Picture this: you’re the general manager of a club that started the season in, as Danny Gallivan would have described it, scintillating fashion, yet somehow, just before the Christmas break, they went on vacation and never came back. When the trade deadline rolled around in late February, your club was in the kind of funk that rivalled a Harold Ballard era Maple Leaf slide, and you had no clue if the team under your command was going to finally figure out how to play this great game again.
What would you do?
For Bob Gainey, it was a whole lot of nothing, much to the chagrin of the fans, the media, and perhaps even the players and coaches working under him. In the face of overwhelmingly putrid play from his players on the ice, Gainey chose not to make one single last minute move; nothing to shake the chemistry, nothing to modify the core, nothing to even show the world he was aware of the situation.
A great many fans pilloried him, called for his head on a platter. If the team was performing that poorly on the ice, then surely this man who’d been introduced as someone who’d turn around the franchise, as someone who’d already turned the Dallas franchise into a Cup winner, should have made some move to, at the very least, shake things up.
Naturally, the media had a field day with his lack of action. From the respected to the… less than respected, they all seemed to question his lack of action in one way or another. This was Le Tricolore! Les Glorieux! Le Bleu Blanc Rouge! How dare he leave them high and dry when the opportunity seemed to be ripe to make changes.
Fans and media alike pointed out player after player who should have been moved – some for huge sums and others for bags of chipped pucks, if need be. Sergei Samsonov was the obvious target; he who’s play had fallen so low that he’d passed through waivers, seemingly without the faintest interest. There was also Sheldon Souray, the defender many thought would be impossible to resign with cap issues and because it was rumoured he’d rather be in LA. Besides these two, a dozen or more names were thrown about with abandon as either no good
for the Canadiens or as pawns to get “what the club really needed.”
Yet with all the angst around him, Gainey stuck with the crew he had on the ice, saying only that he had faith in the players in the dressing room and the staff that coached them. He indicated that results would have to come from the dressing room and would not be forthcoming from the trade route.
Why? It was a question that circled the papers and tv’s and water coolers and nightmares for some time after the deadline came and went. For what reason did Bob Gainey, Saviour of the Montreal Canadiens, refuse to make a move to help a flailing club?
He offered a few answers in the days and weeks later: there were no takers for Samsonov, prices were too high for the coveted players, finding a trading partner who could match up with cap numbers was highly problematic. All very good reasons and certainly all true.
In the case of Samsonov, despite the mounting pressure to move him at any cost, there was little Gainey could do. The lack of production from the Russian, along with his ball-and-chain contract meant no one had interest. And really, if no one takes him off waivers for the wonderful price of: free, then why, oh why would they trade for him and send an asset back? The only thing that will help move Samsonov at this point, is the player himself. He has to prove he can perform on the ice at a level consistent with his contract. Short of that, Montreal will wear that ball and chain until the end of next season.
Souray was another matter. There were rumours that Gainey had tried, at the last moment, to send him out west, but that a deal wasn’t there to be consummated. One has to wonder, though, how true those rumours are, and if they are true, how hard Gainey tried. For a few weeks leading up to the deadline Souray had been hinting that he wasn’t quite so gung-ho about heading west and that he’d listen to offers from the Canadiens. With his offensive production so high and his defense at least passably good, Gainey surely had to be reconsidering his chances at signing the All-Star defender. If he could do that, it would go a long way to securing the blue line next season.
As to acquiring the centre that everyone believes the club needs, or another high quality defender, or perhaps a goalie to replace the injured Huet, Gainey was just not ready to overpay. When you consider that Craig Rivet, albeit a very solid defender who gave his all every shift, was traded for a young, quality player and a first round pick, it gives you an
idea of how out of control the market was. Atlanta mortgaged the future to improve today – which is great if they win the Cup, but if not, they’re going to be in some trouble. Gainey was not ready to mortgage Montreal’s future.
Which leads to one of the first statements he uttered when he took over as GM of the Canadiens: The club would build from within. The Habs would have to excel at the draft and at developing those players for the NHL to succeed. The acquisition of players through trades and the free agent market would be the supplement to the in-house development, and not the other way around as some teams work.
Gainey has a set plan for the Canadiens, and despite the bumps and bruises along the way, he’s sticking with that plan. Judging this club only by what’s happening at any given instant doesn’t give you the full picture. When Montreal was going through its horrid stretch of games, the casual observer would insist changes needed to be made. The careful critic, however, would realize that, despite immediate troubles, the long-term improvement of the team was quite evident.
Look at the state of the club when Gainey took over. The product on the ice was barely passable and, while there were a few good kids with potential, they depth was also not particularly great. Since that point, Montreal has iced increasingly competitive teams and they’ve filled the cupboard to overflowing with prospects, many of whom have already started to make a splash in the NHL.
Anyone with a good hockey knowledge can be a GM and change things on the ice, perhaps making them look fantastic in any given year. We’ve had plenty of GM’s with that ability – Reggie Houle, and Andre Savard are the two most recent examples. But where was the long-term plan? They were bullied by fans and media so much that they bowed to the pressure and made snap judgements. Gainey, on the other hand, won’t do that.
By developing the scouting and drafting and then nuturing the players to a point where they can be iced successfully, Gainey has built a club with a long-term future of success rather than one, like Atlanta, where success today is absolutely the only thing that matters.
It’s not like Gainey has ignored the present either. Take the acquisition of Kovalev and Murray who have brought this team to a new level. Bonk and Johnson have solidified a checking line that can contain the best in the NHL. And yes, every GM makes mistakes – at this point, Samsonov is his worst.
But the reality is that, with the continued development of youth, this team is finally going places. There will be those that complain that our points level at the end of the season can be no better than the previous two, and possibly even worse. Does that mean Montreal is, at best, treading water?
I believe those points very accurately reflect the rebuilding process through which Gainey has brought the club. He’s taken older, marginally useful players and has replaced them with younger, greener talents with more upside. The change in actual talent level on the ice probably hasn’t changed, but two years ago the team had less potential. Now the sky is
the limit. It takes time for players to develop, even ones with huge talent. Not everyone can be Sydney Crosby and become the league’s leading scorer in year two of their career.
It’s worth noting the type of player that Gainey and his group have drafted as well. Not specific positioning, though last year’s draft would certainly be indicative of the club’s need for some defensive depth. Rather, look at the other things the drafted players bring to the table. Character guys, intelligent players. Chipchura – a born leader and a guy
with plenty of hockey knowledge, is the perfect example. Montreal isn’t drafting the Hainey’s and Hossa’s anymore – kids with loads of talent who may never display it in the NHL because of poor work ethic or other mental issues.
Maybe the process isn’t going as fast as some fans want it to go, and maybe Montreal isn’t the Cup contender that used to be expected year in and year out, but the long-term strength of this club is astounding. With the on-ice product continually improving these days it’s easy to see how this team, just as it is, can compete at a higher level each year as the
youth continues to improve. Now add in the draft picks over the last couple of season’s and you can see what massive potential Montreal has.
Hockey fans look to the Devils, the Avalanche, and the Red Wings as three teams who have contiually found important pieces of the puzzle from the draft and who compete year in and year out. Put a mature Carey Price between the pipes (or perhaps even Halak who continues to impress) and a few of the other recent picks on the ice, combined with much of the present crew, and Montreal is looking extremely good.
Is that overrating Montreal’s talent – something a lot of fans tend to do at times, or at least they’ve been accused of it plenty over the years. Well, look at Kostitsyn, a player drafted as a potential superstar, but whom many were considering a bust at the beginning of the season. He now looks like he could be a real star as early as next year with his continued development. Perhaps those drafted pieces really are as good as they’re billed. At this point, with all the recent successes with Montreal’s youth, would you bet for or against them being positive pieces to the puzzle?
An interesting side-effect to the strong drafting, of course, is that when you have too many assets, you can gather them together and perhaps come up with one or two bigger and better ones. This is a very pleasant problem Gainey will be facing as soon as this summer. But again, fans shouldn’t expect a flurry of activity, and maybe none at all. Gainey has stated his plan, and fortunately, whether fans believe it or not, it means Montreal will become one of the league powers.
So Gainey remained silent over the deadline – and he angered many fans and ruffled the media’s overly-sensitive feathers. The reason he did, however, is pretty plain if you look at the grand scheme rather than taking a snapshot and basing an opinion based on that moment in time. This team will continue to develop from within. For sure, there will be trades and free agents brought in to help, but that won’t be the bread and butter of this club. Montreal has a plan, and they’re sticking with it.
The only issue is that any plan requires a commitment of time; patience is needed.
A Concerned Fan.