For a man who's got the reputation of sitting quietly in his allegorical rocking chair and snoozing the deadlines away, Bob Gainey had a pretty dramatic 2009. What's interesting about it, however, is that it's not the dramatic things he's done that have proven his mettle as an NHL GM, but the little moves that really have made a difference to the team.
At the beginning of the 2008-09 season...also known as the Centennial Season From Hell...Gainey sent his team a message. Coming off an unexpectedly great 2007-08, Gainey seemed to have improved the team with the additions of free agents Robert Lang and Georges Laraque, and the draft-day acquisition of Alex Tanguay. But he knew going into last season that he would be dealing with ten pending free agents. So he told them their futures with the Canadiens would depend on their performances during the year. After the dreadful second half that lead to the team barely scraping into the playoffs, the firing of Guy Carbonneau and the subsequent re-appearance of Gainey himself behind an NHL bench, the GM had a good idea of what he was dealing with.
Gainey decided only Mike Komisarek and Alex Kovalev were worthy of contract offers. Komisarek (the traitor) decided to bolt for the leafs instead of accepting. Kovalev dithered for more money and Gainey, who obviously wasn't enthralled enough with L'Artiste to wait around for him, gave the offer to Brian Gionta instead. As a result, not one of the free agents from the first-place team returned for this season. It was a bold position to take, but then Gainey had to address those empty places on the team with alacrity. And boy, did he ever make a splash.
The Gomez trade kicked it off, and if it wasn't for Gomez' salary, it'd be a win for the Habs at the moment. However, the salary is a factor, and a serious one, because it will tie up a tremendous amount of valuable cap space for the next four years. If Gomez plays a big role in a Habs Cup win, I'd say it's a victory for Gainey. Otherwise, I'm not enthralled with the trade.
Outside of the Gomez trade, though, Gainey made some very, very astute moves in the last year. The first was the pickup of Glen Metropolit on waivers. The cap-strapped Flyers were forced to let Metropolit go in order to get some salary relief when Daniel Briere returned from surgery. Gainey jumped on him, and it's turned out to be a fabulous move. The man grew up a Habs fan through a troubled childhood that's made him a stronger person. He's fast, tough, good on defence and has surprising hands. At 35, he's the kind of late-blooming salvage project Ken Holland is famous for acquiring. I'd love to see him back next year.
When the defence started to disintegrate with injuries after Markov, Spacek, Gill and O'Byrne went down early this year, Gainey filled the gap with a couple of very smart acquisitions. Jay Leach was in Montreal for a good time, not a long time, but he filled the gap when required. Marc-Andre Bergeron was a steal though. He's horrendous on defence for the most part, but the shot from the point, coupled with a healthy Andrei Markov, has brought the PP not only to life, but to the top of the league again. The man has a cannon and makes a very servicable fourth-line winger. He can play defence, sort of, in desperate times as well, and all for under a million bucks. No NHL GM has made a better scrap-heap salvage choice than Gainey with Bergeron.
The signing of Mike Cammalleri was also a good Gainey move. Brian Gionta too, although I think he paid a bit too much for Gionta. Cammalleri though, has been full value for his money. The well-spoken, thoughtful winger might not be big, but he packs a ton of drama into his small frame. The hat tricks, the twenty goals halfway through the year, and the buzz he creates on nearly every shift have been worth the contract so far.
Another good signing was that of Tomas Plekanec for 2.75 million. Plekanec didn't really deserve a raise after the season he had last year. He had a thirty-point drop in production that would have turned off most managers. But Gainey decided to avoid arbitration with a player he obviously likes and give him a chance at redemption. I don't think Gainey or anyone else expected Plekanec to redeem himself to quite the extent that he has, but the fact he gave Pleks the chance to do so in a Montreal sweater instead of dumping him for whatever he could get in a trade was certainly a good move by the GM.
On the trade front, Gainey was faced with a plethora of young guys who either had to stick with the team this year or be waived before going back to Hamilton. The bubble included Kyle Chipchura, Matt D'Agostini, Maxim Lapierre, Ryan O'Byrne and Greg Stewart. Gainey decided to pin his hopes for improvement on D'Agostini and Lapierre. O'Byrne earned his own place in the lineup with much improved play in the first half. Stewart got waived, which turned out to be the right decision, since he was doing nothing in Montreal and nobody else claimed him either. Chipchura had no place in Montreal with Lapierre in the only role available to him at centre, but someone would have claimed him on waivers if he was sent down. So, Gainey got what he could and sent him to Anaheim for a fourth-rounder. Chipchura seems to be doing well there, and the fourth-rounder is still a pipe dream, but I think Gainey got the best of a tough situation there. It may be a future debate as to whether he should have kept Lapierre over Chipchura, but for now, it looks like a reasonable move.
The Latendresse/Pouliot trade could end up being Gainey's big steal though. Neither player was performing with his original team, and they both needed a change of scenery. Latendresse has popped a few goals early for Minnesota, largely because he's playing with top-line players and getting time on the PP, which he really couldn't get in Montreal. But Pouliot has turned out to be a revelation so far. He's big, fast, strong and has first-rounder skills he's putting to great use on a line with Gomez and Gionta. He's giving the Habs a secondary scoring threat they didn't have with Latendresse in the lineup. This has the potential to be a great trade.
In the end, the guys Gainey let go aren't outperforming the ones he brought in and everyone on the team has commented on the great attitude and work ethic in the Habs dressing room this year. The ones who could compare this season to last claim there's really is no comparison, with this year being a clear improvement. A healthy team this year has the grit and heart to be a playoff team.
Gainey's not been a perfect GM in his six-year tenure in Montreal. But he really had a good year in 2009 overall. He's taken a team with attitude and dedication issues and retooled it into a group that has a solid defence, two good, young goalies and a mix of size, speed, grit and skill up front. It's not the best team in the conference, but it's a team with heart that, when healthy, can compete with any team it plays. The big signings of 2009 were impressive, but the smaller acquistions of Metroplit, Pouliot and Bergeron are the ones that are making the biggest difference to the Canadiens. And for those, Bob Gainey deserves a New Year's pat on the back.