Commentary

Plenty of work ahead for Canadiens

Updated: February 9, 2010, 11:54 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

You can say this about Bob Gainey: Whether it was dealing with rumors of organized-crime ties to his Montreal Canadiens team or the play of netminder Carey Price or the untimely death of his daughter Laura, the Hall of Famer never failed to carry himself with impeccable grace and dignity.

Those qualities were on display almost every day, from when he took the job of GM in the summer of 2003 to Monday afternoon, when he stepped aside from the team he once captained to Stanley Cup glory.

And in a town and province where being the general manager of the Canadiens isn't so much a job as it is a sacred trust, those qualities cannot be underestimated.

But you also can say this about Gainey: He wasn't a particularly good GM. Not when it came to transforming the Canadiens from a playoff team to a contender. Not in the areas that really mattered, such as restoring the team to the kind of glory he enjoyed as a player.

In some markets, getting to the postseason on a regular basis might have been OK (the Habs qualified for the playoffs in four of the five seasons after Gainey was named GM), but not in Montreal. Not really, not for any length of time.

And so, on Monday afternoon, Gainey again displayed that quiet dignity. He stepped aside so Pierre Gauthier, a man with whom he had had a close relationship the past couple of seasons (his right-hand man, if you will), could take over and perhaps take the team where Gainey could not.

"I've done my best and now it's time for me to pass the torch," said Gainey, who will stay on as a consultant and work with Gauthier. "I believe that the general manager position requires a long-term vision and a long-term commitment. At this point, I'm not prepared to make a commitment of four or five or six more years in this position.

"If I had to choose between leaving a little earlier or a little later, I'd prefer earlier."

With new owners at the controls of the league's winningest franchise, there will be those who suggest Gainey was jumping before he was pushed, that his failures outweighed his successes and he would have been replaced in the coming offseason anyway.

Perhaps.

It certainly has been a mixed bag with Gainey at the helm.

He brought in Alexei Kovalev before the lockout and, for the most part, it was an inspired acquisition. He also managed to sign highly coveted sniper Mike Cammalleri this past summer, as well as add underappreciated Jaroslav Halak and Hal Gill, fresh from a Stanley Cup turn with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But he dealt starting netminder Cristobal Huet to the Washington Capitals at the 2008 trade deadline thinking he had a deal in place for Marian Hossa and Johan Hedberg. The deal fell through, leaving him with two netminders, Price and Halak, who had never played in an NHL playoff game. That faux pas cost the Habs, who nearly blew their first-round series against the eighth-seeded Boston Bruins and fell in the second round against a Philadelphia Flyers team they outplayed in every game.

Gainey also thought he had a deal for Vincent Lecavalier at last season's draft in Montreal, but that fell through because Tampa Bay Lightning co-owner Len Barrie wouldn't sign off on it. That left Gainey scrambling to fill significant holes in his lineup, and he ended up acquiring a cadre of small forwards with big contracts in the form of Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.

To fill a desire for size, Gainey also signed Georges Laraque to a three-year deal worth $4.5 million. Laraque recently was let go by the Habs after he appeared in 28 games and averaged just 5:46 a night.

And so it went. A little bit of this, a little bit of that; a little up, a little down.

Whatever people will make of his legacy as GM, though, it would be grossly unfair to suggest that Gainey jumped ship without ensuring his beloved Habs were in good hands. They are.

At least, they would seem to be with worldly Gauthier at the helm. He joined the Habs shortly after Gainey took over the GM role. Gauthier has been instrumental in helping the Habs develop a top-notch scouting department and reversing a trend that had seen the Habs fail to consistently draft and develop young players for years.

The Habs stole Trevor Timmins, considered one of the great talent evaluators in the league, away from the Ottawa Senators. It was no surprise, given Gauthier was the GM of the Senators from 1995 to '98, a period that coincided with Ottawa's rise to prominence in the Eastern Conference. Between the 2004 and 2005 drafts alone, the Canadiens drafted eight players who had NHL experience before the start of this season.

Gauthier, whose previous managerial experience was all pre-lockout, pre-salary cap, also had a stint as GM in Anaheim before joining the Habs' front office. The question that remains is whether Gauthier can maneuver through the minefield of the cap world and build a contender.

Gainey could not. The Habs began the week in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, but their hold on a playoff berth is by no means assured. Gainey leaves office five days before the start of the Olympic break and attendant roster freeze with the March 3 trade deadline looming.

With Gainey staying on as an adviser, Gauthier must now step nimbly around the land mines Gainey leaves behind. What does Gauthier do with the team's leading point-getter, Tomas Plekanec, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July?

Gauthier, who indicated Monday that he likely would keep Halak and Price for the balance of the season, must still confront the controversial goaltending issue before the 2010-11 season. Halak likewise can become an unrestricted free agent in July and is not likely to stay unless he is the starter. Price, the No. 5 pick in 2005, remains a blue-chip prospect even if he has had his moments since coming to the Habs. If Gauthier did move quickly to move Halak (the Dallas Stars were rumored to be interested), would he risk impeding the Habs' chances of making the playoffs or of having success if they do qualify for the postseason?

There's also the issue of coaching. Although it's believed Gauthier was a strong voice in supporting the hiring of Jacques Martin away from Florida (the two were together in Ottawa), Martin's track record as a playoff coach is modest at best.

And so, the spotlight ceases to shine on one of Les Habitants' favorite sons and moves to the team he leaves behind and the uncertain path that lies ahead.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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