When this NHL season began, it was with a sense of hope. The Canadiens had taken the Bruins to OT in Game Seven of their playoff series just a few months previous. It could have been them making the Finals...maybe even winning the Cup...instead of their archrivals. Most promising of all, they managed to do it without the services of Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges or Max Pacioretty. One could just imagine how the presence of those guys could have held the Bruins to one fewer goal, or pushed that precious goal behind Tim Thomas instead. When Pierre Gauthier re-signed Markov, presumably with the understanding he'd be ready to play the majority of the season, then added much-needed power and size in Erik Cole, we had every reason to believe the team would be better than the one that pushed the Bruins to the brink last season.
Then the games began. Right from the beginning, there was something wrong with the team. Of course, it turned out Markov wasn't ready to start the season; far from it, and his erstwhile replacement, Roman Hamrlik, was in Washington. The injuries continued to pile up during the first few weeks of the season and there was something off with the players who remained in the lineup. They were working hard, but somehow not working together. Their effort, complicated by the inexperience of so many players, often seemed to be misdirected.
The losses accumulated as quickly as the injuries, and they started preying on the players' minds. The team became fragile mentally. Having blown so many third-period leads, they began to change their game in the third period and played with the fear of blowing another. Naturally, as they stiffened up and fell back into a defensive shell, their opponents sensed opportunity and seized it. The Canadiens problems began to snowball as one loss fed the next. Management didn't help matters by bringing in inadequate solutions like Tomas Kaberle, or firing coaches Perry Pearn and Jacques Martin. It helped even less when Geoff Molson effectively gelded new bench boss Randy Cunneyworth by saying the permanent coach would be required to speak French. Add to that his blithe assessment that the team, as constructed, could possibly be a competitive threat, and there seemed little hope for change from that quarter.
Now, after the latest blown lead to fellow bottom-feeder Tampa Bay, the Habs hopes for the post-season are as distant as Molson's statements from reality. This team will not make the playoffs, short of a semi-miraculous run in the second half of the season. Even then, the chances of making them in a favourable post-season position or of winning a round or two, aren't great. A squeak into eighth place and hope for another colossal playoff upset offer the best outcome a fan might expect at this point. What's more likely with a great roll right now is a finish between 8th and 10th and a crappy, mid-round draft pick...the kind Trevor Timmins blows with unfortunate regularity.
The fear we must face as helpless fans who are watching our beloved team founder, is that Gauthier will try to save his own ass by pulling out all the stops to get the Habs into the playoffs. The likelihood of his coming up short with this plan and ending up in ninth place (while probably losing his job anyway) won't deter him from doing it anyway. The essential problem with this is that it will result in poor asset management of the type we've seen in recent years, when Sheldon Souray wasn't moved at the deadline as Bob Gainey vainly hoped keeping him would give the team a push upward. Of course, it didn't work, Souray walked and the Canadiens missed a chance to pick up a valuable first-round pick for him. There are other examples, too numerous to detail outside a novel.
Now, Gauthier has to look...really look...at the team he's got on the ice. He's got to make a list of players he expects to be part of this team in two years, and he's got to be ready to move the remaining people for parts that will help the team advance. He's got to ask difficult questions, like whether Michael Cammalleri's sub-par regular-season performances can continue to be overlooked because of his playoff goal scoring? If his poor play is a reason why the team misses the playoffs, then the answer to that is "no." A six-million dollar player who only performs in the post-season is useless if he can't help the team get there to begin with. If that's the case, then a playoff-bound team might offer a high return for what he can offer it on a Cup run. In that situation, Gauthier has to be willing to move Cammalleri in February.
Ditto for Hal Gill. Teams know he's a playoff beast on the PK and in the shot-blocking department. If he can bring a second or third-round pick, when he probably won't be back next year anyway, then Gauthier needs to move him. Tomas Kaberle should be gone as well, if there's a return to be had. Scott Gomez goes without saying. Travis Moen too, if there's a team needing a workhorse penalty-kill guy for the playoffs.
Essentially, there's a youth core the Habs can build on. Lars Eller, Louis Leblanc, Carey Price, P.K.Subban, Alexei Emelin, Raphael Diaz, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty are a good start. Veterans like Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges and Erik Cole who are earning their money and still performing can contribute for the next few years. Other players are extraneous and must be exchanged for parts that can add to that core, whether that be draft picks or promising prospects. Realistically, there's no player outside the core that can bring a truly game-saving return, so Gauthier (or his replacement should he be fired before the deadline) must try to get something helpful for them. Something that will add to the core and help build a competitive team.
To accomplish this, the GM needs to have a plan. In the last several years, there hasn't been one. Bob Gainey had an idea of the type of team he'd like to build, but seemed to be derailed by the immaturity of some key players and the ennui of others. The complete blowing-up of that team three years ago appeared to be the result of frustration and anger on his part. Therefore, even though it's pretty widely accepted that a competitive team in the cap era must be built through the draft and good player development, Gainey went old-school and tried to buy a team through overpriced free agency. He lucked out in that the guys he brought in were of good character and got along with each other well. He failed to realize, however, how quickly their on-ice performances would deteriorate and how their inflated salaries would make it difficult for the team to move them if necessary.
That's got to be fixed now. The Canadiens need a GM with balls enough to move the players who have value but won't be with the team long-term. It needs to happen this year, at the deadline or before, because the Montreal Canadiens will have little choice but to be sellers this season. They've got to sell, to buy themselves a future.