With six months of misery is now behind us, we can look forward to much brighter days. But Canadiens fans and especially the Canadiens organization itself can never be allowed to forget the embarrassment and damage that this season has inflicted. The old adage that those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it very much applies. Time to start getting things right.
The bookends to the last 4 seasons have been absolute gong shows (the pathetically meek centennial sweep, and this year’s 6-month clown show). It doesn’t take long to sully the name of a once respected brand – just ask Jim Balsillie and RIM. We Habs fans may not see it, or may not want to admit and acknowledge it, but the rest of the world certainly sees it, which is why so many fans bristle when we hear “outsiders” giving the team anything short of a verbal tongue bath.
What does it take to build (in the case of the Canadiens, rebuild) a lasting legacy of excellence, respect and prestige? The Habs once had these elements in spades, but through feckless management, and constant distraction, have totally lost their way. Where once upon a time anything but the Cup was seen as failure, now 8th place is viewed as an accomplishment. As a fan fed up with hapless mediocrity, it felt like winning was treated as something that was great if it happened, as long if politics and profits were taken care of first and foremost. Over the past few seasons, the performance of the team has not matched the presentation and marketing. During the press conference in which the firing of Pierre Gauthier was announced, Molson alluded to raising the organizational standards. No longer would 8th place be the measuring stick, or the goal to shoot for. Who can blame him, when the last 15 consecutive Cup winners started the playoffs with home ice advantage.
How long does it take to rebuild a legacy? One season of being back in the playoffs in 2012-13 won’t restore the Canadiens’ name. It will merely be one more step in the up-and-down pattern that this team has succumbed to. Even if the Canadiens somehow win the Cup next season, it will be an aberration until they cement many years of concrete results to make the Habs relevant and powerful again. This is why hiring the best people for the vacant GM job, and the quasi-vacant Head Coaching job is so important. You want to be the best? Go and hire the best.
The common template for success today is the Detroit Red Wings. They are in a class far above that of the Canadiens today (don’t try to tell me that the Canadiens beating the Wings 7-2 in a meaningless regular season game means they are actually pretty close to each other). The Red Wings have missed the playoffs twice since 1986, the year that the Habs won their 23rd Stanley Cup. The year Patrick Roy, who is now long retired, was a lanky rookie. The Wings often enter the playoffs as a favourites, as evidenced by 16 first place division finishes since 1986, and resulting in four Stanley Cup parades since 1997. They have just reeled off their 12th consecutive 100-point season (by contrast, the Habs have had two 100-point seasons since 1986). The Wings scout well. They draft well – without the benefit of selecting from the cream of the crop. They develop their youth well. They are well run – Habs fans are salivating at the idea of the Canadiens merely talking to their assistant General Manager Jim Nill! They transitioned from the free spending era to the salary cap era seamlessly and have never wavered. They are well coached, as virtually no Coach in the league is as respected as Mike Babcock is. They hire the best personnel, without exceptions, and surround them with even more top-notch talent. They make the thought of not being a Detroit Red Wing unbearable by being the embodiment of the environment that every other team wants for their organization, but to which most fall way short of.
In summary, the Wings are what the Habs used to be.
The Canadiens 2012-13 season went off the rails right from the very beginning. A poor preseason and a glacially cool start saw the Canadiens with one foot in the grave before Halloween. Injuries kicked the legs out from the other still-standing, but wonky limb, an ill-suited coach was replaced by an unprepared Coach who was immediately undermined, and the coffin was closed. The rest was just waiting for the oxygen to run out. Various players on the roster played their hearts out as if there was hope – Josh Gorges, Carey Price, Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban to name a few. But tidal wave after tidal wave of distraction washed over this group, and the frustrating part is that most of it was self-inflicted. Clearly, the Canadiens were not reading the Detroit Red Wings manual on how to run a team.
This off-season will be a particularly long one for Habs fans, but in typical Montreal fashion, this summer is going to be not only eventful and controversial, but also critical to the team’s future success. Geoff Molson has to put his money where his mouth is and set this team back on the right path. This is his biggest chance to get it right. The team will be going in to it’s 20th season without a Cup parade, and it won’t be long until Habs fans start becoming the butt of the same jokes that Leafs fans have been for 45 years running.
We look forward to the draft lottery, the draft itself, free agency, and finally the golf tournament that officially launches the pre-season. But if Molson doesn’t find a way to change the culture of the organization by hiring great hockey minds, then we can look forward to another year of the same old, same old, and find yet more convenient excuses to explain the team’s misfortunes.
There are certainly reasons to be “all in” for the Canadiens future, but until Molson takes charge and starts doing things the right way, I’ll only be cautiously optimistic.