Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin said he needed to be “100 per cent sure” he was ready to make the decision to fire longtime goaltending coach Stephane Waite.
It turns out the reached that point during the second period of the Canadiens’ 3-1 win over visiting Ottawa on Thursday night.
The Canadiens announced shortly after the game that Waite, who had been with the club since 2013 and helped Carey Price reach elite goaltender status, would be replaced by Montreal scout and former NHL goalie Sean Burke.
Bergevin, who said the move was made while the game was in progress, said the decision to fire Waite was the result of a years-long pattern in his goaltenders’ play that he found troubling.
“There was not one incident that happened,” Bergevin said Wednesday in a video conference. “I thought about it thoroughly and 98 per cent is not good enough for me. I had to be 100 per cent sure it was the right decision for me and I came to that decision yesterday.”
The abrupt dismissal of Waite was another example of how quickly Bergevin is ready to make a move in a shortened NHL season with little room for error.
Waite was fired a week after Bergevin replaced head coach Claude Julien with Dominique Ducharme following a string of disappointing results. The last straw was a pair of road losses to the last-place Senators.
After an impressive start to the season that saw the Canadiens briefly lead the North Division standings, Montreal has produced just three wins over its last 11 games to slide to fourth place.
‘My instincts told me a change was needed’
Part of the issue has been the play of Price, who has posted a pedestrian 6-4-3 record with a .296 goals-against average and an ugly .893 save percentage so far this season.
“I’ve seen ups and downs. You guys saw it,” Bergevin said. “Again, everybody goes through it, but it was a gut feeling I had and sometimes you have to trust your instincts. My instincts told me a change was needed.”
Bergevin said Price was not consulted on the change. The goaltender said Wednesday that he found the move “surprising.”
“I’m grateful for the time I spent with Steph,” Price said. “He’s been a hard-working, dedicated goalie coach, and I really appreciate all that hard work he’s done with us.
“Right now it’s a quick turnaround. We don’t have a lot of time to dwell on things, so it’s about regrouping, getting the work done and start bonding quickly.”
Price added he expects to start getting to know Burke quickly, despite Burke having to finish a 14-day quarantine period due to COVID-19 protocols before joining the team. Bergevin said Burke will work with Montreal’s goaltenders through videoconferencing while in quarantine.
Tuesday’s decision ends a largely productive relationship between Price and Waite that reached its zenith in 2014-15, when Price posted a 44-16-6 record with nine shutouts, a 1.96 GAA and a ,933 save percentage. He cleaned up at the 2015 NHL awards, winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP and the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender among other honours.
While Price has had some excellent runs since then, his play has been mercurial over the past few seasons. He also struggled during the 2019-20 season before returning to top form when the league resumed after a months-long break due to COVID-19.
Bergevin said he didn’t notice any problems with the chemistry between Price and Waite.
“There was no fight or argument, none of that,” he said. “I think they had a good relationship. I make decisions for the organization, for the team, for the players. That’s my job. And I take for responsibility for making that change.”
Despite Price’s struggles, backup Jake Allen has found early success in his first season with Montreal with a 4-2-2 record, 2.12 GAA and .929 save percentage.
Asked why Allen has played well and Price poorly under the same goaltending coach this season, Bergevin declined to get into specifics.
“I go back to a pattern I saw occurring the past few years, so I felt it was necessary for me to make that change,” he said.
The Canadiens return to action Thursday with the first of two home games against the Winnipeg Jets.