and former Penguin Bobby Dollas.
The Quebec native broke into coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Laval and Granby. He posted a .720 winning percentage in four seasons in the QMJHL, with his teams leading the league in points for three-straight years. He reached the finals three times and captured one Memorial Cup (1996).
Therrien moved on to the Montreal Canadiens’ organization. He coached three-plus seasons in the AHL with Fredericton and Quebec (1997-2000), compiling a 115-122-22 record. He won a division championship with Quebec in 1999-2000 before taking over the head coaching position for the Montreal Canadiens during the 2000-2001 season.
In parts of three seasons behind the bench in Montreal, Therrien posted a 77-91-22 record. In 2001-02, he led the Canadiens to their first postseason appearance in four seasons and eventually reached the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Therrien joined the Penguins’ organization in 2003 when he was named head coach at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In his first season behind the bench, he led the Baby Penguins to their most successful regular season campaign in team history and then guided the club to the Calder Cup Finals while beating the top three teams in the Eastern Conference in the playoffs.
During the regular season, the Penguins set new team single-season records for points (86) in a season, fewest losses in a season (28), most overtime losses (8) and fewest goals allowed in a season (197).
Therrien followed the 2003-04 campaign by setting a new team mark for points in a season (88) in 2004-05, and guided the Penguins to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
This year, he was in the midst of the Baby Penguins’ most-successful season. He guided the club to a 21-1-2-1 start and 45 points in the team’s first 25 games. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won its first nine games of the season and did not lose in regulation until its 24th game. The Baby Penguins also established an AHL road winning streak of 15 games, dating back to April 10 of last season.
In seven seasons coaching in the AHL, Therrien compiled a 209-203-32 record. In two-plus seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he was 94-81-10.
“He’s had a lot of success everywhere he’s been,” said Penguins forward Matt Murley, who played for Therrien at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the past two seasons. “We went to the Calder Cup Finals two years ago. Last year, we beat one of the best teams to ever play in the AHL in Binghamton. We upset them in the first round.
“This year, [Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] is having great success again. So, he knows how to win. He knows how to get his players to win,” he continued. “The main thing he does is he gets us to hate losing. Maybe three or four years ago, I’d take a loss really hard, but after playing for him, you just despise losing like you don’t want anything to do with it. I think he will put that culture into all of us.”
It’s that intense desire to succeed that drives Therrien.
“I am proud about my hockey teams and the way that they play. That’s important to me. I take a lot of pride about their conditioning and the way that they prepare their games and the way they play their game. I get really upset when they don’t play with pride,” he said. “I have three years experience in the [NHL] regular season and I have Stanley Cup [playoff] experience. Yes, sometimes I see things differently [than I did when I was in Montreal], but I think it’s a good thing. Everyone in life, we go through different experiences and coaches are the same way. Sometimes we react differently, but the goal is still the same. We want to win.”
Therrien is a stickler for details and has a no-nonsense approach. This is exactly why Penguins general manager Craig Patrick summoned him to Pittsburgh and gave him a three-year contract to turn around a struggling team.
“I have a lot of faith in what Michel can bring to the table both on and off the ice,” he said. “Everybody responds based on how you respect somebody. They are going to respect how Michel approaches stuff, whether they are young or old. As much as you liked or disliked your parents, you respected them. They told you what was right and what was right and put you on the right path all the time. That’s what Michel is like.”
Therrien has a knack for getting the most out of his players, especially developing younger players.
“He is a very good coach and we knew that when he came into the organization,” Patrick said. “We just thought he’d be a great person to develop our young guys, which he has done a great job of. A lot of the young guys are here now, so he can just carry it on further.”
"We have some good young players. We have some good veteran players. I know the young players we have because I was able to work with those guys and compare them to other teams,” Therrien said. “I like the direction we’re going.”
There are 10 Penguins on the current roster who played for Therrien in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“It’s a really unique situation to have played for him for two years. I know what he is trying to do and I know his system and I know what he expects from us,” Murley said. “Hopefully, I can meet his expectations and go beyond his expectations so he won’t have to bear down on me and sit me down. I want to perform to my capabilities and that’s all I can do.
“He’s very strict and he demands a lot from his players. If you’re not meeting his expectations, he is going to let you know by sitting you for a shift or by sitting you for a game or having a meeting with you – he’s going to let you know what you need to do to help this team and what he expects from you. If you’re not doing it, he’s not going to be a pleasant man to be around.”
Still, that’s the kind of coach Mario Lemieux believes his Penguins need.
“I think with the personnel that we have here, we need someone to come in, like Michel,” he said. “He’s been very good down in the minor leagues. A lot of the players like him although he’s very tough on them. He wins and that’s all that matters.”
Therrien isn’t alone, though. Top assistant Mike Yeo joined him from Wilkes-Barre.
“Mike and I, we have worked together for three years. I have a lot of respect for him,” Therrien said. “We’re a team. We know exactly how we’re working. We build together and we’ve learned from each other. We talk the same language. I don’t have to be there and surround him with what we’re trying to say. We’re working together and the players are going to realize it is the same language and the same thing. I like to give him a lot of responsibility because he is capable of handling it.”
The search is on for another assistant coach to join Therrien and Yeo in Pittsburgh. For now, assistant general manager Eddie Johnston will fill the role.
“[Therrien] will have a say in the other assistant coach for sure,” Patrick said. “We’ve talked about it already. He has some names that we’re going to look at and pursue, but I don’t know the timetable of getting someone in here.”
Regardless, Therrien and Yeo will simplify things until the Penguins get through their home-and-home series with Buffalo on Friday and Saturday. After that, the team is off for five days.
“Right now, we’re bringing some structure to the team. Next week, we will have some quality practice time with that team so we will be able to concentrate on the detail,” Therrien said. “One thing we can change right away is the attitude. That’s the No. 1 thing. Our work ethic, we are able to change that, too, as well as our desire to win.
“We have a bunch of guys who have been under our wing and, first of all, believe the way that we play will eventually get them success,” he continued. “Even the veteran guys, they are looking for that type of structure. They are looking for some type of direction. This is what we’re going to try to give them as quick as possible. There’s going to be a lot of hard work and time and repetition, but I think they were really receptive for the first practice.”
Therrien stresses puck possession in his system.
“Puck possession is very important, especially these days with the new rules about the obstruction. When you don’t have the puck, you put yourself in a bad position to spend time in the penalty box,” he said. “Eventually, if you start cycling the puck down low, you’re going to have a scoring chance or you’re going to draw a penalty. It’s important to work on puck possession and be alert out there. We have to cut down on shots against and scoring chances against. The more you have the puck, the less shots and scoring chances against. We’re going to have to learn to play with the puck. We’re going to have to learn if there is a place to lose the puck, where to lose the puck. That’s part of the detail and that will take time.
“We have to become a team that is not going to beat ourselves. I think right now, the team that I saw, is a team that beats itself. I am a really conservative guy and I like to go with the percentage play. Eventually the confidence will be there and we’ll be capable to get on track. But, there is a lot of detail that we need to pay attention to.”
In addition, Therrien hopes to develop as well as maximize Sidney Crosby’s skills.
“He’s got so much skill and so much speed. For a coach, it’s fun to have an opportunity to have a player like this and to make sure that, eventually, you know he’s going to be right there,” he said. “I want to try as much as I can to give him a chance to show his talent. I think as a centerman, he is going to have a lot of ice time and he’s going to be able to do a lot of good things out there. I am going to give him a lot of opportunity. He needs to learn different things – he’s only 18 – and this is why we’re here. He is such a good hockey player. I saw him during training camp and was impressed. When they started the year, I never thought he was going to be that good.”
With 51 games left on the Penguins’ schedule, making the playoffs isn’t out of the question for the team. However, a playoff push will require a lot of hard work.
“We’re going to take it one day at a time. I think this is the best way,” he said. “We’ll see where, eventually, we’re going to be able to finish. We’re going to take one day at a time. It’s not going to be easy and we’re going to have to work harder than the other teams to try to get back on track. I understand that and the players are going to have to realize that. I am not a dreamer. I am a down-to-earth guy and I know it’s going to be a day-to-day thing and we’re taking it one game at a time. I know it’s a cliché, but with the situation we’re facing, this is what we have to accept.”
The Penguins (8-17-6) have the worst record in the Eastern Conference, but Lemieux believes the team can turn things around under Therrien.
“It’s very disappointing. We had some high expectations at the start of the season. I was very excited about starting the season. It’s certainly disappointing to see ourselves here today, but that’s the nature of the business. If you don’t win, you have to make changes,” he said. “I think hard work is going to be the key from now on. That’s what Michel wants from his players – the work ethic and to make sure that, once you’re at the rink, you’re ready to work and do the job. Conditioning is going to be another big part of it. It seems like the team is a little bit out of shape and that’s something we’ll be working on.”