MONTREAL – Less than 30 minutes after taking over as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, Pierre Gauthier had already managed to settle two of the biggest questions facing the team.
After Bob Gainey announced he would be stepping down immediately to take on a role as a special adviser with the club, Gauthier addressed the future of impending unrestricted free agent Tomas Plekanec and the short-term future of the team’s two goaltenders ahead of the March 3 trade deadline.
Speculation had run rampant that Plekanec would be allowed to hit the free agent market on July 1 and that one of Jaroslav Halak or Carey Price would be traded by the deadline.
Not so, said Gauthier.
“We have two very strong, young goaltenders, and they’ve been a very big part of our team this year,” Gauthier said. “They give us a chance to win every night, that’s a very important thing in a very close league.
“We believe that we can go forward with these two young men and that’s our best chance to get into the playoffs this year. That’s a strong position, and we’d like to keep it strong.””
On the future of Plekanec, Gauthier said talks have begun with his agent Rick Curran to lay the groundwork for a new contract for the team’s leading scorer.
“We’ve both exchanged the wishes of staying together,” said Gauthier. “I think Tomas would like to stay with the Montreal Canadiens and we’d certainly like to keep him.”
Curran confirmed that discussions have indeed begun regarding Plekanec’s next contract and that the desire to come to an agreement is mutual.
“We did have a good discussion, a lengthy discussion,” Curran told The Canadian Press on Monday evening. ‘I think it’s appropriate (to start discussions now). They have a young player that will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season that they’ve expressed interest in keeping.
“For my part, Tomas has always been a member of the Montreal Canadiens and I’ve suggested to them very strongly that it would be his initial intention to remain with them.”
Gauthier’s two declarations on Monday were a big change. Gainey had previously said that any discussion regarding the Plekanec contract would remain private and that he was open to trading Halak prior to the deadline.
Otherwise, the move from Gainey to Gauthier was one made with continuity in mind. Gauthier has served as Gainey’s head of pro scouting throughout his six-and-a-half-year tenure as Canadiens general manager. Gauthier added the title of assistant GM in 2006.
Gainey said he approached team president Pierre Boivin over the holidays to tell him he would not be seeking a contract extension beyond June.
Boivin began internal discussions on searching for a replacement, but said they did not last very long because the ideal candidate was already in house and there was no reason to look elsewhere.
“When you look at the criteria to be successful in this job in this market, you come to a list of individuals who have experience, who have the ability to communicate in both (official) languages, who have a track record and who are prepared to be here,” Boivin said. “Your list now is down very quickly. So it’s not a typical hire. You do your homework, you make sure you turn over every rock and you hire the best person available.
“We were fortunate that person was in our organization already.”
Gauthier, a perfectly bilingual Montreal native, has had two stints as an NHL general manager in Ottawa (1995-98) and Anaheim (1998-2002). In both cases, he laid the foundation for future success, with Ottawa reeling off nine straight seasons of 94 points or more after he resigned and Anaheim reaching the Stanley Cup final the year after he was replaced by current Senators GM Bryan Murray.
That same process of laying a foundation has only just begun with the Canadiens, added Gauthier. The team underwent a complete roster overhaul in the summer, with seven new players coming in through free agency or trades.
The Canadiens will do everything possible to make the playoffs, but will not mortgage the future at the trade deadline to acquire short-term solutions, he added.
When asked if he planned on being a deadline buyer or a seller, Gauthier came up with a third option.
“We’re a builder,” Gauthier said. “At the same time we’re competitors to get into the playoffs and do well in the playoffs.”
For Gainey, Monday marked the end of an era with limited success when compared to the franchise’s glorious past, extending by six the run of 16 straight years without a Stanley Cup.
But he was satisfied with what he was able to accomplish in his six full seasons as general manager. Five of those finished with playoff berths, whereas the team Gainey inherited in 2003 had missed the post-season in four of the previous five seasons.
“We’ve been a team that’s participated in the playoffs regularly, and I feel that is an accomplishment in today’s NHL where 45 per cent of the team miss the playoffs every year,’ Gainey said. “My hope would be that this team this year participates. I think the future is healthy here.”
Gainey made a number of moves that were questioned by fans over the summer, adding US$27.6 million to the team’s payroll in a flurry of acquisitions in July. Of that total, US$18.4 million is tied up on an annual basis in three players for the next five years – Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta.
“I feel that the changes that were made last summer required a lot of courage, a lot of work,” Gainey said. “We had an enormous task in front of us last summer and I’m extremely pleased with the players we were able to convince to join our team.”
Gainey also showed faith in Price throughout the young goaltender’s time in Montreal, despite that faith sometimes going unrewarded by the netminder’s inconsistent play.
Still, under Gainey the Canadiens were the most competitive they’ve been since the team’s last Stanley Cup victory in 1993.
With the team’s Centennial celebrations drawing to a close in December and the ownership of the team was officially transferred from George Gillett to a group led by Geoff Molson, Gainey said it became clear that it was time for him to make a decision on his future.
“Between the decision of leaving a little too early or staying a little too long, I prefer to leave a little too early,” Gainey said. “I’ve done my best, now it’s time for me to pass the torch.”