Monday, February 7, 2011

Grading the Goat

One year ago today, Bob Gainey resigned as Canadiens' GM. At the press conference announcing his decision to go, he said being a general manager requires a long-term vision and a commitment he no longer felt. A breath later, he revealed he'd be succeeded by his assistant and friend, Pierre Gauthier.

Immediately, the overwhelming reaction from Habs fans was some version of "what the hell are they thinking?" Critics pointed to his lack of notable success in the GM's role in either Ottawa or Anaheim. Others were wary of the apparent lack of due diligence by the Canadiens in hiring Gainey's replacement. Guys like Detroit's Jim Nill and Steve Yzerman were touted as management up-and-comers, and didn't get a look in at the Habs job. Still others blamed language, concluding that the Canadiens had just grabbed the first qualified French-speaking candidate for the job and considered it done.

There may be a grain of truth in all of those criticisms, but only the passage of time will allow us to see how much validity they really have. Now, one year into Gauthier's tenure as Canadiens general manager, we have a body of work upon which to base more studied opinions of his ability to build a team.

It didn't take long for Gauthier to get to work last year. Only three days into his new position, he traded a 2011 second-round pick for Dominic Moore. At the time, the trade baffled a lot of fans and convinced them the negative opinions of Gauthier's hire were justified. Moore, after all, was a journeyman who hadn't been able to stick with any team for long. He'd only put up 17 points in 48 games with Florida, and a second-rounder looked like a pretty steep price to pay for a guy like that. As it turned out, Moore helped solidify the bottom six, won lots of faceoffs and scored the game-winning goal in Game Seven against the Capitals. Moore was a valuable contributor, and even though there are still critics who say the second was too much to give up for him, many observers are now of the opinion that losing the pick was worth it because it helped the team make that great playoff run.

Gauthier next made a move that he's repeated several times in the last year. He traded a young player who seemed to have stagnated in his development at the NHL level for a younger prospect, when he moved Matt D'Agostini to St.Louis for Aaron Palushaj. At the time, D'Agostini had only two goals in 40 games in Montreal. He was going on 25 years old and had yet to make a significant bid for a regular spot with the Habs. The jury's still out on that one, but D'Agostini has cooled off since making a quick start in St.Louis this season. Meanwhile, Palushaj is three years younger. He's in his second full AHL season, and has struggled at times in Hamilton. He's got the potential to make it in the NHL, but it will likely be another year or two before we see it happen.

We can't properly judge the winner in that trade yet, but it's emblematic of a philosophy of asset management Gauthier has revealed several times. He moved an underperfoming and troublesome Sergei Kostitsyn for a free-agent gamble that really hasn't worked out. Neither of the players involved on the Nashville side; Dustin Boyd or Dan Ellis, are Canadiens right now, although there's still a slight hope, driven by his goal-scoring explosion in Hamilton, that Boyd could still revive his pro career.
Gauthier also traded a permanently-scratched Ryan O'Byrne for a promising prospect in Michael Bournival and a disappointing Maxim Lapierre for a potential depth defenceman in Brett Festerling as well as a fifth-round pick.

In all four trades, Gauthier attempted to move players who had failed to improve from year to year while bringing younger players or draft picks back to the organization. The philosophy makes sense, as those players would have likely been lost to free agency or waivers for nothing anyway. The success of the trades, because the players they brought to Montreal are still so young, are unknown so far.

There's less doubt about how Gauthier has filled the team's immediate needs. The Moore trade last year certainly helped in the Canadiens' playoff run. This year, faced with the loss of both Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, he moved this year's second-rounder for James Wisniewski. The Wiz has revived the PP, and won the New Year's Florida game all by himself. The immediate impact of his arrival has helped fill a desperate need and kept the team competitive. That trade could very well be responsible for the Canadiens making the playoffs or not. That Wisniewski is still quite young and seems to be open to re-signing in Montreal next year is a bonus.

Gauthier's free-agent signings have been modest, but astute. Alex Auld is a decent backup for Carey Price, and though he's not the best second stringer in the league, he's a stop-gap guy who came to Montreal for a pretty good deal. Alexandre Picard was a small signing when it happened, but he's been able to step in in games like this weekend's, in which a regular D was out sick, and handle himself respectably. Mathieu Darche has become the poster boy for hard work and determination, and Jeff Halpern was an outright steal. The man is a rock on the third line, wins faceoffs and kills penalties brilliantly. To get him for 600-thousand when free agency pressure was weighing on him was excellent work. And there's no doubt Gauthier's best signing, the long-term extension of Tomas Plekanec, was well done.

Looking to the future, Gauthier has just one draft under his belt as GM, but he made a bit of a splash there too. He traded his first and second picks to Phoenix for their first and fourth. The move enabled him to move up five spots and draft the first-rounder he really wanted; Jarred Tinordi. That move came with a risk because draft picks, even first-rounders are a crap shoot and Tinordi hasn't been the lights-out shut-down defenceman the Habs were banking he'd be in his first OHL season. He's got lots of time to develop, of course, but he's a project and when Habs fans hear "defenceman" and "project" in reference to the team's first-rounders, they get a bit suspicious.

No matter what else he does, however, Gauthier's boldest and most defining move as Habs GM was the Jaroslav Halak trade. Barely a month after Halak led the Canadiens to their best playoff in seventeen years with some absolutely brilliant goaltending, Gauthier pulled the trigger on the deal that sent Montreal's newest hero to the Blues for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. The trade required a lot of nerve, considering Halak's post-season performance and Carey Price's poor season. Gauthier really put his neck on the line, considering the success of the trade depended on Price outgoaling Halak, when he'd given little indication for the last two seasons that he'd be able to do so. As it has turned out, Price is having a fabulous year while Halak has been inconsistent in St.Louis. Lars Eller is showing flashes of skill that offer hope he'll bloom into an productive NHL player. That trade could have gone either way, but the Habs appear to be the winners right now. As a legacy trade, it's looking decent for Gauthier.

Looking at the ledger of assets moved versus assets acquired, the Canadiens would seem to come out on the negative side. D'Agostini, O'Byrne, Kostitsyn and Lapierre are all filling NHL jobs for other teams while nobody the Habs got back is in the big league right now. The pick for Moore could be seen as a waste because Gauthier decided not to re-sign him last summer.

In the big picture, though, there's only one question we need to ask in judging Gauthier's stint as general manager, and that is, is the team getting better? By the numbers, the immediate answer is in the affirmative. The team is ahead of its points pace from last year. It's allowed fewer goals and it has been amazingly consistent considering the depth of its injury troubles. It seems the Canadiens have a good chance of securing a playoff spot without squeaking in on the last day.

Bob Gainey, before he called it quits on this day last year, supplied the core of this hardworking, dedicated team. His successor has tweaked and trimmed and has helped shape a squad we know will give its best nearly every night. He's also begun to prepare for the future by bringing in new prospects who are known for leadership and effort. The team is not perfect. We know scoring is a problem, as is physical strength up front. Gauthier will have to address those needs if the Canadiens are to keep improving. After a year, we can conclude that he recognizes those weaknesses and will move prudently to fix them as the right players become available. In this age of salary caps and valuable youth, he's made some smart moves. A year has helped him put his own stamp on the team. It's also given fans reason to trust that the Habs...even if it didn't look like it this time last year...are in safe hands.


V said...

Good article. Agree with your assessment. On balance he has done a good job and I have confidence he will keep us on the right track over the mid term.

I especially like how the Price situation turned out for him... that was an enormous gamble on his part. The margin of error on that was so tight that just reversing Price/Halak stats this year might mean we are 10 points lower in the standings. His job (and Martin's) was riding on that decision. I wonder how many of those that criticize him would be willing to gamble their jobs on one big decision like that.

Feels like a good match between (what I perceive to be) his temperment and the team. We have a solid core of vets and promising youngsters that calls for a steady hand on the till with course correction as needed.

RL said...

Great review! I have to agree with your final statement... I DO feel comfortable with the GOAT's GM abilities.

P.s.: I still stuck on your Martin's Secret Note item #9 - Muller Muller bo buller, banana fana fo fuller, fee fi mo muller, Muller!


moeman said...

Great read J.T.

The other thing I like about Gauthier is that he has represented the Habs' quiet class. He's no self-aggrandizing blowhard like they have way west down Ontario's 401.

DKerr said...


Another thing that sticks out to me is his handling of Pacioretty and the radio interview. I remember him saying something to the effect that he did not hear the actaul interview, but if Max said he wanted more high end playing time, then he agreed. He said young players tend to get cold when they sit for too long and he thought increased ice time would work for Max.

Many people were calling out Pacioretty saying he should perform his role a la Darche. But Darche is a veteran with an older, more experienced mind set, who understands his role. I thought PG did right by his youngster and we are starting to see Pacioretty blossom a bit at a time. This also may send a positive message to the other young players developing in the system.

I was in the group that thought if he gave a second for Moore, he should have signed him. I hope he does that with the Wiz, that would make the trade so much better!

JF said...

Excellent assessment, J.T., and overall I agree with you. The Halak trade was a huge gamble and took a lot of nerve, but even at the time I thought it was the right move. Whether Gauthier could have gotten more remains an open question, but on the evidence so far, he certainly chose the right goaltender. Those who think he should have insisted on a roster player in return for Halak forget that such a player would have had a much higher cap-hit than Lars Eller. Also, while Eller has perhaps not had much of an impact so far, he shows every sign of developing into a very solid player. He skates well, he's very strong on the puck and in the corners, he makes good decisions, and he shows flashes of brilliance. We won't really know how good a return we got for Halak for at least a couple of years.

The same is true of Gauthier's other moves. As you point out, he traded players who weren't doing well with the Habs for depth. The fact that the players traded are playing in the NHL while none of the ones we acquired are does not prove the transactions were bad.

Gauthier's only questionable moves, in my opinion, were the deals involving Ryan O'Byrne and Sergei Kostitsyn, and the problem lies less in Gauthier's moves than in the way these players were handled by the organization. I think that if the coaching staff had shown more confidence in O'Byrne, he could have developed into a solid defenceman. And of course the injuries to Markov and Gorges make the trade look bad. As for Sergei, Barry Trotz has obviously found a way to get the best out of him. We still don't know exactly what went wrong for him in Montreal, but an obvious blunder was the way he was singled out and cut from training camp last year after the other cuts had been made. That had to rankle and exacerbate whatever attitude problems he had.

Apart from these two cases, I think Gauthier has done an excellent job so far, and the position of the team in the standings, as well as the character and will-to-win the guys have shown support this.

Hadulf said...

I'm happy with PG's decisions. For the Halak/Price thing, I was right in the middle on that one...I didn't want to be in PG's shoes. I was comfortable with both goalies, even if Price did have a horrible season, but I wouldn't have been able to pull the trigger on that trade. Credit to PG for that.

The Moore trade was a good one at the time, I agree, and it seemed like a waste to let him go...but we lucked out on Halpern, so that can "fix" the trade.

The trade I do not like is the O'Byrne trade. I don't know if it's Jacques Martin's fault and what not, but I did not like to see O'Byrne leave the Habs. It was the best thing for him, for sure, but if the Habs had given him some time to re-gain his confidence, he would've been fine. I guess the Avs are a better fit for O'Byrne and I'm glad he's doing well over there...

If I were to grade PG's work, I'd give him a B+

Paul B. said...

I couldn't agree more with your assesment. I can't help but think that a solution to many problems the Canadiens are experiencing would be a better supervision of the young players (including the draft picks). Claude Ruel did that job for a long time (in between coaching assignments)and many players that later became stars gave him credit for their improvemnent.

Now, would today's youngsters be willing to remain on the ice a few hours more each week in order to improve their skills, remain to be seen. Another important thing to consider is that the night life in Montreal is much more attractive for a rich and somewhat popular young man than the anonymity of many US hockey cities.