Penguins prepare for Habs, ex-coach Therrien
RALEIGH, N.C. — Iron Mike is making his mark.
Michel Therrien, fired by the Penguins four years ago only to watch Dan Bylsma lead them to the Stanley Cup about four months later, presides over the Eastern Conference-leading Montreal Canadiens, a draft-lottery club last season.
The Penguins, losers of two in a row and three of five, are not surprised the man who brought them up — so to speak — is enjoying the high life again.
“We were a lot of young guys trying to find our games,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said of Therrien, whose first decision upon replacing Eddie Olczyk midway through the 2005-06 season was to name Crosby, then 18, an alternate captain.
“We were all growing up together. He gave us opportunities and responsibility at a pretty young age to kind of fast-track that learning curve. We all learned a lot in a short period of time.”
Former Penguins center Jordan Staal cited the Penguins' “structure” under Therrien, who believed in transition stemming from a trapping system.
“He did a good job of keeping guys playing with that structure throughout the season then throughout the playoffs,” Staal said. “There wasn't a lot of cheat in our game. He made sure all our guys were on the same page.
“You look at Montreal right now, and it's the same thing.”
After leading what was the fourth-best turnaround in NHL history — the Penguins improved by 47 points in 2006-07 — and finishing two wins short of the Cup the next season, a two-month skid ended Therrien's Pittsburgh run Feb. 15, 2009. Therrien, then in Year 1 of a new three-year contract, never saw the firing coming that winter.
He could not watch as Bylsma steered the Penguins to the Cup that spring. He waited longer than most former players expected to get a third NHL coaching job, and even he was surprised that the Canadiens, his first employer, came calling.
Therrien, admittedly a believer in the tough-love approach, left an impression on his former players. He was not loved, but even those with whom he clashed cannot deny his impact on the Penguins:
The first free-agent signed by general manager Ray Shero, Eaton never approved of Therrien's penchant for publicly calling out the team — and individual players — after losses.
“But he's a good motivator, and he gets a lot out of a lot of guys,” Eaton said. “You can see that in Montreal now. Those players come to work every night, and that's the style he brings. He's good with helping a team develop an identity when they're a young or struggling hockey club.”
He joined the Penguins in July 2008 and benefited from Bylsma's move to a north-south offensive approach. He and Therrien had one big disagreement when Cooke slammed a door when he was angry.
“He didn't like the message that sent,” Cooke said. “He was very open about it. That's a good way to run business, a good way to have the respect of your players. At the end of the day, everybody wants to know where they stand. In my experience, you did with Mike.”
He became an NHL regular under Therrien's watch and remembered “great talks” over dinners with his fellow French Canadian.
“He was really hard on his players, but he was fair,” Letang said. “If you gave him what he wanted, you would get ice time. If not, you wouldn't get it. It didn't matter if you were a rookie or young player. He was a competitor. He wanted to win. He wanted to put his best lineup on the ice every night.”
His time with Therrien dated to their days together with AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Their “special” relationship, as Fleury jokingly described it, started then, when Therrien set the tone by yanking the No. 1 overall pick from 2003 at the first sign of underwhelming play.
“He was hard on me, but I respect Michel — he really knows the game and wants to win,” Fleury said. “He is a guy that always tried to push you, even make you mad. I don't know if that's the right way, but it was his way. With years maybe, he has kind of settled down a little bit, but I really do respect him.”