Tuesday, February 09, 2010

As Gainey exits, questions remain as to the Canadiens direction

While Canadians from coast to coast to coast were following the Olympic torch, in Montreal a torch of their own was being passed along, this one an event that will resonate long after the glow of the Olympic cauldron in Vancouver fades at the end of the month.

On Monday, Bob Gainey, an icon of the franchise and apparently not comfortable with the idea a long commitment to his new bosses, turned the reins of Les Canadiens over to his assistant, Pierre Gauthier. The decision coming but weeks before a trade deadline and as the season heads into its homestretch has landed as though a thunderbolt in the heart of Quebec's hockey mad believers.

While stating that he will remain for now as a special advisor to Gauthier, it is a puzzling exit strategy for the now former GM and the Habs new ownership which brings to an end his long running association with the only team he ever played the game for.

He leaves a team that has been his life for a good portion of his professional career both on the ice and off, from those heady days of Stanley Cup victories to the disappointing years that seemed to suggest that the Habs had but the history books now for their better days. Along the journey there were personal tragedies in his life that would test the strongest of us, a shared pain with a community that asks a lot of their hockey heroes but offers an equal amount of respect when the times become painful.

It's that opportunity to leave behind the pressures of Montreal and take more time to be with his family that perhaps deflects much of the surprise that his decision has provided to the hockey world this week.

By leaving as he does now however, he does allow his replacement with the opportunity to put his stamp on the team heading into the final drive towards the playoffs.

His departure from the main office comes after a rather vigorous rebuilding of the teams roster in this past off season, a process that hasn't rewarded Gainey with instant success, as the Canadiens struggle to find their chemistry with a collection of players culled from various sources.

Some of the pieces have fit in nicely, as this years new arrivals pick up their play and immerse themselves into the lore and weight of the storied franchise. Others however have struggled, Scott Gomez anticipated as part of renaissance of fire wagon hockey has instead appeared burdened by the pressure that Montreal can bring to bear on a player, his offensive numbers so far this year in Montreal, like they were in New York, are a far cry from what he accomplished in the defensive yolk that was New Jersey.

Even the returnees have been hit and miss, the most obvious candidate goaltender Carey Price, who has yet to seize the number one position as his own, finding rough patches again this season that leave Habs fans anxious for that break out year when he will become dominant.

The task of nurturing all this acquired talent will now belong to Gauthier, as he looks over what is working and what is not and decides if Montreal has any moves to make as the trade deadline arrives in March, a process that is hindered to a degree by the embargo on trades during the Olympic break set to start this weekend.
The latter stages of the Gainey years will be remembered for some ice negotiations that didn't come to pass, the Lecavalier drama of last year and the off season developments with Kovalev tempted the fans but didn't deliver in the end.

The recent handling of the Georges Laraque dismissal, left the Canadiens in the unusual position of having to defend their reputation as a team that knows how to ease out those who may have seen time pass them by. It provided for a media blizzard that seemed to leave Gainey off his balance, festering as it evolved off the ice, played out in a media that loves the story and found the narrative compelling.

His decisions of the last off season have left his most trusted associate Gauthier with a number of large contracts to contend with, little movement space in this era of the salary cap and a number of conundrums to deal with in the way of assessing if his talent is a long term plus or if they offer the opportunity to build for the years to come.

With the Habs currently in seventh place, Gauthier will have to decide if the six point difference between 7 and 13 is something that by seasons' end will find the Habs in the playoffs, and even if they do, are they in the position for a long run in this years Stanley Cup playoffs. If not he needs to prepare for the next one by way of some deadline deals to stock up on future prospects.

While he's been Gainey's assistant for six and half years, on Tuesday the job was his and his alone, one of the toughest of jobs in one of the leagues toughest markets.

As Gainey knew, and all of those before him, while the pressure and responsibility rests with one person, the passion and interaction of the fans and media in one of hockey's most vibrant cities means that you're never really alone in the room and every move, every word will examined for much more than just a roster decision.

It's that passion that makes the Montreal GM's position one that offers challenges that few others in the league can come close to, there really is no honeymoon period in Montreal, you are judged on your moves and your teams success.

This will mark the third time that Pierre Gauthier has become the GM of an NHL team, suffice to say it will be an experience that can never be matched elsewhere among the remaining 29 teams of the collective.

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