Hockey

Jacques Martin: Getting defensive?

New Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Martin has been branded a one-dimesional strategist, but his work with the Ottawa Senators suggests he's capable of going with the flow.

First impressions can be tough to shake, and perhaps no coach in the NHL knows this better than Jacques Martin.

When the dour 56-year-old was tapped Monday to become the 29th head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, a large segment of Hab Nation had the same reaction: uh-oh, here comes the trap.

Martin, a veteran of 14 NHL head-coaching seasons with St. Louis, Ottawa and Florida, has long been linked with the sort of defence-first, clog-the-neutral-zone, get-up-a-goal-and-hold-on-for-dear-life coaching strategy that most hockey fans detest (at least until it gets their team into the playoffs).

At Monday's introductory news conference, the Montreal media called on Martin to answer to these alleged crimes against hockey.

"I don't think that I've ever been a coach that stifled [a player's] offensive ability," Martin insisted.

Reputation aside, Martin's stint with the Senators backs up his claim that he's capable of going with the flow.

Offensive powerhouse

After steering St. Louis for two seasons in the 1980s, Martin got a second crack as an NHL coach when Ottawa hired him to replace Dave Allison midway through the 1995-96 campaign. In his first two full seasons, Martin's team finished 18th and 24th in goals scored while ending up ninth and third in goals allowed. By the time the upstart Senators came within a Game 7 overtime goal of toppling the Northeast Division champion Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, Martin's reputation as a defensive-minded head coach was cemented.

But as his young players matured and offensive talents emerged in the likes of Daniel Alfredsson and Alexei Yashin, and later Martin Havlat, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, Martin presided over a team that became an offensive powerhouse.

From 1998-99, when Martin won the Jack Adams Award, until the end of his Ottawa tenure in 2003-04, the Senators finished in the top five in scoring in every season but one, and they racked up the most goals in the NHL in Martin's final campaign. Over the same period, Ottawa on average finished eighth in goals against.

"If you've got a chance to forecheck, he's not going to hold you back," ex-Senators forward Shaun Van Allen, who played four seasons under Martin, told Hockey Night in Canada Radio. "He wants you to use your skill and put pressure on the defence."

Montreal GM Bob Gainey also praised Martin's M.O. at Monday's press conference, saying "I shudder when I think back to the style of play we faced when he was coaching the Senators. It was a style that was always in our end zone. I thought that was not a very good style for us and a pretty good style for them."

'Pieces in place'

Appearing on  HNIC Radio later in the day, Martin didn't sound concerned over any misconceptions about his tactics, but he did try to refute his reputation for clamping down on scoring instincts.

"I believe in a puck-possession game," Martin said. "I think the best defence is if you can play in the offensive zone."

"When I coached in Ottawa [with players like] Alfredsson, Hossa, Havlat — I never took away any of their creativity because I think that's what makes great players."

So what can Habs fans expect from Martin? Not miracles. Though he made the playoffs in seven of his eight full seasons in Ottawa, Martin was at the helm for five first-round exits and never won a conference championship. Worse, the Senators seemed to get better after he left, leading the league in goals and finishing second in prevention in 2005-06, then reaching the Stanley Cup final a year later with Bryan Murray behind the bench.

Martin's subsequent three-year stint in Florida failed to produce a playoff appearance, and the Panthers improved slightly under replacement Peter Deboer in 2008-09, though they again missed the post-season.

Martin expressed optimism at the Canadiens' prospects for next season ("I think we have some pieces in place"), and said he feels secure with youngster Carey Price between the pipes. But the team Martin is inheriting lacks the firepower of those Ottawa teams responsible for his most recent playoff appearances. Alex Kovalev's mediocre total of 65 points led the Canadiens last season, and no other forward topped 50 points as the team faded badly down the stretch before being swept by Boston in the first playoff round.

Still, Martin suggested the Habs can recover without resorting to the slowdown tactics that, fairly or not, he has become associated with.

"We have the skill level to play [an up-tempo] game, and you'll see an exciting brand of hockey."

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