Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Year in Review with Pierre Gauthier Part I

On February 8th, 2010, Bob Gainey, the GM of the Montreal Canadiens stepped down from his post and his assistant, Pierre Gauthier, who had been an assistant to Gainey since 2006 after serving since 2003 as the team's Director of Professional Scouting.

At the time, I myself was not very confident in the move, feeling that appointing Gainey's assistant was somewhat improper without holding a proper search for the best possible candidate over the summer. Others were far more disturbed by it, calling it a clear case of selecting a crony from within the team or just a soft move by Club President Pierre Boivin by avoiding controversy and selecting a French-speaking GM. Still, one had to give him time to see what he produced so we waited.

So with his having now one year as the Canadiens GM, I decided to do a three-part series examining his first year, looking at his transactions and evaluating what they produced and what they meant.

1st Transaction:

February 11th
: C Dominic Moore for a 2nd-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft.

Three days after his appointment, he dealt a 2nd-round pick from the 2011 Entry Draft for center Dominic Moore of the Florida Panthers, a move I didn't like, feeling the 2nd-round pick was too high a price for a player who seemed at best, a 3rd-liner. Moore did not readily impress upon arrival in production, with 2 goals and 9 assists over 21 games. His true value was seen in the playoffs as he took on a defensive forward role with solid effort and scored key goals in both Game 7 against the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, his dramatic goal against Washington that became the series-winning goal is still in the back of my head.

The dealing of the pick is still debatable to me though, while the Canadiens have not been known for doing well with 1st-round picks in the last 30 years, they're generally better with converting in the later rounds of the draft. The team acquired Guillaume Latendresse in 2005, who was eventually undone by his own bad work ethic, but still had NHL-caliber talent. I'm aware this view is not always popular, but he was called out at the start of this season by his coach in Minnesota for being poorly conditioned to start the season, not an encouraging sign of his commitment to a team that rewarded his 25 goals with a fresh contract worth 5 million over 2 years.

The Canadiens turned their 2007 2nd round-pick into rookie sensation P.K. Subban, who is set to star on the Canadiens blue line for as long as the team has the sanity to make sure they renew his contract. Danny Kristo, a promising offensive winger was selected with the 2008 2nd-round pick and was a key player on the American 2010 World Junior Championship team.

The team did not have their 2nd-round pick in 2009 when they were in the range to select now-favourable prospects such as Dmitri Orlov, a Gold Medalist and top-scoring defencemen on the 2011 Russian National Team at the WJC and Tomas Tatar, a favoured prospect in the Detroit Red Wings organization. This is not to say that a 2nd-round choice will always work out, as 2006 2nd-round selections Ben Maxwell and Mathieu Carle may never make the NHL, but after the 1st round, a lot of teams can point out and say they're a stronger team today because they made some astute 2nd-round selections.

2nd Transaction:

March 3rd 2010

RW Matt D'Agostini
dealt for RW Aaron Palushaj

On March 3rd, no one could have seemed to care less that Gauthier had dealt an underperforming winger whose rear had become very sore sitting in the press box night after night. He had underwhelmed as a Hab after his initial breakout in 2008-2009. I personally found his breakout upon reflection and review had more to do with Saku Koivu setting him up than anything less, a lesser Michael Ryder, a sniper who if he is not scoring, tends to be useless and a liability.

In return, the Canadiens acquired Aaron Palushaj, who had been a former member of the University of Michigan Wolverines and an ex-teammate of Max Pacioretty. Palushaj's numbers spoke little of goal-scoring talent, his best totals in the last half-decade were 22 goals in his final year of Junior A Hockey, while Matt D'Agostini's final year of Major Junior had him score 25 goals, and then 22 in his first AHL season, compared to Palushaj's 8 goals in his first AHL campaign. Palushaj if he makes the NHL should be a more complete player, but one should not expect him to have much finish around the net and this move again raises the question, could the Habs not have dealt a goal-scorer, even an inconsistent one for a prospect with some promise of a goal-scoring touch?

I don't think D'Agostini will be more than a sometimes 2nd-line player on a weaker NHL roster and Palushaj could be a better player than I suspect, but it could be arguable D'Agostini despite his low value, was dealt for the wrong kind of prospect considering the Canadiens need to acquire some pure scorers.

3rd Transaction:

March 18th 2010

NCAA Free Agent F Hunter Bishop signed to two-year Entry-Level deal.

In the scheme of things, this is the definition of a minor move. Hunter Bishop was a college free agent who may one day become a fourth-liner in the NHL if he's extremely fortunate. Bishop was not even dominant in his senior year of NCAA hockey. Gauthier, acting on the advice of his scouting staff signed him, perhaps in the interest of retaining a proper number of available forwards on the Hamilton Bulldogs so the farm team would not suffer depending upon how many of them made it out of training camp next season on to the Montreal Canadiens or had to be called up due to injury and the Canadiens wanted to ensure the Bulldogs maintained a competitive level.

4th Transaction:

March 30th 2010:

NCAA Free Agent D Brendon Nash signed to two-year Entry-Level deal.

A more significant move by Gauthier, Nash was being courted by several teams as a free agent but signed with the Canadiens and credit Gauthier for bringing Nash in. The college defencemen has had a strong first season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, so far scoring three goals and twenty assists in 42 games, 2nd-best amongst rookie defenders in the AHL.

Nash is not small at 6'3" and shows good positional play, he seems to often be at the right place on the ice to make a play or get to the puck, not very fast, but at times it's best to trade speed for intelligence in a defencemen. His scoring clip in the AHL is not outstanding considering his age and this is the first time in five years he has scored more than two goals in a season, but his numbers indicate that his puck-moving abilities have some NHL upside and could perform as a 3rd-pair defencemen with some offensive upside given this year and next to develop in the AHL. This was a free addition to the club by Gauthier and one that you can't complain about.

5th Transaction:

May 31st 2010:

Scouting Department Overhaul

This was thought as overdue by some, odd timing by others and not enough by another group. The Canadiens had missed the boat a few times in the draft over the last decade. Instances such as Andrei Kostitsyn over names like Ryan Getzlaf and Zach Parise come to mind. Then there was Maxim Lapierre and David Urquhart over Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber and David Backes in 2003. Kyle Chipchura ahead of Mike Green, Andrej Meszaros and Travis Zajac in 2004. Until this season started, Carey Price with the 5th overall pick was still argued as a bad move by some. There is also the latest favourite draft revisitation of David Fischer rather than Claude Giroux in 2006.

The Canadiens released Dave Mayville and Denis Morel, part-time scouts in the QMJHL who missed a few names in their tenure like Giroux.

Pelle Eklund also went, an amateur scout in Sweden who perhaps was not giving the Canadiens many answers either, as they had only drafted two players out of Swedish junior hockey since 2003. His fault? Could be for not finding the talent that other teams found in the Swedish leagues but it could have been just missing those picks or the team choosing not to draft out of Europe as often.

Nikolai Varoutov, their Russian scout being let go surprised me, he probably had something to do with Alexander Avtsin being selected in the 4th round of the 2009 draft and Avtsin is a promising prospect as a 19-year old AHL player. However since he was never replaced, the Canadiens could be adopting a more conservative approach to scouting Russia due to the lack of a transfer agreement and have failed to get more than three Russian-drafted players over in the last decade, two of which left the NHL not long after arriving to play for Montreal as well. Perhaps they considered it not worth scouting the country full-time, I personally consider this a mistake of the organization with their financial might but that's just my opinion.

Antonin Routa, a scout for all of Europe was also let go, fairly? I think this partly folds in with some reasons Varoutov and Eklund were let go, no truly strong results from drafting in Europe and the Canadiens seem less committed to tapping the overseas talent pools. Again, I'm not sure if the Canadiens reducing from three European scouts to one was a very solid move, but if their drafting trends continue it is at the least, understandable.

Pro scout Gordie Roberts was also released and this could be entirely on him, many people bemoan the Canadiens pro scouting and the results from trades over the term of the Gainey administration.

All in all, a significant shift in the scouting organization that has better than what had been seen in years past, was perhaps considered not as strong as it could be and changes had to be made. It will take at least five years to accurately assess whether or not Gauthier's choice in the scouting department overhaul was a positive move for the organization.

6th Transaction:

June 7th

Guy Boucher leaves the Canadiens organization to become Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

If there is one move that Gauthier has made that bothered people aside from the obvious Jaroslav Halak trade, it was allowing Guy Boucher, the AHL Coach of the Year to walk and go to another NHL organization. He gave permission to NHL teams seeking a new head coach to talk to Guy Boucher and this resulted in the Canadiens losing someone who really was just like P.K. Subban, a prospect in the organization to take a role in the main organization in the future.

Some felt (even I did at one point) that perhaps Boucher needed to be the future sooner rather than later, but I did not envision a scenario that would allow the Canadiens to rationally fire a head coach in Jacques Martin that had just seen them to their first Conference Finals berth since 1993. Some considered Martin out of the date with the game and Boucher was reinventing the wheel with coaching with his great success in Hamilton.

Boucher is having an excellent year in Tampa Bay right now, but let us not pretend he's doing it with a roster like the Toronto Maple Leafs. Steven Stamkos is at this point, one of the three best players in the world in my opinion. His linemate is the great Martin St. Louis, the best French Canadian player in the NHL. The team also enjoys the services of the 2009 2nd overall pick Victor Hedman, a rising star of a defencemen. Combined, Stamkos and St. Louis account for about 40% of Tampa Bay's scoring this season. Boucher has his team playing an aggressive up-tempo game that is all-offence and has led to an impressive record of 33-16-5.

Boucher is to be credited with his success so far but he hasn't been perfect. Vincent Lecavalier with his albatross contract remains either unmotivated or too haunted by injury to return to the brief level of dominance he exhibited in the 2006-2007, 2007-2008 seasons. Simon Gagne has 9 goals and is -17 while earning 5 million dollars this season. Their goaltending was only recently shored by the arrival of Dwayne Roloson but at age 41, he hardly represents a long-term solution and has had some questionable nights in net with the team as well.

Was Boucher a loss for the organization? Yes, could he stay in Tampa Bay for a very long time? If the players and management continue to like him, certainly. However it should be considered that organizations do not get much goodwill from their employees if they are prevented from seeking better opportunities across the league and it behooves them to keep good relations with them if they wish for them to come back to the fold one day. Boucher may have fit in very well, coaching his favourite sensation in Hamilton, P.K. Subban and using the fast, skilled core of forwards in Montreal in conjunction with his offensive style

It should also be considered though that Montreal is also a very hard place for a rookie coach to begin his NHL career, the media can be relentless, especially if the team falls upon hard times. It is also arguable what kind of reputation the Canadiens would have set up when they fire a coach who led the team to a Conference Finals appearance in the playoffs in the favour of a man with only a single year's experience of coaching in the AHL. The decision was probably not as hard for Gauthier as some of us would have liked it to be, but Martin is the man behind the bench and the Canadiens are currently navigating a season missing a third of their defensive core and are continuing to contend not only for a playoff berth but the Division Title. The Canadiens still may see Guy Boucher behind the bench one day, because in a few years, he may feel beckoned home and he'll remember the Canadiens not only gave him his start in professional coaching but did not stand in his way when he got the offer to advance to the next level. This decision may have the most far-reaching implications of any Gauthier will make as a GM and much like the scouting decision and the Jaroslav Halak deal, will take years to sort out.

7th Transaction

June 17th

G Jaroslav Halak for C Lars Eller and RW Ian Schultz

If there was an easier way for Pierre Gauthier to enrage the Canadiens fanbase, it would have likely involved announcing the Canadiens are un-retiring Maurice Richard's number and giving it to newly-signed and fresh out of retirement Tie Domi.

Gauthier faced an extremely difficult decision, he had two goaltenders each with the talent to be a number one goaltender. Carey Price's statistics had been the lesser of the two over the last year and a half and Jaroslav Halak had delivered the best playoff goaltending performance since Patrick Roy's heroics in 1993. Carey Price's tumultuous relationship with the fans did not help, many were beginning to feel he was soft mentally and not committed to the team or winning. Then there was Jaroslav Halak the underdog, fighting his way out of being picked in the final round of the draft in 2003 and looking to prove he was elite. He had been the second-best goalie of the 2010 Olympics and a heroic playoff performer who had won the love of the fickle Bell Centre crowd.

There were options to weigh. Carey Price was two years younger and represented a more significant investment by the organization, he had been selected fifth overall in the 2005 Entry Draft and had been anointed as their future in nets as early as his rookie season. He had impeccable credentials from his junior hockey career, he had been a workhorse goalie for his major junior team the Tri-City Americans and been named the best junior goaltender in the entire CHL. Price had been named the Tournament MVP and best goaltender of the 2007 World Junior Championships when Team Canada won Gold for a third consecutive year. To finish his incredible year, Price signed his entry-level deal with the Montreal Canadiens and was assigned to the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs where he led them to their first and only Calder Cup victory, being named AHL Playoff MVP with his incredible play. No goaltender before Carey Price had won such laurels in a single year. Carey's rookie season in the NHL would have been the envy of veterans in the NHL when he went 24-12-3 with a .920 save percentage. He won the very first playoff series he ever played in, a series that included two shutout wins.

However the wheels had begun to come off, some people had suspected Price was too soft for the NHL after his regrettable dip in play during the Canadiens 2nd-round playoff lost the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008. His 2008-2009 campaign started off strong, but quickly faded, after winning sixteen games prior to the All-Star Game break, he won a mere seven for the rest of the season. His infamous gesture to the fans during the 2009 playoffs when he was being cheered in a mocking manner for routine saves during what was a complete collapse by the entire team didn't help matters. Price was beginning to be perceived by some as a Steven Penney or Jim Carey, a one-hit wonder who despite great success one year, was coming undone by a lack of talent or willingness to compete or improve. Carey's 3rd NHL season only offered brief flashes of his old brilliance, going 13-20-5 on the season, the mounting tension and fear in Montreal was the goaltender once called "Jesus Price" was a false idol who had mere tempted them like Steve Penney once had in the 1984 playoffs, or a short career-high netminder like Jose Theodore.

At the same time, Jaroslav Halak was stealing the spotlight. Halak had outplayed Carey Price during the 2nd half of the 2008-2009 season, pushing the Canadiens into the playoff picture and watched from the bench as the team fell apart and Price struggled in nets. Halak's road to the NHL had been quite different. A ninth-round draft pick out of the 2003 Entry Draft, Halak never enjoyed on a strong Slovakian National Team in World Junior events and would not win any medal in his time at the Tournaments. Halak's time in the ECHL and AHL never saw solidly take over a number one position as a goaltender, splitting time between the two leagues but compiling a record of 11-4-2 in the ECHL and 38-27-4 in the AHL over three years. Halak in the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 posted short, but winning seasons in the NHL of 18-14-1 and 26-13-5, with save percentages of .915 and .924.

Halak's skill in nets had two incredible shining peaks in his final season in Montreal as well. Halak was selected as the starting goaltender of the Slovakian National Team's Olympic Team, where he would help bring Slovakia to their best finish ever in the Tournament, finishing 4th overall, contending for the Bronze Medal. However, this was marred by his weakness in the 3rd period of the Bronze Medal game where Finland managed a comeback, scoring 3 goals in the final frame and defeating Slovakia.

The second high in nets is a very resounding memory for Habs fans, Halak put on the finest goaltending performance of the 2010 NHL playoffs, pulling the Canadiens past the Washington Capitals after falling behind 3-1 in their playoff series. Halak's prowess continued into the Pittsburgh series, not quite as spectacular but his contributions led to an upset of the reigning Cup Champions. However, despite quite legitimate concerns about a lack of scoring in the Conference Finals with the Philadelphia Flyers, Halak's magic seemed to fade. Fewer brilliant saves, more questionable plays out of his net, perhaps none more highlighted than the ill-timed charge out of net to stop a Mike Richards shorthanded breakaway that became a basic empty-net goal and swung the momentum of Game 5 and ultimately saw the Canadiens eliminated from the playoffs. Entirely Halak's fault the way the series went? Of course not but it raised concern about his endurance and consistency levels.

Money was a present concern, Jaroslav Halak was eligible for salary arbitration as a Restricted Free Agent and to date, his agent Allan Walsh, who had taken pleasure in being a thorn in the side of the Canadiens management during the season was not exactly a person on Pierre Gauthier's Christmas Card list. Carey Price was also a Restricted Free Agent, but without arbitration rights and with his past two seasons of performance was easily a cheaper option. The Canadiens also needed to sign pending free agent Tomas Plekanec, their MVP skater during the season who was going to require a financial commitment as well.

At present, almost everyone seems contented with Carey Price's season, albeit far fewer with Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. However things should be kept in perspective, goalies almost never bring in what they're worth. Eller is still only in his 2nd season of professional hockey in North America and at times, has shown great promise, good skating, solid awareness and a willingness to go to the hard areas of the ice to make a play. Ian Schultz is far less encouraging thus far, battling injury and being completely ineffective with not a single point on his season. However the Halak deal considering the age of the prospects involved should be weighed. At Eller and Schultz's age, Halak was a relative nobody I'd remind people, an AHL/ECHL goaltender at the respective ages of Eller and Schultz. It will take time to see the results and project the futures of these young players. The trade looks like a clear win for St. Louis looking upon results but the organization kept the superior goaltender in this writer's opinion and got something back for the goalie they dealt. What any fan would have wanted to see back? No but we won't really know Eller and Schultz's potential for years.

At best, I'd declare this trade turning even if Eller and Schultz hit their potential with the Canadiens. Probably Gauthier's toughest move as a GM, getting value for a position (goaltending) that never brings in even value is not easy and the free agency market showed what GMs thought a goaltender was worth. This will likely be the favourite sticking point for Gauthier's critics over the years but much like the Boucher situation, all the implications of this deal will take half a decade or more to sort out. Tomas Plekanec did not enter his prime until the 2009-10 season, at the age of 27.

8th Transaction:

June 22nd

RW Mathieu Darche signed to a 1-year deal, 500,000$ contract.

A move that had more impact than anyone would have bet on when the deal was made, it was criticized by those who remembered Darche averaging 6:14 of ice time per game during the playoffs and was scratched eight times. Others (including this writer) felt as a 13th forward, Darche was an ideal choice, he was not a prospect would be hurt by being placed in the press box and would not complain about being scratched or being shorted ice time.

Darche reads as a career AHLer with fringe NHL duties when his statistics are examined, but his work ethic and ability to work with his teammates makes him invaluable in working to make sure he gets his linemates going. He's been around when Benoit Pouliot became resurgent a couple times this season and in a checking line role, tends to do very well getting the most out of his ice time and helping his teammates along. As a bare-bones contract player, Darche has more than filled his contract value this season.

9th Transaction

June 22nd

C Tomas Plekanec signed to a 6-year, 30-million $ contract.

Gauthier was in a position to do what most Montreal GMs enjoy maybe a couple times in their tenure, make a move that does not get endlessly criticized and deemed a mistake by anyone who thinks they ought to be the GM of the Canadiens. Tomas Plekanec's new contract was the second-best move Gauthier made in his first year as GM. Plekanec was signed to a very good contract that featured a hometown discount and a term that has the shifty two-way forward in Montreal for the prime of his career. The deal was necessary to ensure depth at center and the team did not become involved in ugly bidding wars in free agency for less talented players to fill his role, rely upon call-ups from Hamilton or become hostage in the trade market for an appropriate replacement.

There isn't too much to write about this one except in praise, so far on paper and for tangible results, the best move Gauthier has made regarding a forward and scoring since he became GM. Plekanec is a fast, intelligent, skilled centre who despite being either great or terrible in the faceoff circle on many nights, he is easily one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL today. The Canadiens needed to cement their depth at the centre position and the Plekanec contract went a long way to ensuring that for the foreseeable future. A popular decision is not always the right decision for a hockey GM, especially in Montreal but in this case Gauthier both did the right thing for the team and pleased a great deal of Canadiens fans with the move.

The only standing criticism one could level against Tomas Plekanec is his lack of production in the playoffs, with 24 points in 40 career playoff games. While easily arguable that Plekanec took on a more defensive role in the post-season, Canadiens fans have often been frustrated in recent years with the lack of a star centre who can carry the offensive play. While Plekanec is arguably just truly entered his prime, his status as a favourite amongst Habs fans will no doubt take a hit if he is not a source of solid offence in future playoff campaigns. His ability to play as a defensive forward against the elite forwards of opposing teams can never be underestimated but with the Canadiens still lacking offensive punch, expectations will remain for Plekanec to remain part of the team's scoring by committee system and contribute more goals in future playoff years.

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