On 1 July of last year when Bob Gainey took over as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, he took the new job with eyes wide open. When he’d left his identical position with the Dallas Stars and had moved into an advisory role within that organization, he’d insisted that his next big role in the NHL had to contain a solid challenge for him. Trying to re-establish the Canadiens as the prominent franchise in the NHL certainly fits that bill.
Highest on his list of priorities, it seemed, was rebuilding the hockey department and surrounding himself with competent and knowledgeable people who were aligned with his vision. Fortunately, the man he succeeded as GM, Andre Savard, was willing to remain at his right hand. While certainly a pride-eating move for Savard, it was a coup for Gainey since the former’s most loved skill is that of identifying talent, particularly amateur.
Gainey subsequently made a series of moves within the upper management designed specifically around that goal of acquiring excellent hockey minds to assist him in his monumental task. Pierre Gauthier, a former GM himself, was hired on as professional scout during these moves, and his presence certainly gives the Canadiens a trained critical eye on the other players in the NHL. While he’d never been a complete success as a GM himself, there is no doubt that Gauthier understands the talent required to play at the highest level of hockey.
A re-affirmation that Claude Julien would be his coach was another critical move – or in this case, non-move – by Gainey. Julien had been hired mid-season the previous year by Savard but hadn’t been able to institute his particular system due to various factors, primarily the fact that he’d started mid-season. His obvious winning abilities, as proved with the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs, the Montreal farm club he’d taken to the heights before being hired as Canadiens coach, and his ability to nurture and bring out the best in youth were critical to Gainey’s apparent plan.
The Canadiens, as a smaller market club, would be relying on the drafting and development of a strong set of assets to once again take them to the promised land. While trades and free agent signings would certainly supplement the player corps, it would be the in-house development of home-grown talent that would be key. Gainey made this perfectly clear early on in his reign.
To this end, as training camp began, the youth were given every opportunity to shine and were put in positions to succeed. As camp progressed, it became obvious that there was some wonderful talent in the organization that needed only maturing and seasoning. Tomas Plekanec was the final cut of the year, and both Ron Hainsey and Chris Higgins stayed with the team to start the season.
One of the biggest issues identified early by Gainey was the lack of size and grit, particularly amongst the forwards. To this end, during the waiver draft, he made two choices designed specifically to address this particular need. While both players were injured when chosen, each has turned out to be a gem in the rough and have significantly aided the Canadiens in the two areas identified. Darren Langdon has served as the team’s ‘goon’, but also has the ability to play some decent hockey. Gainey’s steal, however, was the acquisition of Steve Begin, a lightening rod of energy and a consummate team guy.
Just before the season actually started, during the preseason games, the boo-birds, a group of fans displeased with Patrice Brisebois in particular, were out in force and making themselves heard despite the object of their dissatisfaction playing a good game. In a statement to the media afterwards, Gainey called out those fans, insisting that the Canadiens didn’t need this type of person in attendance. The boos thereafter stopped, and more significantly, the game of Brisebois improved considerably.
It’s this kind of action that has given the players confidence. Now, instead of worrying about every little incident, they know they have the backing of the GM and thus have more assurance in what they do. In fact, it’s this stability, respect and confidence that are the biggest factors Gainey has introduced to the club. Whereas in the past there has always been significant second guessing, now there is little by comparison, and thus the players and coaches are able to perform their duties in relative comfort.
There were some concerns, however, from the fans as the season opened and moved along in its first phase. The Canadiens were struggling and there were voices from many corners insisting that some of the hockey played was the worst they’d seen in ages. In fact, it was.
However, Gainey had been very specific when he’d said he would need a period to examine and learn each piece of the Montreal puzzle. The first 20 games consisted of a learning time for the GM – but also for the players who were being taught a completely different system than the one they’d known. Furthermore, because he was evaluating his players, each was placed in different positions from game to game. There was little consistency in the line-up early on, but that was by design.
A key for the players, in all likelihood, was the assurance that there would be no political games being played, but that only the players who deserved it would play. This saw a surprise as the season started with Karl Dykhuis and Patrick Traverse were sent down to the AHL. Indeed, Gainey made good on that promise to field only the best players, and as such the team is much better off.
Of course, the GM was adamant that the team would be built around youth. Those kids were told that, when they deserved it, they’d be given the taste of the NHL. Those already in the NHL were reminded that they were not there by right, but because of play, and if they failed to perform, they’d be sent packing to Hamilton to refine their games.
Hainsey was sent down when his game didn’t meet with expectations, and the decision was made to bring up Mike Komisarek, a player Gainey said was no longer AHL-quality. Also, Pierre Dagenais was given his shot in the NHL after leading the Bulldogs in scoring. So too were Benoit Gratton, Plekanec, and Josef Balej. It can be assumed that some were told specifically from the outset that they were only getting a taste as a direct result of the performance they’d shown in Hamilton, but would be returned thence shortly.
From this, we can conjecture that Gainey has every intention of keeping his Hamilton team together that they might learn to win together. It’s a strong message for the future of the Canadiens, and also for the present – development will not be sacrificed for the short-term. Thus, it’s unlikely that the better of the recently drafted will remain in Montreal for long.
This season can therefore be seen as a bridge between the Savard era and the bright future. Older players like Dagenais, while getting their chance in the NHL, will probably be slowly phased out as the higher talent matures on the farm. There’s a strong possibility that next season will see the Plekanec’s, Balej’s, and others joining the parent club.
It’s for this reason there will probably not be any blockbuster deals before the trade deadline, but only tinkering for a potential playoff run, but with an eye to the future. The Canadiens were not even expected to make the playoffs this year according to many pundits, and however much their play has amazed, it doesn’t change the fact this team is building for a long-term future, and not a short-term playoff appearance.
Indeed, Gainey has mentioned repeatedly that this team is in no rush. He only deemed himself satisfied that he understood all his pieces by the mid-season point, and subsequently has done little except let the team grow. Certainly he’ll be looking for a piece or two that will work with his long-term strategy, and if they assist short-term, that’s just a bonus.
It’s quite amazing that, in such a short time, Bob Gainey has stepped in and has brought this team from disorganization to respectability. Teams don’t consider Montreal games to be relaxing anymore. Around the league, when the Canadiens name is mentioned, it’s no more with a derisive giggle, but now with a look of respect and comments about potential. With one of their old captains at the helm, the Canadiens are looking to a positive future, much like fans reminisce about a dynastic past.