by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

It feels like such a long time ago that the fans of the Montreal Canadiens could feel a genuine and lasting sense of positivity about their beloved club. When the season began many trumpeted that the team was on the cusp of reaching the upper echelons of the National Hockey League. Buoyed by the faulty logic that the team “was just one goal away from knocking off the Bruins” and thus—in Maxwell Smart-esque “missed it by that much” fashion—in a great position to challenge the Bruins for supremacy in the Northeast Division, Canadiens fans entered the 2011-12 campaign with possibly the strongest sense of optimism in years.

The author wishing Scott Gomez well for the season, this past September. Suffice to say, didn’t work.

This feeling was not without good reason, and it was not solely the perception of those wearing their bleu-blanc-rouge glasses that the Habs would be a contender in ’11-’12. Noted hockey publication The Hockey News predicted that goaltender Carey Price would win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender and pegged the Habs to be a playoff team. There was every reason to believe at the start of the year that Scott Gomez would bounce back from his horrible 2010-11 campaign; that a returning core group comprised of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, and Max Pacioretty would boost the team immensely; and that the young players would give a boost to the veterans that propelled everybody on an upward trajectory for the new season.

Things have not worked out that way. First, we learned that Markov’s knee was nowhere near ready to begin the season, a saga which continues to frustrate and aggravate fans, the organization, and Markov himself. Second, Gomez has miraculously been even worse than last year, to the point that fans set up a mocking website to celebrate the one-year anniversary since his last goal. Gomez’s struggles affected whomever he was paired with, severely limiting the already suspect offensive capability of the Canadiens. Third, the power play, deprived of assistant coach Kirk Muller, struggled horribly and continues to rank at the bottom of the NHL. These factors, combined with Price having more off nights early in the season than he had in the entire previous campaign, have left the Canadiens in a state of disarray and compelled general manager Pierre Gauthier to make drastic changes to the team’s make-up, but with minimal success.

The first major move made by Gauthier to shake up the club was to fire assistant coach Perry Pearn. The move, less than a month into the season, took out the coach that was responsible for the Habs’ dismal power play. The PP was so bad that many fans would caustically remark that the Canadiens should decline the penalty, or that the other squad was playing with a 4-on-5 advantage. The Habs gave up 5 short-handed goals early in the season, which had them at worst in the NHL for some time, while the offence ranked near the bottom of the League in power play efficiency. Was Pearn really the problem, or was he simply made a scapegoat? His duties also included the penalty killing unit, which at one point in the campaign killed off over 30 consecutive penalties, no small feat given that the Canadiens are in the top-ten most penalized teams. Whatever the case may be, Pearn’s firing did spark the club, as they went on a four-game winning streak during which the man advantage did show some signs of life.

Shortly after that initial momentum boost, however, the team fell back into its struggles and head coach Jacques Martin came increasingly under fire for his seeming inability to get his team prepared to play a full 60 minutes. The team would routinely go several minutes into the game without registering a shot on goal, then endure similar stretches of offensive ineptitude, and of course there were the blown leads. The Canadiens would find a way to build up a two-goal lead over an opponent, and then they would regress into Martin’s defensive style of hockey. There were few odd-man rushes, dazzling displays of dynamism, or shots on goal once the team took the lead. All you have to do is look at the box score to see the disparity in the team’s shots on goal totals (and the shots allowed) as the game wore on and Martin took his foot off the pedal. As a consequence, the opportunities for the opposing team increased as they were allowed to press the advantage to get back into the team, resulting in the Habs surrendering an astounding number of third-period leads and losing games in overtime or, worse, regulation.

The Trade Nobody Asked For: Tomas Kaberle as a Montreal Canadien?!

With the coach now feeling the pressure, Gauthier once again intervened to remedy the situation. As Andrei Markov’s recovery process took a major backwards step, requiring another surgery for the blueliner, Gauthier traded veteran defenceman and impending UFA Jaroslav Spacek to the Carolina Hurricanes for Tomas Kaberle. The move, so the rationale went, would provide stability on the back end while giving another impetus to the moribund power play. Many fans were livid at the notion of taking on another big-dollar contract for a player that was severely under-performing. It was a great irony that only four days prior to the December 9th trade, Montreal Gazette writer Dave Stubbs wrote (in the context of the Markov re-signing over the summer) the following about Kaberle: “If you want to condemn a GM for signing a veteran defenceman to a long-term deal, how about Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, who signed the wretched Tomas Kaberle to a three-year deal? Kaberle was nothing but excess baggage for the Bruins during their Stanley Cup run last spring, and he’s been less than that for Carolina.” Though he has a number of second assists, the fans’ consensus has proven justified as Kaberle has proven to be a disaster for the Habs.

 

As such, on December 17th Gauthier relieved Martin of his head coaching duties. He touched off a language police imbroglio by appointing unilingual Anglophone assistant Randy Cunneyworth as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. The timing was strange, coming on the morning of a game and thus giving Cunneyworth very little time to implement any potential new strategies and tactics to lift the struggling Habs from their doldrums. Indeed, handing over the reins at a time when the Habs were about to embark on a brutal stretch of four road games in six nights was almost ensuring that the new coach would have few opportunities to conduct full practices, adjust line combinations, or instill different work ethics in his players. While many agreed that Martin had to go, doing so at such a critical juncture, with the season and the prospects of the playoffs literally hanging in the balance, was a move that reeked of panic and desperation by a general manager that it now appeared was clinging to his job.
If Habs fans thought that the timing of the Martin firing was strange, they were in for a tremendous shock on January 14th, 2012. Halfway through the second period of a game, the commentary crew suddenly noticed that disgruntled sniper Mike Cammalleri had disappeared from the bench. He was not injured, there was no talk of an equipment problem, he was just gone. Minutes later we learned that Cammalleri was in a taxi cab back to the hotel because he had been traded to the Calgary Flames. It stunned and surprised just about everybody. Yes Cammalleri had said some inflammatory things about the team having a “loser’s mentality” to the press, but to trade a player during the game?! It was unfathomable. Though the Habs got a decent return in Rene Bourque and a 2nd round pick, it mean the sudden and bizarre end to a popular player’s tenure with the Habs. Gauthier said that he’d been planning to trade Cammalleri for weeks, but at least one NHL GM commented to the press that he wished he knew the former Habs #13 was available.
What does all of this mean? It means that there was some serious miscalculating made by the Canadiens at the organizational level going into this season. It’s one thing for fans to cling to false concepts such as “we were a goal away from knocking off the eventual champs” or “if we had our full and healthy roster…” but something else entirely to do so if you are the actual general manager of the club. The Canadiens only made two significant roster moves last summer: signing Erik Cole and backup goaltender Peter Budaj. There have been the in-season adjustments previously discussed, but clearly Gauthier believed that the squad he had last season was just about good enough to contend for the Stanley Cup. That has clearly not been the case.

Carey Price played a lot of hockey last year, easily the most he has played since the 2006-07 year when he played 52 regular season and playoff games for the Tri-City Americans, 6 games leading Team Canada to gold at the World Juniors, and then 24 more regular season and playoff games for the Hamilton Bulldogs en route to the Calder Cup. While he would never admit fatigue after playing a club record 72 regular season and 7 playoffs games, there is a rather proven recipe for NHL goalies that the ideal number of starts for a number one goalie falls in the range of 60-65 games. Through 63 games Price has appeared in 54 already, and the mental and physical fatigue that comes with so many frustrating losses is beginning to show. It is a coach’s decision how often to play his number one goalie, but in signing Budaj the organization essentially consigned Price the overwhelming majority of the starts right from the get-go. Budaj’s 2-6-1 record in his limited action has not aided the team, and further ensures that the workload will fall to Price and further wear him out over the rest of the season, however long that may be. The summer of 2011 had a respectable number of available goaltenders that could have been capable of playing 15-20 games, but for whatever reason the decision was made to go with Budaj and give him the best seat in the house every night to watch the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price play hockey.

The one good off-season signing in Montreal last summer.

Signing Erik Cole has, to this point, been one of the best moves of Gauthier’s tenure as the Habs’ GM. Cole has been a consistent producer for the team, one of only a handful of players up front about whom such a thing can be said. While bringing in Cole was the team’s marquee splash, it was also the only splash of real significance for the on-ice product. The Canadiens remain a team very close to the salary cap, and thus their ability to make major personnel moves is severely restricted. The albatross that is the Scott Gomez contract should have been addressed this past summer, either via a trade to a cap floor team or a demotion to Hamilton. I do not say this to disrespect Gomez, an honest player that works hard and made serious efforts to bounce back from his atrocious 2010-11 season, but in a salary cap world a contract that eats over 10% of the team’s available cap space must provide appropriate dividends. Even when he was producing, Gomez’s numbers would at best equal that of a $4M player. The funds being eaten by his contract mean that other players could not be re-signed, and may yet affect the Canadiens’ ability to re-sign other valuable contributors to the team in the coming years. While not game-breakers, good teammates like Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik were unceremoniously shown the door after last season ended. Re-assigning Gomez would have freed up sufficient cap space to possibly pursue a legitimate #1 centre such as Brad Richards, or even secondary UFA’s like Simon Gagne or Thomas Fleischmann. The sole adjustment of bringing in Cole to the top six means that the 23rd-ranked offence in Montreal was unlikely to be significantly bolstered, and indeed it has not.

The lack of personnel movement for the forwards, however, ranks as a distant second place in terms of grand mistake compared to the choices that were made for the Canadiens’ defence corps. James Wisniewski was traded days before July 1st for a draft pick – Gauthier did not even make an inquiry with “The Wiz’s” agent to see what it would take to bring the popular player back into the fold. While the Canadiens’ cap situation would certainly not have allowed Montreal to match the 6-year, $33M contract that the Blue Jackets offered Wisniewski, they could have at least inquired at some point to see what would have been an acceptable offer to retain his talents in Montreal. Further, Gauthier took a huge gamble on Andrei Markov that has absolutely not paid off one iota. It was a great gesture of respect to offer Markov a 3-year deal for the same $5.75M per season he made prior to his knee injury, but one that was utterly foolish. To give a player that has missed the great majority of the past two seasons top dollars and big term is a tremendous risk; even if Markov had rejoined the Canadiens from the start of the season and been the same Andrei Markov that was so dominant a fixture on the blue line, it is debatable whether the move was smart in the long term given his injury history and the fact that he is on the wrong side of 30 years old. Giving Markov that three-year deal while only offering a single year to Josh Gorges was an injurious move to the team’s future. Gorges has clearly been better than ever this season, as not only is he the same highly-dependable defensive defenceman he has always been, his newly-reconstructed knee has given him greater ability to skate the puck out of the Habs’ own zone and join the rush. While Gorges was re-signed to a 6-year contract extension on January 1st, his agent was very forthright when he said this deal would have cost much less in average annual salary had it been made the previous summer. Perhaps such a thing is a faux pas to admit publicly but it is does not make it less true.

The Architect of the Disastrous 2011-12 Campaign will soon see its dissolution.

So in summary, Gauthier in the past year has made two good moves (Cole’s signing and the Gorges long-term extension) and at least three moves that are fire-able offences: the Markov contract, retaining Scott Gomez, and trading for Tomas Kaberle. One can debate whether the Budaj signing also meets that standard. It is bizarre that the Canadiens ownership has not acted sooner to remove this problem. The Canadiens are floundering both on and off the ice, putting out a deplorable product on a nightly basis that is rivalled only by the ineptitude displayed by the front office. The team has lost 22 games in which they have had a lead – that speaks to the coaching. It is a problem that started under Martin and has continued under Cunneyworth. The role of the general manager is to ensure that the coach has the on-ice talent to win hockey games on a consistent basis.

And so here we are, just hours before the NHL trade deadline. The Canadiens are in last place in the Eastern Conference and the only thing they are in contention for is a lottery pick at the draft. Hal Gill has already been traded. He is expected to be the first of many. What is so disconcerting is that the architect of all of this mess we see before us (including the Gomez trade, as Gauthier was the director of professional scouting at the time and advised Gainey to make the deal) is now the person we expect to see dismantle it in such a fashion that the Canadiens can be competitive in 2012-13 and beyond. Owner and president Geoff Molson is reportedly more involved in the day-to-day operations of the club at this point, but Gauthier nonetheless is the man with his finger on the trigger. The rumour mill has it that Gauthier will be relieved of his duties at the end of the season (which will be on April 7th when the final horn sounds against the Maple Leafs) – it is the only logical maneuver that Molson can undertake at this point. There is simply nobody left to fire.