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Clock Strikes Midnight for Gainey

I really wanted this to be a more varied sports blog, but the Canadiens are making this too easy (and fun)!

Bob Gainey is now the  former General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens, giving up his job today, and passing the torch to his assistant, Pierre Gauthier (so really, what has changed?).

I’m not surprised. Not at the announcement, and certainly not at the timing. Usually things like this come as a shock, but after I posted my rant on January 28th about the confusing puzzle that is the Canadiens, I was prepared for today’s press conference. After listening to the press conference it sounded as though Gainey had simply felt as though he had nothing left to give. Once the 100th anniversary celebrations were over, and once the Molsons took over, Gainey reportedly began to question his future with the team. In this case, we do have to leave room for the possibility that he has had enough of this job. Maybe he didn’t want to be here anymore, and rather than make moves with his heart and mind in another place, he’s going to relinquish control of hockey decisions. That’s a classy move, and I expect nothing less from Gainey. Of course, I’ve never pegged him as a selfish quitter, but perhaps he read the writing on the wall. We will never know if he’s simply leaving on his own terms, or pulling the chute before feeling the sharp blade of the axe on his neck. There usually is more to things like this, and with changes in ownership often come changes in culture and philosophy. Did Gainey’s views clash with the Molsons?

We have been led to believe that Gainey is leaving now because the roster freeze prompted by the Olympic Games is a natural entry point for Pierre Gauthier to take over and get acclimatized. That’s very possible. On the other hand, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Gainey was being denied the independence of doing his job as he sees fit.

Here’s my theory, as simple and speculative as it is: Gainey, in full survival mode, wanted to make some moves to strengthen the team before the March 3rd trade deadline in hopes to make the playoffs, and perhaps secure a new contract. On the flip side, the Molsons are looking more towards the future, and do not want have this team floating in mediocrity, as it has been for years. Obviously, this can be easily debunked if you believe Gainey’s explanation of not wanting to continue as General Manager.

Yes, I know my theory does not make sense. Why would the Molsons, who just spent over half a billion dollars choose to miss the playoffs (or at least make missing the post-season a very real possibility), thus forfeiting playoff revenues. Why? Because this team as currently constructed would get a maximum of 3 home dates. At $2-3 million per game, they would rake in anywhere from $4 to 9 million in extra money. That’s a lot of money for just about everyone. But is it a lot of money for a trio of brothers who just spent upwards of $575 million for their new toy? I doubt it. I believe that the Molsons are emotionally invested in the success of their team on the ice, given the long and successful link their family has with the club. My personal belief is that they want the team to sit at the top of the standings, and not aim for 8th every year, which is what we had under Gainey’s tenure. Maybe I’m certifiably nuts, but I think they’re in this for glory as much as for money. Many will suggest that the opposite of my theory is what’s truly afoot here: that the Molsons wanted Gainey to do whatever is necessary to make the playoffs, and gain that precious bonus revenue, and that Gainey was resistant to mortgage the future in order to do that. Gainey has never been one to give up on the post-season, and I doubt he’d start now. Evidence for this can be found in that he let many free agents walk away for nothing over the years instead of trading them and acquiring assets for the future. Making the playoffs can come at a cost, and that cost is losing free agents for nothing in return. In essence, guys like Souray, Streit, and Ryder were traded for a few playoff games and cap space. That’s what leads me to believe that Gainey is looking to add to this team, instead of look to the future.

image courtesy of Getty Images

It’s not important which one is right, or if either are right. This could truly be a case of a guy who’s had enough. Or, it could be a guy who’s quitting before he’s fired. We will never know if this is truly the case, and we will have to accept the “passing of the torch” reasoning behind his resignation.

But let’s take a look at why the Molsons would bother resigning Gainey to a long-term deal.

During the off-season, Gainey convinced the Molsons that it was possible to radically rebuild a team with tons of cap space rather that look to the future via the draft and prospects. Perhaps it can be done. But it looks unlikely that the group Gainey put in place is getting the job done. A series of free agent signings (including some puzzling signings on the blueline),  and worst of all – the hiring of a coach who’s best days are well behind him all add up to this team being in the same place as it has always been – fighting for 8th place. Bob Gainey wanted to bring in younger, durable players after guys like Koivu, Kovalev, Tanguay, etc repeatedly fell to injury or mood swings. That Cammalleri, Gionta, and Gomez were all uncharacteristically injured for long stretches this season is truly unfortunate, both for Gainey, the team and fans. But the truth of the matter is that for every positive move Gainey made, he also made mistakes. Take the signing of Alex Tanguay for example. Gainey traded a 1st and 2nd round draft pick to get Tanguay, and had no second thoughts about resigning him again for this season. 2 high draft picks in exchange for 50 games, 41 points. That’s simply indefensible. I would not have brought Tanguay back either, but nor would I have made the move to bring him in (that Tanguay is now in Tampa earning half of what he made in previous years is evidence enough that nobody else  wanted him either) in the first place. Don’t want to blame Gainey for that? Then blame his pro scouts (there’s Pierre Gauthier again), or blame Tanguay himself. Either way, the trail leads back to Gainey’s office. The hiring of Jacques Martin may very well be the most serious error of all. I’ve gone on at length about that hiring in previous entries. The fact is, in a market like Montreal you cannot continually hire and fire coaches (especially the one you claim is the best move you’ve made), bring in heartless, fragile or inconsistent talent, underachieve in the playoffs,  and not improve the “guts” of the team’s operations and not eventually face the music. Like I said in this post, he’s in year 7 of a 5 year plan. Isn’t that enough time? If not, then what is?

Let me ask this: What has transpired with Gainey as Habs GM that, in your view, warrants him staying beyond this season? I’m not talking about the “who is a better replacement?” argument. Lack of obvious options to the every day fan should not prevent the Canadiens, or Gainey, from doing what’s best for the team.

Answer these questions for yourself:

Has the farm system been improved? Yes, a little bit. Guy Boucher seems to be a future star coach, and a couple players look like they’ll have an impact in the NHL, if they’re developed properly, and if they aren’t traded away. That’s about it. The Bulldogs can now provide the Canadiens with several depth players, and are restocked in that regard. But there are no stars coming.

Have the Canadiens had any real success under Gainey? No, and don’t tell me about finishing #1 in the East 2 years ago. That was a fluke. You know and I know it, and furthermore since when was success in Montreal measured by finishing 1st in the East? And don’t bother with the 2 first round wins over the Bruins. If anything is dismissible, it’s 1st round playoff victories. Making the playoffs 4 times is also a hollow argument. Yes, it’s an improvement over the previous regime, but again, that’s not good enough for a team like the Canadiens.

Have young players developed once getting to the NHL? No. Definitely not.

Is the team well positioned for the future? I don’t know. It will take some time yet see if Gainey’s master plan from last year ever pans out, but we sure are saddled with some long term deals to players and coaches, so we likely have lots of time to figure it out.

The end result in my view is that the team is slightly better off now than it was in 2003, and I expected more than “slightly better”. But in Montreal, the bottom line is the Stanley Cup. Always has been. The banners in the rafters remind us of that every day, yet many fans have been reprogrammed to believing that mediocre (i.e. 8th place) is now good enough. 15 years of treading water will do that to a fan base. Under Gainey, the number of years that the Canadiens went cupless jumped from 10 to 16+. Are you ok with that?

Including himself, there have been 4 coaches behind the Canadiens bench since 2003 when he took over (Julien, Gainey, Carbonneau, Gainey, Martin). Yes, yes. I know. President Pierre Boivin handcuffed Gainey in to hiring Jacques Martin. Boivin should be kept to the business side of things. He’s good at that. But this post is not about Boivin. It’s about Gainey. And the truth is this team is not in any better shape in 2010 than it was in 2003 when he was brought on board. He had huge expectations and they were not even close to being fulfilled, and all signs indicate that they are not going to be realized any time soon.

Inconsistency from game to game, season over season took place on Gainey’s watch. We can blame coaches, scouts, players themselves, media, fans and the weather, but ultimately, Gainey, like everyone else in this world who has a boss has to answer for his team’s performance. Given how it’s been such a long time since we’ve seen winning hockey in Montreal, you may not remember what a contending team looks like. You may think that if things had gone slightly differently, that 25th banner would already be hanging from the rafters. I would suggest you get the sniffing salt out. When was the last time you had confidence that this team could compete with the league’s true powers in a 7-game playoff series? Personally, I haven’t felt that way in….well…I can’t remember. Oh, wait, I do remember the Canadiens upsetting the heavily favored Bruins twice in the past few years. But I suggest you review the Canadiens record vs the Bruins in the playoffs. Regardless of their standings, the Canadiens have an overwhelming margin of victory. Playoffs or not, this team is not coming together as Gainey had planned. His plan from last summer was never guaranteed to work. It was a gamble and he knew this when he put his cards on the table. His plan has not paid off and rather than slink out of town on the heels of a 9th place finish, he’s leaving now, while it’s still his choice.

Gainey is accountable for the team’s performance, and survey says that it has not been up to snuff. Not even close. We can make all the excuses in the world for people that we like, and we like Gainey a whole lot, but at some point, the cord has to be cut and you have to move in a different direction. Today, Gainey made that decision for the Molsons. He was given the mandate to have this team contending for the Stanley Cup in time for the team’s 100th birthday. That time has come and gone, and the Canadiens still find themselves spinning their wheels in the standings. As alluded to at the press conference, Gainey began to question his future with the club when the Gilletts left, and at the conclusion of the 100th anniversary celebrations. With his mandate unfulfilled, he knew his time was up, and he is choosing to leave on his own.

If you’re still reading this (first of all, thanks!), you’re probably convinced that I don’t like Bob Gainey very much. Nothing could be further from the truth. The man is a rock, and he’s probably one of the most upstanding people you’ll ever meet (note: I have never actually met him). But in the end, he did not accomplish what he wanted, what the fans wanted, nor what was expected of him by his bosses. What many people, especially those who bore witness to the great Canadiens teams of the 70’s (I am not in this group) will have trouble with is separating Gainey the player, Gainey the captain, Gainey the hero from Gainey the General Manager when defending him. These are 2 different careers, and one should not be judged in light of the other.

This is not a day for celebration, but rather it’s a day to reflect on what this team has done, and where it is going. Gainey’s number 23 hangs in the rafters at the Bell Center among the very best to ever suit up for the team, and rightfully so. He was a great player, a great captain, and a terrific role model for many years. He just didn’t have the golden touch as GM of this team. Not many people do. His presence and voice is still valid and still respected, and I’m glad that he will remain (for now) as advisor to Pierre Gauthier.

Perhaps Pierre Gauthier is not the permanent answer, but at least now things are moving, albeit slowly. At the end of the press conference, we look at the team and what do we see? A team where the General Manager and his assistant have simply changed titles. So if you liked where this was going over the past 7 years, this should come as good news, as very little has changed. If you didn’t approve of the team’s direction, perhaps this is the start of something new.

I just have one thing to ask: Can we get please get off the hamster wheel already?

  • http://www.thecheckingline.com Prax

    Just like Gainey, I’m not sure how much I have left to give. I tried to write about this today on my site and I really couldn’t put something together that I really thought could justify how I feel about this entire situation. Gainey did some good, he did some bad, but in the end, this team isn’t any closer to the goal Gainey himself set for the team 7 years ago – to win a cup.

    So where do we go from here? Gauthier isn’t all that different from Gainey, but no one really knows what he’s going to do with the reigns. How short will his leach be? How short with Martin’s leach be? Boivin? I kind of want to sit back and see how it all unfolds before really sounding off on everything. Because there is still a lot of developing left to do for some of the players Gainey had a hand in bringing in.

    But I can at least say, like Julie, that I will miss THE MAN that was Bob Gainey. He was a class act and deserved every bit of sucess he had coming to him over the years. The GM? At this point, not so much…

  • http://www.metricjulie.com metricjulie

    I, too, think it was time for a change but will dearly miss the man that is Bob Gainey and sincerely hope he will be hanging around for a while so we can get more of his tasty and classy press conferences.

    As always, Kyle, you have succeeded in communicating your thoughts and opinions in a clear and detailed way, while adding just enough “IT” factor to make us wanting more, even after your more lengthy blogs. WELL DONE, MAN.

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