Sunday, May 11, 2008

From Souray to Huet: A Year of Gainey

Since people have been calling me audacious to challenge the reign of Bob Gainey, I have been meaning to explain myself. I was actually trying to come up with a title and a direction for a post just yesterday, when I read this piece by Eric Engels on hockeybuzz.com

The piece gave me direction (almost directly opposite) and a title. So here we go.


Let me start at the beginning here, by summarising why criticism of Bob Gainey (GM) is even pertinent at this time:

  1. The NHL season is not over, but the Canadiens are out
  2. The Canadiens lost to an opponent whom they beat 4 times in the regular season, in the majority of games the season before, were the worst team in the NHL the year before, in 5 games
  3. Bob Gainey both made moves and refrained from making moves over the season

Eric Engels begins his own article by wondering how anyone could question Gainey. I think he is calling me (and others who question Gainey) a moron:

What do you think of Bob Gainey now? It’s amazing how many people can doubt someone with as much integrity, and hockey-knowledge as Bob Gainey possesses. Moreover, it’s amazing how people doubt someone who’s proven that all his decisions are methodically considered, and unwavering under colossal pressure. He built a team that no one thought would contend for the playoffs, let alone the Stanley Cup, and yet there are still some morons out there who don’t understand the value of his decisions—decisions that gave our fair city the best hockey season we’ve witnessed in two decades.


I suppose I merited that tag for being unclear. Of course, I don't question Bob Gainey's commitment, integrity or hockey knowledge. But, unfortunately for Bob, he is not the only good GM around. He is not even the only GM trying to set up a winning team. He is not the only GM to oversee a team with improving fortunes, either. I suppose the criticism (which I called disappointment) is that Bob, while doing an excellent job, is being outperformed. Or, at least has been outperformed over the last months. And, since there is only one trophy, being outperformed often means going home trophyless at the end of 8 long months of hockey.

Bob Gainey as GM has shown great talent for man management and hirings in the front office, a knack for the amateur draft and for signing players to good value contracts without hand-cuffing the franchise. His area of weakness, in my opinion, has been the addition of existing NHL talent – more specifically still: trades.

If you compare Bob to his peers, he appears to be more patient, more cerebral, and more cautious. All these characteristics serve him well for many of his duties, but as I questioned before, will Gainey be able move away from his patient, cautious approach and seize an opportunity when it comes?

Darren (from the comments of the last entry) noted that the Penguins GM, also in the midst of building a team gave up a lot for Marian Hossa, as he judged there was a chance to push for the Cup. At present, it seems like Shero's move is paying dividends, but we have yet to receive the final verdict. In any case, I wouldn't be writing this article about my GM if I were a Pittsburgh fan today. Shero wasn't the only GM to move. Brett Hull made a sly trade for Brad Richards, and his Stars, while reeling, are still alive too. Detroit didn't move too much at the deadline (Brad Stuart for free though), but amazed again last summer by adding the top free agent defenceman to their already talent-laden camp. While I don't like what Paul Holmgren did with the Flyers, no one can deny the jump they made in the standings. His notable addition of a veteran goalie has helped stem the tide of Nittymaki free-fall.

I could go beyond these four as well, but I won't. All this was to show that Bob Gainey, a talented guy, has talented peers too. And, from the looks of it, they are beating him handily at trades and attracting free agents, while he builds the patient way. I think if he wants to bring his team to the top table, he has to get a bit braver. If the biggest decision you make all season is whether to trade away impending free agents or not, perhaps he is getting left behind.

I say this like I say Plekanec needs to work on face-offs – a mere statement of opinion that one aspect of Bob's game could use a shine.


Evidence: a few recent decisions


Not trading Souray
Trading Souray would have been an obvious admission of defeat on the part of Bob Gainey. In his 5-year rebuilding plan, missing the playoffs in 2007 was a step backwards considering the team being employed in games and the free agent signings of the summer.

The incongruency with other moves (Rivet trade), however, suggests that Gainey may have attempted to trade Souray, but felt the value he would get in return was too low. Too low, even compared to 20 odd games worth of Sheldon, that is. It is also conceivable that Gainey legitimately wanted to sign Souray; and, as such, kept his man on board in order that they might work out a deal later. Either of these two give Gainey a legitimate excuse for the non-trade.

However, in the case of the Souray non-trade, I think we would be correct in speculating, however, that the playoffs (both for Gainey's record and Gillett's pocketbook) were a factor. If so, any reasonable critic could state that Gainey tampered with future success for a low-hanging fruit. A critic would not be wrong in pointing out that the move this year was inconsistent with the move last year – even at the risk of being called a moron by the eminent Mr. Engels.

My personal stance on Souray is ambivalence. I think calling him our best player last season is a stretch, considering how poor he was in his day-to-day position. It would have been nice to get something for him, but, I think the other GMs were wise to his deficiencies – so value would be lower. His points and goals during the stretch run provided hope and most of all entertainment.

At the end of the day, it's safe to say, I would have been upset with a draft pick for Souray just as I was for Huet.


Trading Huet
At the risk of angering the "get over it" gang, I'll voice my displeasure over this trade once again.

I should probably start by saying I would be pretty unhapppy at getting a second round pick for 80% of the current team. In principle, I think trading an NHL-calibre body for a 10% chance of getting an NHL body at some point in the future is lunacy. Apart from high first round picks, there are no guarantees in the draft. A second-round pick can turn into something special, but on average it won't.

I am also very much against making negative trades with players that aren't causing a problem of some kind on the team (let's say Dagenais as an example for that). There is absolutely nothing wrong, in my opinion, with losing a player for nothing if it means you get to keep that player for 20+ games. I have many times criticised Rejean Houle for this kind of negative management, and so to see Gainey resort to it was disappointing to say the least.

I also have to state, though, that I have absolutely nothing against a GM using his knowledge of the situation and intuition to determine that the time for his team is just not now. The Huet trade, if nothing else, announced to me that the GM of the team did not think he had the horses to run with Detroit, Dallas, Anaheim or San Jose. The evidence from the season would certainly prove him right.

All that said, I have yet to be convinced by anyone that trading Huet was necessary to allow Carey Price more starts – he could have been played more regardless of who was backing him up. Or to give Halak a real chance – but I think evidence for that theory has been blown out of the water. Or that Huet was a problem in the dressing room.

So what gives?

It all comes back to either money or the negative trade. Neither option offers anything positive for me.

You all know my opinion on Huet. But, on the trade itself, I was also disappointed. Brave would have been holding Huet when finding all you could get would be a second round pick. I thought the decision was neither brave nor creative. Creative would have been trading Halak in the hope that Washington would cough up more. What irks me is how unproductive and unnecessary the trade was. All told, it brought Gainey back down off his pedestal for me.


The Hossa non-trade
It's much more difficult to debate a non-trade than a trade since nothing is really known about it. What we do know about this particular non-trade was that Gainey was interested and he balked before the deadline at some point.

This non-trade is more interesting than the billions of other possibilities that could be dreamed up becuase it involved Marian Hossa – a scoring winger for Koivu. You see Hossa is a legitimate NHL star. He is a 40-goal threat, a puck carrier, a shooter and a nightmare for opposing teams to plan for. Most players could only dream of being as good as Hossa has been already.

The rumour is that player 1 in the trade for us was Christopher Higgins (at least for Waddell). For players like Hossa, a GM pays heavily (nothing is free), but in getting the best player in the trade often wins the trade by a landslide. In my opinion, it wouldn't matter who players 2, 3 and 4 were – especially if they were not in the NHL. So you have Higgins (and friends) for Hossa (20+ games). Under the circumstances, I think Gainey did the right thing here (especially having already traded goaltender insurance). A playoff rental would have gone against the grain of the team this year.


The order of proceedings
Finally, with regard to the trade deadline this season, you have the order of events prior to the trade deadline. Huet is traded then some time later Gainey pulls out of the Hossa trade.

This is noteworthy because it is in this order and not the opposite: Gainey pulls out of the Hossa trade then trades Huet.

In the latter, Gainey would have been trying to push his team over the top, been stifled, pulled out and then got what he could for a player who he deemed replaceable and unsignable.

In the former (and real) scenario, Gainey appeared to waver. It's only speculative of course, but by trading his number one goalie from a mere 2 weeks earlier (all-star and NHL three-star from January), Gainey paints the picture that he doesn't believe in the Habs playoff chances. Fair enough, he was probably right, but why then pursue a playoff addition like Hossa?

The move doesn't defy logic or anything, but it does defy (at least a little again) the idea that Gainey is infallible and without peer in the NHL.


The verdict
I hope Bob Gainey supporters understand that I still very much think he is a great GM. Possibly the best in the league, and certainly the best man for the Montreal Canadiens job. I merely question whether he will be able to deliver Detroit-style decade-long dominance if he doesn't adjust his game.

In my opinion, if he is to turn another rebuilding team into a dynastic rule, he must get a bit braver and more creative. I specifically point to trades as his area to focus his work on, as most other aspects of his GM play are top of the charts.

Nowadays, the price you should expect to pay to win the Cup is steep. This is simply because teams are playing for the single Cup – they will give up 5 years from now for this year. I think, as stated earlier, that he does need to be brave – probably this summer or next season – to add bodies the way his peers with playoff hockey to play and trophies in their cupboard do.

To win, even once, Gainey will have to play their game a little. If Gainey doesn't, and doesn't as a result ever move to the 6th year in his 5-year plan, we may just be lamenting the upshot team of the year (see Flyers this year) for many years to come.

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