When I was a kid, maybe twelve or so, I wrote a letter to Bob Gainey. I was in the midst of the first blush of Habs addiction at the time, and in the year before Patrick Roy arrived on the scene, my favourite player was the team's captain. I liked the way he skated so tirelessly, and the look in his eye when he focussed on the job at hand. I loved the way he could outmanouver the best players in the game, even if he didn't often put the puck in the net himself. He was a champion and it showed. I don't know what I wrote, but I'm sure I told him all that, along with promises of eternal devotion or other childish sentiment. I probably would never have remembered writing that letter though, if I hadn't recently come across the card he sent in response to it.
It was just a team-issued postcard featuring a full-body shot of a smiling Gainey in uniform, bent over his stick against a stark white background. But he made the card special because he took the time to personalize it. "Best wishes and thanks for your support, Bob Gainey." It took him maybe twenty seconds to write that for me, but when I found the card again, all these years later, the joy I felt at receiving it came back to me. I remembered holding it up to the light to confirm that, yes, Bob Gainey really did sign it with his own pen. Now, when I think about the thousands and thousands of letters the captain of the Canadiens must have received, I have a better understanding of how that twenty seconds of his time must have been multiplied many, many times. I think about the respect he felt for his young fans that compelled him to write a personal message in response to all those letters.
I have always been a big Bob Gainey fan. I was thrilled when he returned to the team as GM. I thought, if anyone could do it...return a once-proud institution to respectability again...it would be him. He's patient, knowledgeable and very, very smart. But now I'm wondering if anyone can make the Montreal Canadiens a good team again?
Gainey's had six years to do something good in Montreal. The first thing he had to tackle was the paucity of prospects in the system, and that depended on solid drafting. There's no doubt Trevor Timmins has done well in finding some solid NHL players. But, whether because of a consistent middle-of-the-pack draft position or a basic failure to recognize a stud in the making, he's failed to find a real franchise player. The team has needed a solid number-one centre for twenty years and "best player available" strategy or not, it's irresponsible for Timmins, and therefore Gainey, to have neglected to draft one.
The second thing Gainey had to do well to turn the franchise around was manage his assets properly. That means getting maximum value for all his players, whether in signing them to contracts, trading them or deliberately letting them go. Asset management has turned out to be disappointing as well. Endless stories of chasing free agents with offers of huge cash were frustrating at the time and a source of relief that they didn't happen in hindsight. Valuable free agents have left the team for nothing, in the midst of stories about lack of communication. Trades have been of the very minor variety for the most part, with the positive exceptions of the Rivet and Kovalev ones and the opposite assessment of those involving Ribeiro and Higgins. And the contracts to which players like Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri and Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon, Roman Hamrlik and Jose Theodore before them were signed were overly generous. At the same time, nickel-and-diming players like Mark Streit and Michael Ryder meant losing them for nothing.
This is not a wholesale condemnation of Gainey's tenure as GM. Not by a mile. As I calculate the errors Gainey has made, I'm aware that he's making decisions based on the facts before him at the moment. I know he's facing big problems in Montreal, with the well-documented handicaps of provincial taxes, cold winters, rabid media and fan pressure and the stink of losing that's attached itself to the team in the last fifteen years of futility hindering his ability to attract good players without seriously overpaying them. Gainey has had to gamble to make the team better, and unfortunately, not every gamble ends in a win. I'm sure he didn't expect Guillaume Latendresse to still be struggling to find himself, Andrei Kostitsyn to be so ineffective after he looked like he might have finally figured out NHL hockey, and Carey Price to have such difficulties with consistency. He probably didn't expect Ribeiro and Streit to develop into the players they've become either. He definitely didn't expect last year's team, built to be an improvement on the previous year's conference leader, to be gutted by injury the way it was.
Gainey has had a lot of issues to deal with, but when it comes right down to it, the question we must ask is whether the team he's built is better than the one he inherited? Secondary to that is whether there's a chance in the immediate future to see the team become a winner? I think the answers right at this moment are "barely" and "no," respectively. That may change. The team may suddenly start clicking and get its act together. The players Gainey's assembled are better than they were six years ago, even if the results are not. But I don't know how much time Gainey has left to hope a turnaround happens. Considering the fact that the new owners have paid nearly six hundred million dollars for the team, you can imagine their patience with mediocrity will be very short. There's no saying whether this rotten start to the season will be enough to turn the tide against Gainey, but the total restructuring this summer put him on probation. A craptacular season isn't going to win him any fans.
The thing is, if Gainey's going, I'd rather he go sooner than later. As much as I'd hate his tenure to end in failure, if he stays, he's got some big problems to deal with. And I'm not confident he'll be able to make the best decisions about a possible trade of Sergei Kostitsyn, the loss of Tomas Plekanec after this one-year deal expires, and a terrible cap crunch that will likely require a deft shift of Roman Hamrlik's contract. I admire Bob Gainey and I think he doesn't need any more headaches, self-inflicted or not.
And that leaves the biggest question of all. Who can do a better job than Gainey of resurrecting the Montreal Canadiens? If the former captain, who took the time and care to send every child who wrote him a letter a personal note because he respected them as fans, can't do it...can anyone?