The Canadiens are at a crossroads, with a need for the most honest and extensive self-evaluation since Bob Gainey’s arrival. With the fans out for blood, it would be easy to offer up a series of public floggings/hangings to satisfy the mob. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s right.
That’s why it’s best that Gainey wants to stay. It was funny to hear the “Carbo! Carbo!” chants after the coach was fired, because many of the people yelling were probably the same ones phoning the radio shows and demanding his head in February. Those same people are angry at Gainey now, but would probably be yelling his name once the team lost three in a row under a new GM.
Unfortunately, the lack of patience in pro sports these days means one bad year can undo many great ones. Yes, this was a horrible season. Yes, it appears that his decision to elevate Carey Price was premature. But, if you go back and look at it objectively, there is no doubt the Canadiens are a better organization now than when he arrived in 2003. I can’t understand why that is even being debated.
By calling fans “bullies” and “assholes,” not to mention trashing Brian Lawton, Gainey showed his determination to stick it to anyone who thinks he’s no longer the right man for this job. The Gainey we saw in those two media briefings is the Gainey who once played a post-season game with one separated shoulder, the other dislocated. Some of his friends wondered if he could stand Montreal anymore, but he will do everything to prove his regime a winner, whether the fans and media like it or not.
In this kind of a maelstrom, the calmest survive. The furor is not comparable, but how many times during their playoff failures from 2003-07 did Ken Holland feel pressure to break up his post-Yzerman Red Wings? Maybe the talent level is not the same, but the precedent is. It takes a strong man to stand in the face of this and make the proper decisions. Gainey is that guy. (Of course, new ownership could change everything, but we’ll address that later.)
Personally, I see three situations that are most important for him to address:
1) The coach
This is the one concern I’d have about Gainey. He fired both Claude Julien and his personal, handpicked, successor. He has to get this right.
Pierre Boivin did him no favours by publicly stating the next coach must speak French. If Gainey believes that Kirk Muller or Don Lever or Marc Crawford or someone else who doesn’t speak French is the right guy, then do it. (If he wanted Bob Hartley, I’d think Hartley would already be working.) You ask any GM what advice they get when taking a job, and some variation of, “If you’re going to do the job, do it your way” undoubtedly is the answer.
Judging from his public commentary the last 36 hours, Gainey is going to do exactly that.
2) Carey Price
Okay, so we know he’s not going to have Patrick Roy’s immediate impact. But, he doesn’t turn 22 until August and Gainey made it clear the organization won’t quit on him as quickly as the fans have. This is a world junior gold medallist and a Calder Cup champion by the time he was 20.
But, both he and Gainey have some extremely important issues to address.
For the GM: Is Price being taught properly? People who’ve seen him a lot more than I do say they don’t recognize the way he plays now, compared to how he played before he got to the big club. At his best, Price never moves more than six inches to make a save. Now, he’s deep in his crease and always looking around – even after making a stop. You wonder if he knows where the puck is. Why is that happening? Why has he regressed? Gainey must make certain he has the right man teaching his star pupil.
As for Price, he needs to mature. Mocking the Boston fan in Game 2 and acknowledging the home jeers in Game 4 sent a bad message. To be great, you have to not care. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – you have to be almost defiant.
It’s clear that he’s rattled. It’s clear that he’s lost some degree of confidence. But, as Tim Thomas said in the post-game, you can never let them know they bother you. This season, he showed up in much better physical condition. Next year, he must commit to showing up in better mental condition. A combination of improved instruction (from the team) and attitude (from him) will move him towards reaching his enormous potential.
And, the Canadiens must get him a veteran backup. Not necessarily someone who will take his job, but a goalie who can tutor him and show him through the tough times. Curtis Joseph has talked a great deal about how an experienced partner can help you through bad situations. Jaroslav Halak isn’t that person, simply because he’s a competitor and not that experienced. But a Ty Conklin type might be.
3) Young Players in The Big City
This, to me, is possibly the biggest issue facing the organization. The Canadiens do a great job of drafting and developing in Hamilton. However, the failure comes when they get to Montreal – and I’m not talking about on-ice performance. The off-ice rumours are so insanely crazy, you don’t know what to believe. However, it appears that some of them are having trouble handling Montreal’s temptations. Only a social leper can’t find something to enjoy in that city, but, it’s easy to go overboard.
I can understand how teams might think, “They’re young, but they’re adults – it’s up to them.” That’s not always true. The Penguins had enormous success putting Jordan Staal with Mark Recchi, Evgeni Malkin with Sergei Gonchar and Sidney Crosby with Mario Lemieux. The Canadiens would be best advised to start doing the same thing. They’ve already told players to stop going to certain clubs, but that’s just the first step. I can’t help but wonder if some of the younger ones who regressed this season did so because they couldn’t handle all the freedom.
Some of them – Kostitsyns – might be beyond repair and need an immediate change of scenery.
Obviously, Gainey is going to revisit the Vincent Lecavalier situation before the Cup winner’s no-trade kicks in July 1. For those who think his outburst napalmed any chance of such a deal, well, there’s reason to believe he can still pull it off, if he wants to.
First, the Lightning are so desperate to unload that contract and there aren’t a ton of trading partners (although the Kings may be very interested and have the prospects/cap room to do it). Second, Gainey was upset that his deal to get Marian Hossa at last season’s deadline fell apart – and it didn’t stop him from trading for Mathieu Schneider this year.
The rest of the roster concerns are well-known. There’s nothing wrong with building on speed and skill, but those players have to be tough. The Red Wings don’t fight anyone, but they don’t back down from anyone, either. The Canadiens don’t have enough players with that mentality. The organization needs to add edgier players. And, size at centre. Chris Neil and Mattias Ohlund would look good here, for example. But so would Jason Arnott, who didn’t want any part of the place when pursued a couple of years back. That brings us to maybe the biggest problem.
I can’t remember where I read it and don’t want to be accused of plagiarism, but whoever wrote, “The same people who booed Price last night will be the same people wondering why no free agents will sign here this summer” was bang-on. Look, we all know the Canadiens are a religion in Quebec. Everyone in Canada lives and dies with their teams. Nowhere does it go farther, however, than in La Belle Province. And, the people there must realize that it’s got to change.
Joining Arnott in the “No Thanks” brigade were Brendan Shanahan and Daniel Briere. French players describe situations where there family members have to hide at work because they’re bombarded with questions about why the team stinks or why their relative hasn’t scored in three games.
Life in the pressure cooker
Reporters covering the team say they’re getting 25 emails/phone calls a day about what players are doing away from the rink. These are supposed to be fans, not spies. When the La Presse story broke, and rumours of arrests engulfed the team, there were 30 TV cameras at the airport waiting for the charter from Pittsburgh. On the flight, players wondered which of them was going to be charged. That’s no way to live.
There is nothing wrong with having high expectations and demanding the best. But this is so far over the line that many players the Canadiens could use want nothing to do with it. The word on Montreal is: Best place in the NHL to play when you’re winning, hell when you’re losing.
The franchise, and the fan base, must have a true understanding of where it is. When the team arrived for training camp last September, players were told that nothing less than a Stanley Cup would be acceptable. Not surprisingly, a group that is very young and still learning crumbled under the pressure. It’s a valuable lesson for everyone in the organization, including the players. Many of them had too much, too fast and couldn’t handle such a challenge. You can’t come back with the same group, but there’s no need to completely destroy it. It’s important to see if the key young players learned from this season.
The Canadiens may be farther from the Cup than their fans hoped, but it’s far from a lost cause.