Randy Cunneyworth Making a Good Case for His Job with the Habs
Despite any semblance of a streak put on by the Montreal Canadiens in recent games, these days, it's pretty easy to see who's on the outside looking in with this team. We all know who the pending unrestricted free agents are, and how they might look valuable to other teams in the league. But there are dueling forces right now in this city, and it's all because of a coach that's either fighting to keep his job and shed an "interim" title, or prove to 29 general managers watching Canadiens games that he's a worthy, NHL-level head coach.
For such a seemingly nice guy, Randy Cunneyworth has cooked up a storm in his short time behind the bench. Besides the whole French-speaking thing, and the fact that both the General Manager and owner above him have basically declared that he's going to be fired in April, the coach has actually made a few interesting decisions during games, and it all seems to be summed up nicely by the trends he's exhibited with two players in particular, two players that ended up watching most of Monday night's 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes from the Canadiens' bench.
Scott Gomez and Andrei Kostitsyn have been two of the more peculiar cases with the Canadiens this season. While we can find ways to justify slumps from the likes of Tomas Plekanec or P.K. Subban, it's hard to really continue finding excuses for a player who's only scored three goals since the beginning of 2011, and for another who's gone through four coaches with the team and seemingly been at odds with all of them.
It all starts with Scott Gomez. The $8 million man started the season goalless, but still looking at a comfortable top-two center spot in the line-up. Gomez played five games to start the season before being sidelined by an upper body injury that would see him miss 9 games. In those five games, he would average about 18 minutes of ice time. He would return to the line-up in mid-November for another seven games, before being sidelined by yet another injury (groin) that would see him miss the next 21 games. After being eased back into the line-up, Gomez would average about 16:15 of ice time over another five games. Then, the unthinkable would happen. The Canadiens would fire coach Jacques Martin. I actually thought that this might be good news for Gomez, as a new coach and tweaked system might allow him to focus more on his offense, while Martin tended to use him in many defensive situations. At this point in the season, Gomez had but 4 assists and obviously no goals, with a -3 rating, and everyone thought that it couldn't get much worse.
Obviously, we were wrong. Cunneyworth wouldn't take a liking to the Alaskan-born player, seemingly fed up with the BS Gomez would spew on the ice on a nightly bases. Upon his return to the line-up in mid-January, Cunneyworth would give Gomez plenty of chances, although his ice time would once again see itself reduced. In the seven games Gomez would play in January, the center would average around 16 minutes of ice time, putting up 3 assists in the process. On paper, not terrible numbers, especially when you consider his rotator door of linemates and the general feeling that he was in the doghouse. But as we approached Gomez's one year goallessersary, things just seemed to go off the rails. The Canadiens have played seven games in February so far. Gomez has only played more than 12 minutes in one of those games.
Last night, it finally went from being a "reduced role" to being downright embarrassing. In the Canadiens' 5-3 loss to the Hurricanes on Monday night, Gomez only played 7:49, the only time this season he's played single-digit minutes, other than the game in October he left with an injury. He only took 9 shifts, all remained all but benched in the 3rd period, which the Canadiens started up by a goal. From my perspective, it didn't even seem like he did anything wrong. It just seems like the coach is fed up with having to play him simply because he's a high paid player. Whether he's broken the goalless streak or not, Gomez has proven that he's a detriment to this team, and Cunneyworth isn't going to put up any more appearances.
With only 25 games left on the schedule, and the Canadiens all but out of the playoff race (whatever you might want to continue believing), the salary cap is no longer really a consideration. But giving ice-time to young players is still a big deal, and Cunneyworth isn't going to let Scott Gomez put a damper on that. If he's not going to perform, he's not going to play, and that might be the biggest positive we've seen since Pierre Gauthier made the decision to switch coaches. The Scott Gomez situation has been very well documented here at TCL, but if this isn't proof that it's about time the Canadiens sever ties with this disaster of a player, I don't know what is. Cristobal Huet is being paid $6 million to stay as far away from the Chicago Blackhawks as possible. Let's hope the Montreal Canadiens can made a similar decision this summer.
The second player whose handling is making a big case for Cunneyworth is none other than Mr. Doghouse himself, Andrei Kostitysn. The Belorussian forward has had a contentious relationship with just about every coach he's had to play under here in Montreal, but things are finally seemingly spilling over with Cunneyworth as the bench boss. Kostitsyn seemed to be in and out of the doghouse all year last season, but he would still finish the season with 20 goals and 16 minutes average ice time, playing all but one of the Canadiens' games in 2010-11. This year, Kostitsyn has but 12 goals, with an off chance to finish with 18 if he plays the rest of the Habs' games this season. But that's looking less and less likely.
Kostitsyn's ice time varied wildly under Jacques Martin. In the 22 games he played before the coaching switch, Kostitsyn would average around 16 minutes of ice time, but would only play 16 minutes or more in 9 of those games. In the 26 games he's played under Cunneyworth, Kostitsyn has averaged only 14 minutes. Throw out the first game, which saw him play 19 minutes, and another anomalous 21 minute game, and it's even worse. Last night, Kostitsyn watched more than 90% of the game from the bench, playing only 4:20.
Love them or hate them, Andrei Kostitsyn and Scott Gomez are two highly paid players who started the year on top six units. In half a season, they've become afterthoughts to a young team scraping by and holding on to a playoff pipe dream. It should be relatively obvious at this point that Andrei Kostitsyn won't see very many more games in a Canadiens uniform (if they can trade him at the deadline), and considering the similar trends in Scott Gomez's ice time, theoretically, he shouldn't be too far behind him on the way out the door.
This could have very well been the case whether Jacques Martin had been fired or not. But what's really interesting here is to see Randy Cunneyworth take a stance against players who can't seem to put it together. As a pending unrestricted free agent, Andrei Kostitysn is all but a lost caused, on the last of many chances he's had with the Canadiens. Right next to him, Scott Gomez has become more irrelevant than Jody Shelley, out there. Other coaches may have continued playing them because of the salary or pedigree attached to their name. But not Randy Cunneyworth. He's been victimized, dragged under the bus and thrown off a cliff in his short tenure as the coach of the Canadiens, by just about everyone in town, but you have to admit, Cunneyworth has some balls, and he's been making some good decisions. His treatment of disasters like Kostitsyn and Gomez should be just another in a long list of reasons the Canadiens should consider keeping him come mid-April.