Bob Gainey didn't say so directly, but speaking to reporters following the formal press conference announcing Jacques Martin as the new head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, the Habs GM kind of admitted that maybe hiring Guy Carbonneau was a mistake.
If you read between the lines during the press conference, you could hear that admission if you really wanted to. When Gainey spoke of the need for a "professional coach," for instance, he was saying that Montreal is not the ideal place to be learning on the job.
"We wanted to find someone who has lived through getting his sea legs and having experience in a similar market where the attention and the following is there every day. Someone who is a professional who either has not been a player and is a professional coach, or who may have been a player but doesn't think of himself as a player anymore," Gainey said. "Those were some of the thoughts when I was trying to create a vision for the coach of our team."
That part about "doesn't think of himself as a player anymore" essentially described Carbonneau's biggest problem as coach. Carbonneau admitted he had trouble distinguishing his role as coach from his role as player, which was often to grab a guy by the scruff of the neck and give him the straight goods on how he was playing.
Carbonneau couldn't do that as a coach, and he didn't know any other way to communicate, so when things started to go bad he simply turned to line shuffling to send his message rather than sitting a player down and explaining to him what he was doing wrong and how he can play better.
It wasn't only Carbonneau that was placed in that position of learning on the job here, but the four head coaches who preceded him were also making their NHL debuts in the fishbowl that is Montreal.
Martin, however, has managed difficult and pressure-packed situations in Ottawa, particularly his team's repeated playoff failures, and so he should in theory be better equipped than Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Claude Julien and Carbonneau were to manage expectations and deal with the pressure from fans and media alike.
You can read my report on the press conference here, but there are a few details I left out of my story for CP.
First and foremost was Gainey's tacit admission that trade talks for Vincent Lecavalier are not necessarily dead in the water, despite Gainey's public attack on Lightning GM Brian Lawton's integrity just over a month ago.
Gainey and Lawton were seen chatting at the NHL combines over the weekend, and when asked whether the Lecavalier trade talks could be revived, Gainey did not deny it. In fact, his answer could even be contrued as a confirmation that the talks are alive and well.
I'll let you decide.
When asked the question directly by the Team 990's Tony Marinaro after the press conference whether or not Lecavalier is still in play, here is what Gainey said:
"I think there’s going to be trade discussions because teams are finding a new geography in the cap, in revenues and in areas other than just competitiveness. So I think almost anything is possible in the next little while, and by little while I mean next year too, like in the next 18 months."
Though Gainey was speaking in general terms, it was in response to a very specific question about Lecavalier. There's definitely no denial in there, and one team deaing with a "new geography" in revenues is definitely the Lightning. Even though Lawton insists Lecavalier is not available, you've got to believe he and Gainey were not making summer vacation plans when they were chatting in Toronto over the weekend.
Further on that theme, Gainey spoke about the Habs flexibility when it comes to this summer's free agent market. The Habs only have about $23.5 million committed in salaries for next season, by far the lowest number in the league, and the only teams that are close are those that won't spend to the cap in any case like Phoenix and Atlanta.
If indeed the cap drops by $2 million or so for next season, then a lot of teams will be very close to the ceiling with slots to fill on their roster. Those teams will need to find someone to take a hefty contract off their hands, which would put Gainey in a position of great power because he could stand to acquire an impact player for very little, since those teams wouldn't be interested in taking salary back.
Teams like the Bruins ($46.7 million committed for next season), Sabres ($46.5 million), Flames ($46.9 million), Red Wings ($51.3 million), Oilers ($46.9 million), Senators ($50.9 million), Flyers ($54 million), Penguins ($46.8 million), Sharks ($46.8 million), and Capitals ($45.9 million) are the most in danger of needing to shed salaries in order to fill out their roster for next season.
Some of those teams have atractive restricted free agents they might not be able to keep, led by Phil Kessel and David Krejci in Boston, Ryan Clowe in San Jose, Jiri Hudler in Detroit, Denis Grebeshkov in Edmonton and Drew Stafford in Buffalo. Others, meanwhile, will want to get rid of a contract because the cap is expected to really plummet two seasons from now, while others will simply be ordered by their owners to trim the budget because the team is bleeding money.
"It’s a different marketplace," Gainey said. "We know the cap number is changing and we can easily see a number of teams that are having financial problems. I think we’re going to walk gently and tenderly over the next month and look for possibilities to really improve our team. We have the least amount of money committed of any team in the league, and so it gives us the greatest opportunity to find a player another team may not be able to handle."
This puts the Canadiens, for the first time in recent memory, in a position of great bargaining strength come free agent season. Gainey can outbid most teams should he choose to do so, or he can grab established stars for prospects or draft picks. He said that in the five years leading up to this past season, the Habs were in drafting and development mode. But that conservative approach is now seemingly over.
"We’re at that tipping point where we have to look at using our good drafting to help ourselves more in the shorter term," Gainey said.
One thing's for sure, seeing as Gainey will apparently remain as GM of the Canadiens, this offseason will be a defining moment for his tenure here. Starting with Monday's hiring of Martin, Gainey will be able to cement his legacy in Habs management with a succesful summer of re-building this roster that is now littered with holes all over the place.
Should Gainey fail, he will unfortunately be remembered in Montreal more for his management blunders than his Hall of Fame career on the ice.