The Ex-Panther Factor. Jacques Martin


Good morning everyone and welcome to another edition of The Ex-Panther Factor, where I talk about former members of the Florida Panthers.  Josh said a few weeks back during one of our podcasts, that I seem to be able to change the lives and destinations of players since I began this weekly feature.  Is that true?  Niklas Hagman was put on waivers, Rostislav Olesz was sent to the AHL, and Keith Ballard missed a few games with a back injury, so maybe it does hold some validity.

As you can see in the past this series has focused on players that at one point in their career wore the Panther crest on their chest.  Today however I’m going to take a look at someone who not only was a coach that stood behind the bench (mostly with his hands in his pockets), but also someone that was a general manager (or at least made the attempt).  Jacques Martin, or Uncle Jack as I fondly call him was hired to be the head coach of the Florida Panthers for the 2005-2006 season.  He came to the Panthers the year after the lockout, and came to the Panthers with one condition…. that his good friend Mike Keenan come on board as the general manager.  The idea behind this was so that the two of them would be on the same page in order to direct this team not only back to respectability, but to the playoffs.  A match that could have been made in heaven, that ended up going to hell.   Please continue reading after the jump.

Prior to coaching the Panthers, Martin had 11 years of head coaching experience with the St. Louis Blues (2 years) and Ottawa Senators (9 years).  Known for his attention to defence, and accountability, Martin’s teams made the playoffs with regularity in all but one of his 11 seasons.  His relationship with Keenan stemmed from being one of Iron Mike’s assistants in Chicago.  Martin coached the Blues to playoff appearances in both years he was there, but the team couldn’t get past the second round, and he was ultimately replaced by Brian Sutter.  In his first year (1995-96) in Ottawa the Sens were a miserable team and in the 38 games he coached they won only 10 times.  Despite the following year finishing with a sub .500 record the Senators made the playoffs, but were eliminated in the first round.  After that, the Senators made the playoffs each and every year that Jacques was behind the bench.

Blessed with some talented players like Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Wade Redden and goaltender Patrick Lalime, the Senators were built for regular season success, but lacked the attributes to compete in the playoffs.  The Senators reached game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2003, but did not advance with most of the blame falling to goaltender Lalime, as well as Martin for his stoic ways, and inability to “win the big one”.  While his defence first approach could be viewed as a successful way to win, the Senators were a speedy and talented team that seemed to be on a short leash, especially in the post season.  Martin who rarely spoke, also lacked (lacks) a lot of the fire power and charisma to motivate players to the next level.  Ottawa fired him after the 2004 season when they had been eliminated in the first round, despite winning 42 regular season games.  Ottawa felt that their personnel was good enough to challenge for a Cup, but had seen enough from the man running the bench.  Unike Barry Trotz in Nashville who squeezes every ounce of talent out of his players, Martin drains every ounce of life out of his.

Upon his announcement as the new head coach of the Florida Panthers, my eyes rolled into the back of my head, as I prepared for the comatose style of play we were  about to see in South Florida.  My hope was that with Keenan supplying the players, all Martin had to do was mix the drink and we would be playoff bound.  It almost worked as Keenan brought in veterans Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyck, Chris Gratton, Martin Gelinas and Josef Stumpl.  Players who had playoff and Stanley Cup experience to mesh with young, and what we thought would be up and coming stars like Olli Jokinen, Stephen Weiss, Jay Bouwmeester and Roberto Luongo.  Martin’s insistance however during this time to focus on playing “not to lose” rather than utilize the teams’ offensive strengths, caused the Panthers to miss the playoffs in all three seasons JM was behind the bench.  In September of 2007 when the entire Panther organEYEzation agreed to trade the spoiled brat goaltender Roberto Luongo, Keenan was fired.  Or he resigned.  Or Martin promised to be less controversial. Or maybe Keenan’s leaving was mutual.  Keenan later commented that the objectives of the team had changed.   All I know is that began the circus known as the JM era for the next three seasons. Personally the wrong man was allowed to stay with the team.  Ugh!

With Martin having complete control now of the players, I felt as though he had too much control, and wasn’t qualified in my mind to do both.  Or at least do both with any type of success.  It was a different time, with different leadership in management and ownership, but not only was Martin being outcoached behind the bench, he was out manuevered in the front office.  Bloated contracts to undeserving players came to be his claim to fame.  David Booth, Rostislav Olesz, Keith Ballard and even Bryan Allen were all offered long term “fat” contracts, that made you feel as though Martin was spending money like a drunken sailor.  In an effort to offer stability in the organization, these players were offered six year deals for “stupid” money.  The foolishness didn’t end there.

Who can forget his fued with captain Olli Jokinen during the end of the 2008 season?  With Jokinen obviously shaken by the accident with Richard Zednik, Olli’s play dramatically dropped off for the balance of the season from February on.  That was more than likely the tip of the iceberg as we later found out the two had been fueding for quite some time.  Style of play seemed to be the subject of discomfort, just as it had been previously with Gary Roberts and others.  Martins’ attention to defence was causing players to hold back, and not take advantage of their skills.  If you look back at some of the rosters that Florida had during his time here, they weren’t bad, and actually could have made the playoffs had their style been allowed to be more assertive.  The team offered absolutely no push back.  Martin seemed rather pleased with trying to win games 2-1 as opposed to three to one, only ending up losing 3-2 on many nights.  Like the NFL, prevent defence doesn’t always work, and the frustration mounted throughout the dressing room.  Defence wins playoffs, but during the season, you need to score goals, and these Panther teams were never given the opportunity to do so.

After not making the playoffs again in 2008, Martin was relieved of his coaching duties.  The next question that remained was who would leave?  Martin or Jokinen?  It was decided that after three consecutive seasons of not making the playoffs, JM would not be retained as coach, but would be allowed to stay on as general manager (I hit my head against the wall repeatedly upon hearing this), and Jokinen and his offence was traded to Phoenix for two defencemen, Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton (I hit my head some more).  Martin then hired junior coach Peter DeBoer to take his place behind the bench, feeling that DeBoer was qualified to work with a younger roster, and be able to relate better to the players.  DeBoer seemed to pick up many of JM’s qualities, but was not given the players to work with, and may have been too inexperienced to take who he had to the next step.

Martin stayed on for Deboer’s first season, and did a poor job in my evaluation of providing DeBoer with the necessary tools to work with.  Players like Kamil Kreps, Ville Peltonen, Brett McLean and Cory Murphy were supposed to be the answer (really?).  Possibly seeing the writing on the wall, and the inability, or unwillingness to trade Jay Bouwmeester, and only attract modest free agents, Martin bolted.  Leaving his mess and his “watching paint dry” system behind him for DeBoer and assistant Randy Sexton to clean up.  It turned into a complete and utter disaster as the Panthers became worse every year after that, failing to make the playoffs, and falling further and further behind the standings.

It wasn’t all bad as Martin did do one thing right, he acquired defenceman Bryan McCabe in a trade from Toronto for Mike Van Ryn.  That pretty much was it however as a all-star list of names rumored to be coming here never made it.  Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter, Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette, Mason Raymond, Kevin Bieksa, and a few more that I’m sure I’m forgetting were all mentioned at one point to be headed to South Florida via trade.  It never happened as Jacques couldn’t pull the trigger on a deal, yet ended up shooting the organization in the foot.

Martin’s first year in Montreal (2009-2010) was almost like a tale out of disney.  The Canadiens surprised and shocked the NHL by beating Washington and Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs, taking each team to a seventh game.  The storybook ending however wasn’t to be as the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Habs in five games in the Eastern Conference final, proving to be too big, and too tough for the smurfs Montreal.  While having a few offensive weapons like Michael Cammellari and Tomas Plekanec, the Habs rode the hot hand of Jaroslav Halak who won the number one job from the more talented Carey Price, whose confidence had been destroyed by Martin.  Despite the teams attention to defence, and Martin’s insufferable system, Montreal excelled.  The hope was that the Canadiens could improve the following season, and while winning more games than the previous year, were eliminated in the first round by the Boston Bruins in seven games.

This season Martin coached 32 games for Montreal and there had been no improvement.  Many had predicted his firing very early in the season as this post by Kyle Roussel describes. The team struggled at times to win, to hold on to leads, and play effectively for 60 minutes.  All traits of a Martin coach team that we here in Florida are all too familiar with. Fans had grown tired of his ways as well, calling for his dismissal, while referring to him as JMart, and Count Chokula among others.

On Saturday December 17th Martin was relieved of his duties as coach of the Montreal Canadiens. Just one week before Christmas.  Upon his initial hiring on June 1st, 2009, I predicted he wouldn’t survive more than 18 months.  I was off by 12.  Not a bad prediction, but nonetheless one that the entire NHL saw coming the previous weeks leading up to it.  While Martin’s regular season success has it’s merits, it’s obvious that his decisions of how to play the game were not meshing with the players that he had.  Montreal was a fast skating, offensively gifted team with a gifted goaltender (Carey Price).  His insistence to play it safe and handcuff his best weapons doomed him.  Injuries also were partly to blame as prize defenceman Andrei Markov has missed considerable action, but nonetheless, every team suffers from this part of the game.  Blame could also be placed on general manager Pierre Gauthier who has been criticized for not improving the roster.

Montreal could have protected themselves by no allowing Kirk Muller to get away and take a head coaching job in the AHL with Milwaukee.  Muller is now a head coach for the Carolina Hurricanes, and was seen as the buffer between the players and Martin. A strong communicator compared the the acerbic Martin, it was Muller drawing up the plays, using the notepad to diagram what was expected during timeouts.  Martin stood playing pocket pool, while looking up at the clock.  Muller would have been the perfect replacement for Martin if a change needed to be made, but instead Montreal with no real plan in place had to insert Randy Cunneyworth as the interim coach for the remainder of the season.  The only gripe against Cunneyworth is he doesn’t speak French.  Honestly, after such a storied franchise not wining a Stanely Cup since 1993, is that really a valid pre requisite for the job?  How many qualified coach’s have the Canadiens passed up because of this?

In 1,294 coached games, Martin won 613 of them.  He has four division championships and his teams’ qualified for the playoffs 12 times.  That is quite an accomplishment, and certainly more than 100’s of other coach’s will ever achieve. Will he coach again in the NHL?  I don’t know, but I’m not waiting around to find out…..I’m off to go watch some paint dry.

Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

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