As long as he was enjoying modest success coaching the Montreal Canadiens, Michel Therrien's volatile nature was easy for the organization to accept.
But in the midst of a skid that threatens their playoff hopes, it was no longer possible for the Canadiens to rely on someone who had trouble keeping the players' emotions in check.
|The Canadiens had been tuning out Michel Therrien's methods this season. (AP)|
Therrien's demeanor probably should have cost him his job last spring after a tantrum turned the tide against his club in a pivotal Eastern Conference semifinal game against Carolina. The Canadiens led the series 2-1 and were ahead 3-0 in the third period of Game 4 at home.
A penalty call against Montreal caused Therrien to go ballistic and use an obscene gesture on referee Kerry Fraser, which resulted in a bench penalty being tacked on. Carolina scored on the ensuing two-man advantage and rebounded to win the game in overtime, gaining the momentum that led to two more easy victories and the series win.
Therrien was vilified for his monumental blunder, but since the Canadiens had reached the second round in their first playoff appearance in four years, he was given a pass -- and a new two-year contract.
No doubt, Montreal management believed Therrien would learn from the incident and tone down his act this season. That was a miscalculation. On many nights this year, highlight reels have captured him looking on edge, sometimes with arms flailing and always seemingly on the brink of another outburst.
Two weeks ago, he went off on Fraser again, who did not call a penalty when a New Jersey player made contact with Canadiens goalie Jeff Hackett, a play that led to the game-winning goal. He was fined $25,000 but avoided any further repercussions when Montreal came back to win its next game.
Had he continued to win, he still might have a job today. But the Canadiens have won just two of 12 games and are winless on the road since Christmas while falling to 10th in the East. Worse yet, they've been badly outplayed, getting outshot in eight of those games and by a margin of 362-249 overall.
Part of the problem has been the weak Canadiens blue line and the inability of the smallish team to play man-to-man hockey effectively, but there has been a lack of intensity lately, which suggests that Therrien's message was no longer getting through.
But that's what happens sooner more often than later to most NHL coaches, especially those who like to animated, an act that tends to wear thin on well-paid professional athletes. That's what happened here.
Therrien was a success at the junior level who worked his way up Montreal's minor-league coaching ranks before landing the top job in November 2000, bringing a change of pace to the organization from the staid Alain Vigneault. His wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn't afraid to speak his mind, characteristics that seemed to strike a chord with the team.
Montreal didn't make the playoffs the year Therrien took over, but last season, behind outstanding goaltending from Jose Theodore, the Canadiens surprisingly slipped into the playoffs and scored an first-round upset win over the top-seeded Bruins.
The coach was given his due and a break after what happened in the Carolina series, but this year, Therrien began the year with higher expectations, particularly since captain Saku Koivu was with the team at the outset.
What quickly became apparent, however, was how ordinary a team Montreal was when Theodore was not stealing games and how little difference Therrien's coaching made. On too many nights this year, the Habs have lacked anything resembling intensity, certainly nothing near what Therrien shows behind the bench.
That's why Montreal turned to Claude Julien, a successful minor-league coach who led Montreal's top farm team in Hamilton to a 33-6-3-3 record so far this season. Julien's solid and calm demeanor is the antithesis to Therrien's. Whether it makes a difference remains to be seen, but at least Therrien might find some comfort in it.
"In 13 seasons as a coach, I've never been fired," Therrien said earlier this season. "They say until that happens, you're not a coach."
Now he is for sure. Even if he doesn't have a team.