I still keep reading that the Canadiens played defensive hockey these last few years, and I'll say again that Michel Therrien’s fast breakout out of the zone, go for the quick pass or even the long bomb for a breakaway and have two men forechecking in the offensive zone, as well as the years of The Swarm in the defensive zone are inaccurately described as ‘defensive’ in my opinion.
We’ll see how Claude Julien does, but historically, he has a slower-pace ‘everybody support the puck’ style, and everyone break out of the defensive zone together, which some see as plodding, some see as ‘puck control’.
The Jacques Martin years, there’s no question that he had a man-the-battlements system, probably based on the makeup of his team, but for him, you’d barely have one forward forechecking. If the other team had the puck, the Canadiens would retreat, collapse into their own zone and surround their net, and then Hal Gill would zamboni the ice with his shin pads.
I saw the Canucks play often at their barn, which can be fairly sedate at times, and when his charges would gain control of the puck in their own zone, you could hear Alain Vigneault yell at his forwards, at his defenceman skating with the puck. “Speed! Speed! Speed!” he’d cry, and when I watched the Canadiens, that’s what I saw too, Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty and Paul Byron speeding out of the zone for a breakaway.
Which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is hard to label a defensive style too.
And as far as the ‘bang it off the glass’ angle, that is inextricably entwined with Don Cherry-thinking, that it’s the ‘safe’ play and brutish defencemen who can’t make a pass and chew gum at the same time are condemned to that strategy, and I understand that, but for Michel Therrien’s system, it was more, in context, a strategy to get the other team struggling to skate back, it was a way to put more pressure on them, again and again, to give our fast forwards a chance to forecheck, again. Let's not get bogged down in our zone, let's get the puck out, and fight over it in the neutral zone, far from our net, when their defencemen are flailing.
And when we complained about our forwards not finishing their checks, and when opposing defencemen were visibly surprised about it, would have braced for a hit they were expecting but never came, because Dale Weise or Lars Eller just flew by them and chased after the next guy with the puck, it was a little confusing, and even I would get frustrated sometimes.
But that was part of the puck-pressure style that Michel Therrien wanted. “Don’t go looking for the hit. Hits will come naturally. If you have to choose, choose the puck over the hit.”
Michel Therrien once said a non-sequitur, or if I’m being charitable he refused to answer a question and made a statement instead, but when asked if his team was “feeling the pressure” of something or other, a losing streak or big game coming up, he replied “We don’t feel pressure, we apply the pressure.”
And when after a tough loss, the coach would be a little curt in his answers during the presser, and a few times said the players didn’t “execute”, we’d lose our minds, that he was blaming the players, and there was some truth to that, but what he was saying was that if the team didn’t play the system, if only half the guys did what they were supposed to do, it wouldn’t work, and they wouldn’t win.
If a defensive end decides he wants the glory of a sack, if he thinks the QB can’t possibly escape, and he chases after the quarterback, and ‘loses his contain’, then the scheme doesn’t work, and the QB goes on a thirty yard run. The player didn’t execute, and the coach gets hung with the loss, but whose fault is it? Players have to have the discipline to execute the scheme, to stay in their lanes in the pass rush, or to cover their guy and not bite on a fake when looking for a glory-boy interception.
So yeah, Michel Therrien would ask his d-men to move the puck out of the zone quickly, with the proverbial ‘good first pass’, but if that option wasn’t available to him, then don’t muck around, don’t overthink, just bang it off the glass, let the opposing d-man retrieve it, with Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn hounding them, that’s not that easy to achieve either. It’s not a bad option for us.
And when it worked, we’d be singing with the crowd at the Nouveau Forum, “Olé Olé Olé Olé!” Talking heads on TSN 1040 Vancouver would explain, when the Canadiens were on one of their winning streaks, usually at the start of the season, that the Canadiens were reputed around the league as a tough team to play, that by the third period the other team is exhausted, they have to play their third pairing more and their fourth line, and they can’t keep up, and the Canadiens skate them in the ground.
When it worked, it was beautiful. But it wouldn’t work if Ryan White finished every check, that just gave the guy who received the pass more space, more time to make a decision, instead of having Ryan all up in his face. And it wouldn’t work if our defenceman decided he wanted to rush and stickhandle the puck, and our fleet forwards were standing still at the opposite blue line, and would now have to go get the puck in the corner and grind against thumpers, instead of getting the puck on the rush and making Mark Stuart or Dion Phaneuf look like the pylons that they actually are.