Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A bit too late

I have no intention of coming to some snap judgment on Bob Gainey's time as the Montreal Canadiens general manager today, even though it is the most appropriate day to do it.

Why won't I? Because I can't. Much like those who decide to rate a performance at the draft as soon as that draft is over, it is far too soon to judge Gainey's work when his primary act as general manager happened only a few short months ago.

It is impossible to judge what he did here without first seeing how his summer overhaul of the Canadiens pans out, and if I have one criticism I would like to express about Gainey tonight, it is just that.

He spoke today of preferring to leave the job a little too early rather than staying too long, but in my eyes he did overstay his welcome because he went ahead with that re-shaping of the roster.

I was fully expecting Gainey to step down following last year's playoff ouster from the Bruins. At his post-mortem press conference last season, he looked tired, worn out. He was still reeling from the loss of his daughter Laura. His eldest daughter had just had a son, his first grandchild, and in my eyes it just looked like he didn't quite have that fire in his belly that is so necessary for this job.

The timing would have been perfect. The team would be able to conduct a thorough search for his successor (more on that in a bit), who would have a practically blank canvas to work with. A new coach needed to be hired, there was tons of cap space to work with and roster spots that needed filling, while Gainey could have still advised the new GM on which incumbent players he felt should be prioritized.

But Gainey stayed on, to my mild surprise, knowing full well that he might not be invited back after this season. Once that season began at the NHL Draft with Gainey still in place,  it became his responsibility to see this process through.

The timing of today's announcement was described by Pierre Boivin as being a case of letting Gainey's successor make the decisions at the trade deadline that he would have to live with after Gainey was gone. Well, even though I'm sure Pierre Gauthier played a very big role in the summer shakeup, that's not how this was ultimately handled.

In that sense, having Gauthier come in to replace Gainey makes perfect sense, simply because he is the only potential candidate who could still have some degree of accountability for all the moves made last summer.

“I’m going to leave the stage so Pierre can answer your questions and design for you the future of the team.”

Those were Gainey's final words to the Montreal media he so rarely spoke with. I found them curious, a bit awkward even, but notable that the last word was what Gainey was all about: team. And just like that, Gainey was gone.

Which brings me to my second point, and that is the process behind Gauthier's selection as his successor. Boivin essentially admitted today that no other candidate was even considered for the job, or if they were considered, it was not for very long. With the trade deadline looming only two months or so after Gainey told him he would not seek a contract extension, Boivin obviously felt he needed to act quickly.

“We spent the month of January thinking over our decision, and we decided to make as quick a transition as possible," Boivin said. "There are key periods in the year, with a couple that are coming up, and I thought it was important that the person who will be making those decisions will be the one who has to live with those decisions.”

Later, I asked Boivin if he ever considered opening this process up to the rest of the hockey community, considering it is one of the most prestigious jobs in the sport. Here's his answer:
“The list of individuals who can adequately be general managers in the National Hockey League is not a list that goes on infinitely (he actually used a Latin term for 'infinitely,' but my Latin spelling is not what it used to be). There are very few people in the world who can do this job, and the vast majority of them are under contract and are untouchables. When you look at the criteria to be successful in this job, in this market, you come to a list of individuals who have experience, who have the ability to communicate in both languages, who have a track record and who are prepared to be here. Your list now is down very quickly. So it’s not a typical hire. You do your homework, you make sure you turn over every rock and you hire the best person available. We were fortunate that person was in our organization already.”
I'm sorry, but if you are going to hire a new GM just after new ownership took over, you should go through a selection process of some sort. Maybe I'm the only one who feels that way, but it appears obvious to me.

The problem, of course, is that Boivin is correct when he says the selection criteria greatly limits the field. When you are seeking someone who is both bilingual and experienced, it's a very small pool. There's Gainey's former GM Serge Savard, Gainey's predecessor Andre Savard, former Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix, his successor Francois Giguere and that's just about it. The other three men that come to mind all work for the Canadiens already - Rejean Houle, Jacques Martin and Gauthier.

So, if they were going to stay in house, I guess Gauthier was the best man for the job. But really, would it kill them to loosen that selection criteria a little bit? It appears it would.

"Pierre had an advantage because he was on the inside, we knew him well and we worked well together," Boivin said. "He also had a lot of experience in this position, and it’s important for this franchise to have a man with experience and maturity."

On the language part of the selection criteria, Boivin was pretty clear that it's a deal-breaker.

“You bet it’s important, there’s no question," he said. "This is one of the unique aspects of our franchise. It’s part of our life, it’s part of our culture, it’s part of our mission. We operate in the province of Quebec, two thirds or three quarters of our fans are Francophones. I think it’s the minimum of respect to be able to communicate (with them).”

That's perfectly fair, but you can't have your cake and eat it, too. If you want a Francophone GM, or at least a bilingual one, you need to be open to hiring one that has no previous NHL experience. You can find a director of scouting somewhere, or a junior GM (a pretty popular one happens to work just up the river from here), or even a player agent.

So now, the Pierre Gauthier era begins. He doesn't appear to have a very good reputation as far as his demeanor is concerned, earning the nickname "Grouchy" and taking to managing cookie counts during pre-game meals.

But I will say this, both teams he has managed went on to varying degrees of success, and in both cases it was immediately after he left. Gauthier resigned in Ottawa in 1998 to move back to California, but the Senators reeled off nine straight seasons of at least 94 points starting the following year. In Anaheim, the Ducks made the Stanley Cup final the year after Gauthier left. On top of that, he was responsible for laying the bricks in Quebec City as head of scouting, which eventually led to a Stanley Cup champ in Colorado.

So it could be argued that Gauthier's strength is laying the foundation for success, not for getting a team over the top. But that's not what's required here. The foundation has supposedly been laid for years, what's missing is someone to grab that missing piece of the puzzle to make this team one that is consistently in the top tier, which Gauthier repeatedly stated was his goal today. 

Gauthier did enlighten us in terms of his plans for the direction of the team in the short-term, which was the focus of my story for The Canadian Press today. For all intents and purposes, he put to rest the suspense of which goalie would not survive the March 3 trade deadline by declaring in no uncertain terms that he feels the Habs have a better chance of making the playoffs with both of them. He did, however, say he would never say never, which means the rumours probably won't stop.

Gauthier, in speaking to reporters a bit more informally, said later that what is separating the Habs from being an upper crust team is being able to shake off the injuries that have plagued the club this year and still perform. He gave the example of the New Jersey Devils still rolling along without their number one defenceman Paul Martin.

“That’s where the top-tier teams are with their identity, with their chemistry, with their system," Gauthier said. "So whether we have our top players or not, we need to continue this process of building that identity, that leadership and that strength of the team. That’s what we’re working on.”

But the fact the Canadiens have had trouble thriving without some of their better players also speaks to the depth of the organization, particularly among the forwards. I asked Gauthier whether or not he should use his position of strength in goal to shore up other areas of his roster. He went on to compliment my analysis of the situation, which I couldn't tell if it was sincere or condescending, but ultimately fell back on his position that he prefers having both goalies in Montreal.

He also said he'd begun discussions with Tomas Plekanec's agent Rick Curran, who was nice enough to call me back to confirm what Gauthier told us. Curran was clear to me that he does not negotiate in public, but he could confirm that a conversation had taken place and that there is a mutual interest to get something done. With Gauthier saying the Canadiens cap situation "very manageable," it appeared to me that an agreement could in fact be reached because the willingness appears to be there on both sides.

So the Gauthier era began Monday with a press conference and a roster move, Brock Trotter and Ryan White being sent back to Hamilton while Tom Pyatt was called back up. There will be many more moves to come, but the core of this team is set in stone for the near future.

When will we be able to judge Gainey's time in Montreal? Perhaps never, because the man running the show now was so intricately tied to the decisions made by Gainey during the most important period of his tenure. In a sense, the Gainey era was extended Monday, and it will be very difficult to untangle it from supposedly new era that is about to begin.


pierre said...

The show must go on !

Thank you Arpon for this most appropriate article.

As a fan of the CH and as a hockey lover I am more conscerned about the present and about the futur than I am about the past so thanks again to have devoted the bulk of this article more on Gauthier than on Gainey..... unlike everyone else in the sport press.

I am glad to know that Gauthier acted as Chief of Scouts in his long carreer in the
NHL...... both Ken Holland and his immediate predecesseur who brought back the Red Wings back to life as GM did..... it was also the main reason as to why I thought Andre Savard was a good choice when he was hired to work as a GM for us back then..... until Gainey came along..... I am definitly ready for Gauthier and I like what I could read from him today.

V said...

Arpon - thanks for the article.

And I can't help feeling like you have a bug up your bum (old Atlantic Canadian expression) about Gainey, Gauthier, et al. Am I off base or is there something nagging you... if yes, can you come clean?

john deere said...

Arpon, good article. One thing I have noticed is you are getting a more "flowingness" to your writing style that makes it easier to read. It reads more like a conversation rather than a formal article.

HabsRadio.com said...

Great piece as always, Arpon. Regarding Gauthier's condescending tone, if you asked me it's simply a result of you hitting the nail on the head in yerms of his true thoughts on the matter. It would put him in a terrible bargaining position if he openly admitted you were right though.

Sliver24 said...

Yikes! Did you really just suggest Patrick Roy to take over the reins of the team as GM? All of a sudden the Gauthier hiring doesn't look so bad to me.

Based on your analysis of Gauthier's history I'm thinking that Geoff Molson may in fact be a genius after all. His plan is undoubtedly to fire his new GM in the upcoming offseason, thereby setting the team up for instant success. Brilliant!

Happy belated, BTW.

BRGK #9 said...

Could the proverbial someone please pose to the Francophone media the following question: would you rather have a bilingual GM and a losing team, or an English-speaking GM and a winning team?

That's really what the whole language debate comes down to, and it boggles my mind that team officials still kowtow to the language line. Heck, it doesn't just boggle my mind, it offends me that *anyone* accepts this.

I've been a Canadiens fan since I was in diapers, watching every game I could, year in and year out. My father passed the tradition to me (and gave me the middle name of the player who inspired him so many years ago: Richard). The sport and the team are a part of my life. And there are many others out there like me, Francophone and Anglophone and plenty of other -phones, too.

We remember the shameful, disgraceful years of Rejean Houle, when the greatest franchise in sport was systematically dismantled degraded. Those years hurt the soul. The team is still recovering; Bob Gainey, despite his many faults, at least stopped the destruction. But is that the best we can hope for?

I don't care what the GM speaks. If it's French, fine. English, fine. Russian or Mongolian or Esperanto: fine, too. Hell, let him be deaf-mute, and communicate with sign language and typing. *I don't care.* I just want the Montreal Canadiens back.

And to all the Québécois who object — and truly, I do understand that there is culture and history and pride at stake here — the new GM can take French classes and work with a translator. If he's any good, he'll stick around long enough to be fluent.


p.s. Kari Lehtonen traded for a warm body and 4th round draft choice: can we finally stop talking about trading Halak? It doesn't matter how high his value is, because talented but unproven young goalies are intrinsically cheap.

p.p.s. Gainey's great failure wasn't that he blew up the team, but *how* he blew up the team. Imagine he'd traded those nine UFAs at the deadline last season. (I'm omitting Kovalev, the only one he legitimately tried to re-sign.) They probably would have returned half a dozen prospects, and half a dozen mid-to-high picks ... instead, the team got nothing, and the farm system doesn't appear to have a top-nine forward within three years of the NHL.

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of your assessment, but not that Gainey chose to overstay his welcome. As the ultimate team-first character he is, despite probably wanting to leave in the summer I believe he put the interests of the organization ahead of his own and stayed on because they needed him. The team had no owner, no head coach and 10 players without contract! Would it really have helped the team to lose Gainey at that moment as well? Definitely not.

I didn't like the Gomez trade but I think we all know that this clearly wasn't his first choice and he needed to bring in a new 1st line centre from somewhere. Some of the other acquisitions I did like and I'm sure that they couldn't have happened in the instability of a franchise in major transition with a new GM figuring out where his office is in the building.

I also don't think it's too early to say that Gainey's time as a GM was successful either. Perhaps you can't give a full and detailed analysis of the years he served in the position. However if you look at the shape of the team, the organization and the fan base prior to his arrival and compare it to right now it is unquestionably better now (not to mention that they achieved a first place finish during his time as GM as well).

Ultimately I think that Bob Gainey has always been an absolute class act, an intelligent GM and a clear and decisive leader for the organization as a whole.

Like Saku Koivu, he was often better than even this great organization and it's fans deserved.

Neither of those men are immune from making mistakes but you simply cannot question the quality of the men and their ability to lend to the club something that is just as special as winning a cup.

john deere said...

Actually, I thought it was good that Atlanta got a late first round draft pick ( 27th , 2006) for a goalie. I would be happy with a late first round or early second round defenseman in exchange for Halak. Whether he is good enough to be a top 4 d-man remains to be seen but that would be up to Atlanta to do due diligence on him, something that is beyond my ability.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should consider changing the name of the blogg from the Daily Hab-it to the Bi-Weekly Hab-it…

Anonymous said...

You are slacking dude, I love your blogs, but you've gotta decide.

Make the money with CP or whatever, that's a good thing and you deserve it, you seem a responsible and professional journalist...or keep your site going...

If you are ill or something, then no worries.

But otherwise Blogging is daily, or you'll be done son.