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Top Shelf: Stepping down without significant gains

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Any conversation about Bob Gainey’s time as GM of the Montreal Canadiens, in lieu of his surprising decision to leave that post, must begin with an acknowledgement of the circumstances under which he originally took the job.

That day, back in June of 2003, was packed with promise for a team and franchise that had fallen so far. Montreal had become a place people left, whether it was Patrick Roy storming out of town, an endless series of captains going somewhere else to win Stanley Cups or skilled players getting moved at the trade deadline to teams that actually made the playoffs.

But Bob came back. And it was the perfect scenario. One of the most respected, hard-working captains in the team’s long, glorious history had gone off and cut his management teeth on other turf, winning a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars and confirming the notion that he was simply the kind of man who accomplished whatever he put his mind to in life.

Now his mind, along with his heart, was focused on Montreal, both brimming with the passion and knowledge required to build a winning club in the NHL.

The Canadiens, mismanaged for the better part of a decade, were in capable hands at last after missing the playoffs four of the five seasons preceding Gainey’s appointment.

As expected, Gainey never lacked fortitude during his time on the job, displaying a willingness to make the bold moves he felt would improve the club. Unfortunately, not enough of those maneuvers achieved their intended goal.

Montreal missed the playoffs just once in five seasons on Gainey’s watch, but he was brought in to make the Habs more than a team that simply nabbed a post-season seed consistently. Gainey was hired to restore the Canadiens’ lost luster and he leaves with the red, white and blue slightly shinier than he found them, but nowhere near able to compete for a championship.

In the past few years, some of Gainey’s strong actions have done more to hurt than help. Two years ago he opted to pass the starting goalie reins to 20-year-old Carey Price by trading No. 1 man Cristobal Huet at the 2008 deadline. Price clearly wasn’t ready for that responsibility and his development has suffered since.

The decision to let a number of high-profile free agents walk last summer was the right one, as the team wasn’t going anywhere with the corps of players it was aligned to. However, any progress made there was undone when Gainey did the New York Rangers a gigantic favor by taking Scott Gomez and his $7.3-million annual cap hit off their hands, locking Montreal into one of the NHL’s most cumbersome contracts through 2013-14.

It’s almost like the Habs added the contract of the franchise-defining skater they’ve sorely lacked for so long without actually getting the star player attached to it.

The fact Gainey is moving out of the big chair barely six months after designating Gomez and free agent signings Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri as the team’s go-to guys likely doesn’t sit well with a lot of Habs supporters. But, reasonably, even if Gainey had an inclination at that time his interest was on the wane, you have to believe he consulted GM-in-waiting Pierre Gauthier before locking the team into those players.

Maybe Gainey thought he still had the stomach for his all-consuming job. If that was the case, give him credit for eventually recognizing he could no longer devote the required time and energy to a position that forces people to make serious personal sacrifice just to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities.

Gainey has always struck me as a guy who throws himself entirely into whatever endeavor he decides is most worthy of his attention. That was a big reason he seemed like the right man for the GM’s job in the first place. And while the Habs’ lack of genuinely prosperous progress during his tenure could never be pinned on an absence of effort, Gainey exits without having elevated the Canadiens to contender status.

Now it’s up to Gauthier to play the hand he was dealt. He’s already begun discussions with Tomas Plekanec’s camp about getting the potential UFA to ink an extension. The goalie situation will remain static, Gauthier said, with Price and Jaroslav Halak staying with the team, at least through this year’s deadline.

But sooner or later, action will be required on that front and others – and the Habs can’t afford to have any more big decisions backfire.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

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