I wonder how a GM knows when it's time to switch out of "building" mode and move into "winning" mode? Is it organic, like the changing of the seasons; a slow, steady improvement that comes to a peak at an inevitable point? Or is it like a lightning flash...in the form of catapulting from out of the playoffs to conference champs in one season?
However the realization arrives, I imagine there must be an element of fear involved after it's been reached. Building a team properly, in the way Bob Gainey has done it, takes years of hoarding draft picks and drafting well. Then there are years of carefully nurturing the players you've picked and developing them into contributors to your team's success. Shifting out of that ultra-conservative mode, by default, means using some of those carefully-husbanded assets as currency. When you've spent so much time with them, it's tough...and not a little risky...to part with them for players you don't know. But the shift is a necessary one, if only because it's nearly impossible to draft all the elements you need to become a winning team. You need veterans to mix in with your kids, and when you're drafting mid-to-late in the order all the time, it's tough to pick the truly elite talent you need to put you over the top.
Bob Gainey has decided the Habs are ready to go for it. He's talking about making sure the team has six or seven million dollars available for free agent acquisitions, and about dealing for or signing a star centre. For the first time in years, the player he might win in a trade involving his first-round pick is more important than the pick itself. Somewhere between last year's draft and this year's, there's been a major shift in the Habs' landscape. While it's still important to bring in good players through the draft, they're no longer, in themselves, the team's only future. Gainey's in a position to use them to buy what the Canadiens need to win now. It's exciting, but it's also nervewracking.
A prospect is all about potential. As long as he's developing, he's got the chance to be a valuable part of the team. It's only after he's spent three or four years in the pro ranks that he changes from being full of promise to being a career third-liner or sixth defenceman. It's like having a kid. You imagine him being a brain surgeon until he's nineteen and it becomes obvious he's going to be a garbageman. That's why it's so tough to move out of the development phase of a team's lifecycle. When you're trading potential for actual ability, the criticism and second-guessing multiplies. There are also the added risks of a player who succeeded elsewhere not performing for your team, or the chemistry with his new teammates not being there. And the money for established is greater...and the risk bigger...than the money for potential.
I think it's the dawn of a new mindset for Habs' fans. It's been a lot of fun watching the drafts and the prospects claimed from them develop into real players. We've learned to be patient with team management and look to the future. Now that the future seems to be here at last, we might have to draw on that patience again. There are going to be disappointments, and there are going to be mistakes because shuffling a deck full of known entities is tougher than building for the future. But, hopefully, there will be triumphs too. This might be the year a name like Sundin signs with the Habs. Or the year that Gainey uses the potential of a first-round pick to acquire a missing piece. Whatever happens, we can be sure of one thing, and that's that the years of waiting are done. Things are going to start happening more quickly and the moves will be bigger ones. Gainey is going to start really getting aggressive.
Maybe that'll start tonight.