Six seasons is a long time. When you're the general manager of the National Hockey League's Montreal Canadiens, your entire career, life even, placed under the microscope of the local media, it must feel like a whole lot longer.
Hats off to Bob Gainey for a job well done, or at least what would be considered a job well done in any other market, but probably will only pass for a job competently done here. Apparently "competence" in Montreal, as far as Habs general managers go, means making the playoffs in four out of five (complete) seasons and a 241-176-7-46 record.
In any case, in this first part of hopefully a two-part posting, I will list his five worst mistakes with the Habs (at least in my humble opinion). Later on in the week, I will name his five greatest accomplishments (to end on a fitting high note… one doesn't end on a low one when it comes to a Hall of Famer). So, without further ado, Gainey's lowlight reel dating back to 2003 when he first came aboard the perpetually drifting ship that is the Montreal Canadiens:
5) Cutting ties with Georges Laraque: When you sign a player like the Canadiens did with Laraque for the 2008-2009 season, one kind of assumes that he won't be asked to sit at home and get paid for nothing, but that's exactly what happened to Laraque a few short weeks ago when he was told that he wouldn't be dressing for any of the remaining regular-season games this year and that his contract would eventually be bought out (with one year left at $1,500,000).
Obviously signing Laraque was a failed experiment, but the way in which the whole incident went down reeks of low class. That he was only signed because Gainey thought the Habs needed a tough guy and that now, magically, they don't seem to was added insult to injury.
4) Trading Mike Ribeiro for Janne Niinimaa: Trading Ribeiro wasn't the mistake, as he clearly had to go. But the return was just so laughable at the time of the trade and more so in hindsight, that the move just needed to be mentioned. Count the stats (and give me a second to use my calculator): Ribeiro has 254 points in 283 games since the trade with the Dallas Stars. How about Niinimaa? Again, give me a few seconds to use my calculator, please… three assists in 41 games… for a player who is not even good enough to play in the league anymore. The 'wow' factor is off the charts.
3) Firing Guy Carbonneau: Carbonneau was the coach that Gainey hand-picked to take over for Claude Julien and, yet, somehow, he wasn't the right man for the job. Interesting, n'est-ce pas, that the guy who hired the guy who wasn't the right man for the job got to keep his… oh, wait. My bad.
The main thing with regards to Carbonneau's firing that sticks out was the curious timing. The Canadiens had just won a huge road game against the Dallas Stars and Carbonneau had a decent 35-24-7 record at the time. Clearly, there was something else going on behind closed doors, but the decision to fire him remains infamous to this day.
2) Trading Cristobal Huet: At the time of the 2007-2008 trade deadline, Huet and Carey Price were battling it out for the number-one goaltending spot. Things were actually working out quite well, with an interesting dynamic between the two: The pretty good Frenchman who gave Price the fuel he needed to strive to be better in the future countered by the young blue-chip prospect who kept the incumbent starting goalie on his toes. Somehow, though, Gainey got the idea that giving a 20-year-old goalie the net in time for the playoffs and trading away the veteran for a lowly second-round pick was a great idea. It all played out like anyone with half a hockey mind would have guessed: Price played a so-so first round against the Boston Bruins and a less-than-stellar second round against the Philadelphia Flyers, leading to the Habs's arguably premature dismissal from the playoffs that year.
The team finished with the best record in the Eastern conference that year and while flaws and holes in the lineup were plainly evident, everyone wasn't necessarily looking for the Habs to win the Cup those playoffs… but it would have been nice. Maybe with Huet still with the team, they would have had a better chance to do the improbable.
1) Choosing Alex Kovalev over Saku Koivu: It was simply inexcusable to let Koivu walk away and pursue free agency last off-season. Clearly, Gainey was looking to rebuild the team from the ground up (or the second floor up, more accurately), but, if that's the case, why did he still try (and still failed) to sign Kovalev? Why???
Say what you want about Koivu, but he brought it every single game. He had the heart and drive that Kovalev seemed to lack on a game-to-game basis. No, he wasn't the team's best player, but he was a solid second-line center, and that was the problem in a nutshell. The team needed a big first-line center ("big" in the sense of size and not the "big" that seemed to describe five-foot-eleven Scott Gomez when he was traded for this past off-season to replace Koivu) and Koivu was never that player. What was he going to do? Get taller the way Ethan Hawke did in Gattaca?
A player who was re-signed five times by the Canadiens suddenly wasn't good enough? Give me a break. And Kovalev, a player who had just come off a disappointing 65-point season (a huge drop-off from the 84 he scored the year before, showcasing his trademark inconsistency as a player), was? Give me a second break… literally (Tune in on Sunday afternoon for the second part of this post).