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Free-falling Canadiens turn on each other amid dismal, divided season

Reports out of Montreal suggest P.K. Subban’s teammates are sick and tired of their team’s leading scorer and most popular, best-paid player.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Most great narratives have familiar plot points. It appears the ongoing saga of the Montreal Canadiens has reached the "everybody hates P.K." stage.

That Habs defenceman P.K. Subban is among hockey's tallest lightning rods is established fact, but this week reports burbled forth that his teammates are sick and tired of their team's leading scorer and most popular, best-paid player.

Montreal's is a room divided – cue the gloomy music.

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It isn't the first time a discouraging word has been heard about the former Norris Trophy winner.

In fact, this particular episode first ran almost exactly four years ago (Feb. 8, 2011), when a mundane bout of verbal jousting involving veteran defenceman Hal Gill and Subban was witnessed by a couple of reporters and fanned into a brushfire of discontent.

It wasn't.

Successful teams get along; losing teams bicker. Subban's exuberant personality can rub people the wrong way, so every once in a while someone opines about his disruptive presence.

Funny how it never seems to matter when the team is winning.

Then, as now, the Habs were in a dip in the growth curve (although not anywhere near as severe as this year's swoon).

It's a fact of life in Montreal: when the Canadiens' wheels start to wobble, the story shifts and rationality goes on vacation.

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Three weeks ago, when Subban tweeted a photo of himself with smiling teammates at lunch, few took notice. On Tuesday, a similar picture from Denver constituted evidence in some social-media circles the players don't care about losing.

Reversals happen. Ask Guy Lafleur or Bob Gainey – being a fan favourite or all-time great provides no insulation.

People previously considered elite at their jobs (such as general manager Marc Bergevin, captain Max Pacioretty) are suddenly incompetent bumblers – part of the problem, not the solution. A coach, Michel Therrien, who has won 150 games in the past two-plus seasons, becomes an imbecile who can't manage his bench or develop young players. No wonder the guys quit on him in Arizona.

Some of this has to do with the insatiable maw of two Montreal-based all-sports cable channels and the myriad call-in shows, gossip sites and opinion columns dedicated more or less exclusively to the Habs.

People are running out of things to analyze and factors to blame. Supplies of outrage are infinite, so low-grade hysteria sets in.

It can be amplified by what psychologists call cognitive biases. Such as: Bergevin should have acquired a more competent replacement for all-world goalie Carey Price when he was injured in December (hindsight bias). Except medicine isn't an exact science and recovery doesn't always go according to schedule.

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Another example: Lots of other teams are making trades, so why aren't the Habs?

Blame the endowment effect, in which we assign a higher value to what we own than the price we'd pay to acquire it. Thus, Nathan Beaulieu and Sven Andrighetto will net you a first-line centre. Jarred Tinordi, former first-round pick, is worth more than a superannuated fighter and a minor-league defenceman. Well, no.

Because the Habs made a conference final two years ago and won 50 games last year, they should be contending for the Stanley Cup – that's called anchoring bias.

Finally, everybody already knew Therrien's player utilization is terrible, his safety-first system is too predictable and so, of course, the Habs stink (confirmation bias).

Well okay, that last bit isn't all an illusion – the advanced-stats community has been down on Therrien for years. However, it wasn't a barrier to success before December, and until recently the Habs were one of the NHL's top-five possession teams and the youngsters were mostly thriving.

It's true Therrien hasn't helped himself by stubbornly refusing to use 22-year-old Alex Galchenyuk at centre – his natural position – and by relying too heavily on ineffective veterans such as David Desharnais, Alexei Emelin and Tomas Fleischmann (who was finally scratched on Wednesday).

It's also true Bergevin has made suboptimal personnel decisions, notably in evaluating his backup goalies and right wingers.

But the Habs are a conservative organization, legendarily so. The reaction to the tailspin shouldn't surprise anyone.

Bergevin hasn't tried to make any season-saving moves, presumably because it would cost too much for too little return. He could break his vow not to fire his coach, and still may. But what's the rush? What is to be gained when the playoffs are effectively out of reach?

Therrien is the seventh-longest-serving coach in the NHL and his best-before date is approaching. Only one of the 15 Habs coaches since Scotty Bowman decamped for Buffalo in 1979 has made it past 300 regular-season games (Pat Burns). Wednesday's tilt in Colorado was No. 270 for Therrien. In Pittsburgh, he was fired after 272.

The Habs are a flawed team – just compare their centres with the league's top clubs – with inexperienced young leaders.

It's been a terrible season, and a worrying collapse by a team in which character and accountability are trumpeted as core values. The worst-case outcome is a lottery pick.

Despite outward appearances, the Habs are not a terrible team. They are not run by idiots. It only feels that way.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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