Posted by Kyle Roussel
Are we happy yet? Are we ready for the 2009-10 season yet? I suspect the answer to both of those questions will be mixed.
It’s very rare to see such a radical, drastic turnover on a team in such a short time. These wholesale changes take a couple seasons to execute, but general manager Bob Gainey has replaced the head coach (Jacques Martin), who in turn brought in his own assistant Perry Pearn, and goaltending coach Pierre Groulx. Abruptly dismissed were Doug Jarvis, Rollie Melanson and Don Lever. The latter was replaced both as a Habs bench coach, as well as the head coach of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs (replaced by Guy Boucher of the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL, who will inevitably replace Jacques Martin one day).
If that wasn’t enough, George Gillet sold the team to the Molson Brothers prior to the Draft, which was also in Montreal. Just a minor detail.
And then there’s the roster itself.
With 10 unrestricted free agents to deal with, anyone following the Habs knew that they would be a drastically different team next season. Who would be jettisoned? Who would be retained? We now have the answer. Everyone was jettisoned, nobody was retained (at least not yet). With Mike Komisarek signing with the Maple Leafs, Alex Kovalev with the Senators, and finally Saku Koivu with the Ducks, the Canadiens 3 big pieces have all landed elsewhere. Yes, Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Francis Bouillon, Tom Kostopoulos, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault are all still available, but at this point, if any of them are brought back, it will be a quiet pick up (except for Tanguay, who the Habs can’t afford and don’t need). Besides, if no one else wants them, do the Habs really need them?
The Canadiens have been overhauled from ownership, to behind the bench, to ice level, and even down on the farm. These types of extensive changes typically take several years to complete, but the Canadiens have made them happen in a few short weeks. How will such radical change translate in the standings as of next year? Nobody knows, and don’t listen to anyone who claims to know one way or the other.
We’ll take a look at what’s transpired with regards to the players, but let’s first go back to when Gainey took over from Claude Julien in 2006. He took over behind the bench, and hand picked Guy Carbonneau to succeed him following that season’s end. Everyone, including myself, assumed that would be Gainey’s chance to audit the team and rid the room of any bad apples. Oops! Fast forward 3 years, and he’s again dropping the axe, this time firing his friend and protegé Guy Carbonneau in favour of…himself. Again. “NOW,” everyone said “he’d better get it right. Find the bad apples and get rid of them”. I think it’s abundantly clear that Gainey wanted a new dressing room by not signing one of the 10 UFAs that he had. He tried to resign Kovalev, but that’s a sordid saga for another day (and for which we probably will never know the full truth).
Gainey’s first bold move came on June 30th, one day before the Free Agent Frenzy began. The sometimes enigmatic Chris Higgins was dealt, along with Ryan McDonagh (a former 1st round draft selection) and Pavel Valentenko (who may never play in North America) for Scott Gomez. Yes, the guy with the $7.5M / year deal until 2014. The move at the time was almost universally panned. “For 3 million more per season, he’s no better than Koivu” was the party line. It seems Habs fans should have showed a little more patience, because the next day, Gainey signed former Devil (and Gomez linemate) Brian Gionta, as well as the top scoring unrestricted free agent in Mike Cammalleri. Both were signed to 5 year deals, at 5, and 6 million per season, respectively. Anger and rage over losing a 1st rounder (McDonagh) was at least partially soothed by the new faces high profile faces, though I still wonder why McDonagh had to be a part of that deal. It seems to me that taking a huge contract off of the Rangers books should have been enough to get that deal done. If it adds anything to the argument, both Gionta and Cammalleri alluded to the fact that the acquisition of Gomez was the single biggest reason why they decided to sign in Montreal, so let’s move on from here. I’d trade McDonagh and Higgins for Gomez, Cammalleri and Gionta any day, so let’s let this issue rest. Until McDonagh becomes an all-star.
Prior to signing Gionta and Cammalleri, Gainey was hard at work in re-establishing experience on the blue line. He first signed power play specialist and former Sabre Jaroslav Spacek to a 3-year, $11.8M deal, then signed gentle giant (and recent cup champ) Hal Gill to a 2-year, $5M contract.
With their heads spinning, fans and analysts were hard at work trying to gauge Gainey’s work for the day. The Canadiens were suddenly more potent and durable up front, but remarkably small and expensive. Defensively, the Canadiens were neither younger, or tougher, but they did add 45 points with Spacek, and some badly needed size with Gill. The question Habs fans are asking about the revamped blue line is why didn’t the Canadiens retain Komisarek and at least try to bring in home town boy François Beauchemin? Surely the extra expense would have been worth it? Truthfully, we may never know if the Canadiens offered Beauchemin a contract, but it would help to ease matters if fans knew that he was on Gainey’s wish list.
The one thing we can say about all of the guys brought in is that they have playoff experience. Spacek was with the Oilers during their magical cup run of 2006, and Gill, Gionta and Gomez each have a Stanley Cup ring on their finger (Cammalleri doesn’t have much playoff experience to speak of, but he has been a key member the Canadian World Junior team.) I don’t think this is a coincidence, and I for one am glad to have this sort of experience in the room. It will serve guys like Lapierre, Latendresse, the Kostitsyns, as well as veterans like Markov well.
All of these signings speak to the team’s new identity that Jacques Martin will be sure to instill: reliable, responsible, defense-first, 2-way hockey. No more free-flow, run & gun hockey at the Bell Center, and especially not on the road. And Habs fans had better get used to it because for better or worse, we are stuck with these new forwards until 2014, when they will all be in their mid-30′s. Hopefully these fat new deals won’t cause salary cap headaches for Gainey next year (or should we say headaches for Habs capologist Julien Brisebois?). Cornerstone goaltender Carey Price will be a restricted free agent, as will several other key young players. Will they be resigned, or traded (or stolen) because paying them their worth will become impossible?
There’s always the risk that this whole “experiment”, as TSN’s Pierre McGuire refers to it, blows up in Gainey’s face. If Gomez can’t bring his ‘A’ game, it will likely drag Gionta and/or Cammalleri down with him. On the upside, if Gomez and Gionta can find their former chemistry again, it’s high fives all around for Habs fans. With Gomez as his centerman, Gionta potted 48 goals in 2005-2006. He’s declined in each season since (25, 22, and 20 goals this past season), so hopefully for Gainey this works out.
If you ask me, this is definitely Gainey’s last kick at the can. With new owners looming over his shoulder, they won’t need much reason to let him go after 6 years on the job and no real results to show for his tenure. If Stanley Cups are the measure by which a Habs GM is measured, then Gainey has been a failure. Harsh criticism, especially from a huge Gainey supporter, but if that is the criteria, then not advacing beyond the second round of the playoffs in 6 years is all that you can label him as. Sure he could have rebuilt the farm, or made the Habs a destination for free agents again, but if there’s no new banners to show for it, nobody will care. Gainey has opted to retool the team instead of begin a classic rebuild from scratch. For his job’s sake, he better hope that his team realizes immediate success. I can easily imagine the Molsons pulling the plug after just one sub-par season. I’m not saying that it’s ‘Cup-or-bust’ this season, given all the changes, but the Canadiens will need to win at least 1 playoff round and continue to show promise.
Personally, I think the Canadiens are a better team today than the group that was swept by the Bruins. They’re younger up front (Gomez, 29; Cammalleri, 27; Gionta, 30 vs Koivu, 34; Tanguay, 29; Kovalev, 36) and probably about the same on defense. 40-year old Mathieu Schneider is gone, as is 38-year old Patrice Brisebois. Bouillon is 33, as is Dandenault. Those 4 guys’ average age is 36, while the average age of Spacek/Gill is 34.5 years old. Call it a wash. For the next 3 years, I would expect this new core of forwards to bring their best to the rink before age begins to become an excuse.
At the end of the day, Gainey’s most important changes took place behind the bench. The installation of Jacques Martin as coach should insulate Carey Price with a defensively responsible system, which will help. Price had a terrible 2008-2009, for reasons which have been widely and wildly speculated upon, but the fact remains that as Carey Price goes, so will the 2009-2010 Montreal Canadiens.
With the remaining time between now and the start of the season, I would like to see Gainey add one more top-4 defenseman, preferably one that is rugged and dependable. I don’t know who is going to be bringing their hardhat to the rink for this edition of the Habs, but this might be, to paraphrase Michel Therrien, the ‘softest defense in the league’. With Kovalev going to Ottawa, and Komisarek, Orr, Beachemin and Exelby landing in Toronto, the Habs will have a much tougher division to compete in. They’ll need shut down guys and some toughness to avoid being outscored and outmuscled.
(Note to Georges Laraque: Please fix your groin and your back. Do whatever you need to do. It looks like you’ll have your hands full this season. Thanks, Kyle)
What say you? What did you think of Gainey’s moves and where do you think this team is headed for 2009-10? Please leave your thoughts below.