Former Habs GM brought experience to new NHL
by Daniel Maloney, Special to AllHabs.net
“We’re entering a new period in the NHL. There could be changes that none of us can predict right now.” — Bob Gainey
“I don’t know many teams that go out there with the intentions of being outchanced two-to-one every game. I’ve never heard of that.”– Sidney Crosby
The new NHL season is just underway, yet Bob Gainey still hasn’t received the credit he deserves for last season’s work.
Despite Pierre Gauthier being named the new general manager of the Montreal Canadiens last February, Gainey’s fingerprints remain all over the bleu, blanc, et rouge, and will continue to for some time.
The man that legendary Russian coach Victor Tikhanov once called “the most complete hockey player in the world” stepped down as Montreal GM last season, implemented a system that reflected his strengths as a player, as well as a keen understanding of the modern NHL.
At the end of the 2008-2009 season, after succumbing to a first-round, four-game playoff sweep to the Boston Bruins, 11 Montreal players qualified for unrestricted free agency. The team eventually said goodbye to all of them, including their captain Saku Koivu, and leading scorer Alex Kovalev.
Eleven months later, despite the unprecedented scenario, the Habs would eliminate the President’s Trophy winners in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the next, en route to the Eastern Conference Final.
Considering the loss of half the team to free agency, if Gainey had been able to build a team as good as the previous year, some GM’s would consider it a success. Yet Gainey, by all accounts, built a far better team, and did so, to a large degree, in the extremely short timeline of the NHL free agency period.
Their post-season success was not a fluke, nor was it merely a team riding a hot goalie to playoff success. And to those within the organization that understood Gainey’s game plan, it was nowhere near the surprise the unknowing media deemed it to be.
One year earlier, the first-round sweep to the Bruins was beyond troubling. It was not just the loss-it was the WAY they lost. Inexcusably, they lacked heart. They were a team out of sync, and a franchise out of focus. It had become, in essence, a team lacking identity, and a franchise losing relevancy in the new NHL.
Gainey would have the opportunity to rebuild the franchise- to create a new identity.
One day before the free agency period began, in one of the most underrated trades in Canadiens history, Gainey would complete a seven-player deal with the New York Rangers, landing centre Scott Gomez. At a glance, it appeared that the Rangers had won the deal. If nothing else, they had unloaded Gomez massive $7.4 million per year contract. However, the Gomez acquisition, like Gainey himself, was underappreciated.
It was a key factor in the signing of ex-New Jersey Devils linemate ( and new captain) Brian Gionta, The two had the best seasons of their careers playing together in the Garden State. The deal would also instrumental in the signing of Mike Cammalleri, who led the Canadiens in playoff scoring. All three possessed speed, skill, and the grit to compensate for physical shortcomings-these traits being focal points of Bob Gainey’s vision of success in the modern NHL.
Most importantly, the Gomez trade was the first step towards the Habs new identity.
When Gomez and Gionta began their career in New Jersey, the “neutral zone trap” was in high gear, smothering opposing teams by clogging up the neutral zone. It was also a system known for clutching and grabbing, so much so that, as anyone old enough remembers, new rules were introduced to bring speed and skill back to the game. Gainey’s system would take elements of the old New Jersey system, but where the Devils clutched and grabbed, the Canadiens would have to use speed and positioning.
That is not to say that these Canadiens were as good as those Devils. Not at all. It’s also not to say that this was the neutral-zone trap back from the dead. But it was the trap’s offspring.
The Devils would routinely allow fewer than twenty shots per game. The Canadiens would often give up forty, yet would keep the shots to the perimeter, controlling rebounds and the danger areas in front of the goal.
These Canadiens were nowhere near the size of those Devils, nor did they need to be. As Mike Cammalleri so aptly explained, “If Brian Gionta goes into the corner with a player who’s 6’4 and comes out with the puck, who’s bigger?”
The modern NHL was built for speed and skill, so new systems would have to be as well. It was a defense-first system, leading to a quick strike, exciting transition game for the new NHL, yet where they would be similar to their 90’s New Jersey counterpart would be playing a system that allowed success against more talented teams-by relying on strong goaltending, sound defensive play, and opportunistic scoring off transition opportunities.
To implement his new system, Gainey hired Jacques Martin as his head coach. Martin was known for his defensive emphasis, yet had also led the Ottawa Senators to a top five offensive finish a few years earlier.
Gainey had successfully interpreted the new NHL, more quickly than many fans, media, and even other managers had- a widely held belief was that the new Canadiens would not be able to stand up to the rigors of an 82-game schedule, much less the elevated intensity and physicality of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After an Eastern Conference final berth, Hab critics were left to evaluate the “surprise” run. Fans and analysts alike, who had previously claimed that les Glorieux were too small to succeed, attributed the post-season success nearly entirely to Jaroslav Halak.
Ironically, the centerpiece of Gainey’s defensive/transition game was supposed to be Carey Price. He made no secrets about Carey Price being the focal point of the Canadiens future ever since he drafted the William’s Lake, British Columbia native fifth overall in the 2005 draft. In a city that demands hockey excellence like no other, Gauthier apparently agreed that Carey Price is their best chance to bring the Stanley Cup back to Montreal.
Canadiens fans, however, were still enamored with the Slovakian and his scintillating playoff performance. So when the overachieving Slovakian was dealt to the St. Louis Blues for prospects Lars Eller an Ian Schultz, not surprisingly, it fueled a firestorm of controversy aimed at Canadiens management.
Yet for all the critics of the Montreal brain trust, there are very few who realize that this group, led by Gainey, has already seen great potential where others didn’t, and envisioned a successful system where other’s couldn’t. For Price, this season will challenge his grit and determination even more than his considerable talent.
As a new season begins, Bob Gainey, in his new advisory role, will remain poised and self-assured. He still understands the game far better than the game understands him.
(Photo by John Mahoney, The Gazette)