You know what Bob Gainey's biggest problem is? He's too mature to be an NHL general manager. He believes in treating people with dignity. If a player wants out of Montreal, Gainey will do his best to send that player to a team well-suited for him, even when that player then whines about the way he was treated. If a player has a problem, Gainey will walk with him and talk it out. If a player is getting unfairly booed on home ice, Gainey will speak to the fans and ask them to show more patience. All in all, he's conducting himself with class at a job in which his every move is criticized and frequently found wanting. Still, he doesn't generally throw back any of the mud that spatters on him.
If you look at the other GMs around the league, you've got Burke who's hugely admired and respected even though he says things like "leafs fans will boo the Canadiens if Toronto ever gets the draft." Lombardi in LA is getting kudos for building a good young team, but he publicly criticizes one of the most respected university hockey programs in the US, claiming Michigan doesn't coach its players. Other GMs have no problem waiving players they committed to long-term as free agents after only a year or two. They dump veterans to the minors to get rid of their contracts. They spill the beans on confidential trade talks, they snap up players other teams try to demote, even when they say they won't, and they trade players to places where they've asked not to be sent. They send offer sheets to other team's good young players and screw up contract structures for everyone else. Gainey doesn't do those things.
So, if the Habs' GM is going to compete in today's NHL, he's going to have to get his hands dirty. Since few people have dirtier hands than a four-year-old, I think the best advice on how to make other people give you what you want comes from a little kid. Here are some pointers on how Gainey can be a better GM, the preschool way:
1. Identify your target. If a four-year-old wants an ice cream sundae, that kid will focus on that sundae until the end of the world, or until he gets it, whichever comes first. The singlemindedness of purpose is amazing to behold. You can try to distract him with a cookie instead, or change the subject by offering to play a game, or let him watch a cartoon in the hope he'll forget. The kid will happily go along with your distraction, then five seconds after it's over he'll say, "Can I have a sundae NOW?" In the end, you will probably end up in the Dairy Queen drive through. This is what Gainey needs to do. He has to focus on what exactly he wants, then not waver from that until he gets it. Instead of trying to find "a player" to fit a particular role, Gainey has to look at the specific player he thinks will solve a problem, then move pieces until he gets that player. So far, substitutes for what he really wants have not worked out that well.
2. Nag, nag, nag. When your four-year-old wants one more story at bedtime, she will first ask nicely, "One more?" If you say no, the kid will say, "Please? Pretty please?" If the answer is still no, the kid will wheedle and eventually cry. She might not get the story, but she will make it very tough to say no and she'll make you think twice about going through the routine next time. Sometimes it's just easier to say yes. Gainey could use this principle of pre-school negotiation as well. If he wants a player the other GM is reluctant to part with, the conversation can't end after an initial refusal. Gainey needs to bring that player's name up every chance he gets. If the guy goes into a slump, ask about him. If he's injured, ask again. If he's got a conflict with someone in the room or with the coach, ask again. If he's got young teammates who are in line for big contracts and there's a cap issue, ask again. I suspect sometimes a single trade proposal is refused and the GM moves on to another target. A four-year-old would never do that.
3. Choose your time of attack wisely. The preschooler will wait until you're lying on the couch half asleep before asking if he can put the cat in the bathtub. You mumble, "Sure," before you realize what's really going on. Then you have a big problem explaining why you said yes and now you're saying no. Gainey needs to do the same thing. If he wants Patrick Sharpe, he needs to take Scotty and Stan Bowman out for dinner in Montreal. Maybe walk by the old Forum and reminisce about the good old days. Then, when they're feeling warm and fuzzy, drop the proposal. It might not work, but it's better than a cold call and a cold "no." Deals are made in stranger ways.
4. Start big, but accept small. The four-year-old will ask for a picnic at the beach, but will accept a cookie in the sandbox as an appropriate aproximation of what he asked for. Sometimes it turns out that's all he wanted anyway. So, if Gainey wants Backes, he needs to ask for Brewer and Oshie, then work his way down. In the end, just Backes looks good compared to the original request.
5. Use your imagination. A little kid looks at a sweater hanging in the closet and sees a monster. She'll pick up a set of blocks and build a castle. Sometimes a GM needs to look beyond the obvious in targeting a player. A team might need a number-one centre, but there isn't one out there to fit the bill. So maybe there's a good winger who can play centre, or there's a stacked team with a third-line centre who has great potential but can't break out behind a couple of other good players at his position. Maybe some team has a prospect that's not working out, but a GM thinks might be better in his organization's system. There are ways to get what you want if you let yourself imagine.
6. If you don't get what you want, throw a tantrum. Even the most well-mannered, docile four-year-old will eventually crack if denied what he wants for long enough. Screaming and throwing things might not get him the thing he covets, but he'll be heard. Gainey is too quiet. He rarely ever uses the power he has as GM of one of the richest teams in the league to fight for his team's advantage.
Bob Gainey is a smart man. But sometimes he needs to connect with his inner four-year-old when it comes to getting what he wants. Staying mature and above it all isn't working that well for him, so maybe preschool persistence and dirty hands are the way to go.