Friday, July 11, 2008

Lessons learned

I'm so impressed with Bob Gainey. He's been getting a rough ride from some fans lately because of his failure to sign a superstar to vault the Habs into serious contender altitude (assuming Sundin goes elsewhere), and it's such unfair criticism. This is a guy who built the 1999 Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars, so he knows what it takes to win. But after the lockout, the proven methods of team-building became obsolete and managers had to learn how to operate under a whole new set of rules.

The Cup champion Lightning were suddenly hamstrung with all their salary tied up in three superstars and no room for a decent supporting cast. Teams that had relied on drawing talent from the free agent pool, eschewing serious focus on the draft and internal development, found themselves able to afford only half the talent they needed to get by. Really, the only team that turned out to have been doing things right for the new system was Detroit. By drafting well and developing their own players, they were able to stock their roster with cheap talent that came with a built-in loyalty to their organization. They supplemented that talent with a few carefully chosen veterans and had a clear vision of what style team they wanted to put on the ice. Bob Gainey and other old-system GMs had to adjust, and fast. Gainey, being the quick study he is, figured out what works and started to mold his team in the Red Wings' pattern. It's not something that can be done quickly, especially when you're starting from nothing as Gainey did. But he's making undeniable progress.

What I like best about what Gainey's done is the way he learns from his mistakes. He's certainly made some doozies, but the good thing is, he doesn't make the same ones twice. Take the Sergei Samsonov signing, for example. Gainey admitted Samsonov was, at best, plan B when Brendan Shanahan didn't respond to intense courting. The team needed another forward, and rather than go with a less flashy but reliable choice, or promote a kid from within the organization, Gainey took a flyer on a guy who didn't really offer what he wanted, but looked to be better than nothing. Of course, we all know what happened afterwards. Samsonov didn't fit the role the Habs wanted him to play, he became disgruntled and fell out with Carbonneau. Gainey ended up having to trade him for Chicago's junk and, in turn, buy out those players. So, last free agent season, when Sheldon Souray and his 26 powerplay goals became too dear, Gainey chose his plan B much more carefully. Instead of splashing out on a big name that didn't fit the team's needs or style, he surprised most of us by hiring Roman Hamrlik to provide stability and muscle to the defence. Of course, some of us questioned Hammer's pricetag, but the value for money he's provided has since silenced the criticism.

Then there's the mistake Gainey made in paying big money and long term for a young player with one great season under his belt when he signed Jose Theodore to a mega-deal back in 2005, three years after Theo's career-best. Bob did damage control by trading Theodore and his contract before the window closed completely on his tradeability. But more importantly, he learned a lesson about paying the big money for consistency, not flash. So Saku Koivu, Andre Markov and Hamrlik now get the money. Young, talented, but not proven over the long-term players, like Tomas Plekanec, Mike Komisarek, Chris Higgins and Andrei Kostitsyn, get deals appropriate to their experience and the marketplace, on terms that give them a chance to prove their consistency before the next contract.

The Grabovski situation is another example of Gainey's learned wisdom. When Mike Ribeiro became expendable, and the team had a need for a veteran defenceman, Gainey dumped Ribeiro for a used-up Janne Niinimaa. That stands as one of his worst trades. So, this year, when Mikhail Grabovski became expendable, rather than trade him for a band-aid for the current lineup, Gainey used him to get a prospect defenceman Trevor Timmins likes as well as another draft pick for the future. It's smart on three fronts...first, by keeping roster and cap space open for that impact player who can still be signed before the season starts, and second, by eliminating the kind of immediate fallout Gainey had to deal with when Ribeiro bloomed and Niinimaa sucked. It's smarter to deter potential criticism by shrouding the deal in the potential of prospects, so even if Grabovski scores thirty goals in Toronto (which I don't think he will) no one can say much about the deal until they see how the return pans out in four or five years' time. And third, because under the cap, it's always smart to keep as many picks and prospects developing in your system as possible.

The Cristobal Huet trade too. Gainey chose in 2007 to keep Sheldon Souray around for a playoff push, even though there was an even-money chance that Souray might walk in the offseason. Of course, he did, and Gainey had nothing to show for it. So, when assessing his goaltending before last trade deadline, he went the other way. It would have been good to have Huet around as a confidence-builder for Price in the playoffs, but the chances he'd walk after the season were almost guaranteed. So, Gainey got a decent draft pick for him, which, considering the market for goalies at the deadline, was a respectable return. Now that Huet has walked and signed that mega deal in Chicago, Gainey still has something concrete in compensation for his loss.

But of all the things he's improved on, I think one of the most important is his ability to wait. That might sound ridiculous because everyone knows Gainey's a patient man. But this is the first time he's had the luxury of having a team he can ice without adding anyone else. So he can sit back with millions in cap space and wait for the right move to come to him. Maybe that's Sundin. If the big bald Swede decides to stay home this winter, maybe that's a player another team that's pushed itself over the cap...and there are forced to dump for cheap. Two years ago, when Gainey jumped to sign Samsonov, he missed an opportunity to pick up J.P.Dumont a couple of weeks later, when the Sabres walked away from Dumont's arbitration settlement. That won't happen again. If Sundin doesn't sign, Gainey won't miss out on the next Dumont.

The Habs, thanks to Gainey, are in a very enviable position right now. The man is a student of the game, and has learned to adapt the post-lockout world as well or better than any other GM out there. Those who think otherwise may have to learn a few lessons of their own.

1 comment:

pierre said...

Great blog as usual.

As a Habs fan I loved our last season ... as a hockey fan I loved it even more.

I am considering it as being the year 1 of our renaissance as a Franchise ... our brand of hockey is exciting and so is our futur ... one leads to the other ... the promises of the newNHL was just that.

I would personally credit Andre Savard's draft picks and his hiring of Timmins as being the backbones of our rise from lackluster unsuccessfull hockey to the the more brilliant and successfull one we finally had a chance to witness last season.

I feel that we are late on the 5 years plan made by Savard in 2000-2001 but there is no need for me to be more explicit than need be in my critism of Gainey's work as I truly believe that he will be from this point on the very best man we can count on to keep our bright shining light far into the futur.