Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is Pierre Gauthier the One to Blame?

Now I'm no fan of Pierre Gauthier's overall body of work in Montreal. I've called multiple times for Mr. Gauthier to be shown the door along with Jacques Martin and was highly critical of the defense he put together for the 2011-12 season, going as far as to call it inexcusable. When Andrei Markov was signed to a 3-year deal, I was highly skeptical, but chose to give Gauthier the benefit of the doubt, as undoubtedly he had far more information on Markov's health than I did.

But is the performance of the team this season related to a mismanagement of funds this past summer? Would the team be better on ice if he had acted differently the past 6 months? It has been suggested by some, over the past week, that had Gauthier done a better job, Jacques Martin may not have lost his job this week. In fact, I had a rather heated debate with a prominent member of the mainstream Montreal sports media who went as far as to assert that had the contracts given to Andrei Markov and Scott Gomez been spent differently (a total of more than $13M in cap space) by Gauthier and thus been "contributing" on ice, the team would be performing better and Martin would still be coach. "Agree with me or stop talking," the journalist concluded. "There is no other side to it."

Whether you like Gauthier or not, there's a few myths that must be debunked here. One is that spending more money necessarily improves your team or equates to results. Another is that it is an easy task to bring in top talent when you have the cap space to do so. And finally, that ridding the team of Gomez's salary could be accomplished on a whim.

Mo' Money, Less Problems?

There is no doubt that in today's NHL, cap space is a valuable asset. Thus, giving out big, multi-season contracts to risky or unproven players should be seen as a faux-pas. So let's say Gauthier had an extra $14M to spend because he hadn't given such a deal to Markov and he had found a way to rid the team of Gomez. Would spending this money elsewhere make for a better on-ice product?

The easy answer is "Yes." It's $14M that today isn't helping the team win (as it's on the shelf, or ineffective in the case of Gomez when he was healthy), and so mathematics would indicate that $0M + $14M gives a positive change.

But let's consider a few things here. First, as Habs fans, we've seen enough ill-conceived UFA signings to know that not every one is a good one. Even if there's cash to burn, signing a Sergei Samsonov or Georges Laraque did not help the club, serving as a distraction more than anything. Adding a player for the sake of hitting the cap - even if it does provide more depth - isn't guaranteed to improve results. The counter-argument is that this is a defeatist attitude. You can't assume that with money to spend, any signing would flop. But truthfully, it is not much more defeatist than assuming on the day of the signing that Markov would not be healthy or that Gomez wouldn't rebound.

Ask Columbus if the big contracts they gave out this summer have improved their club from last year. How about the Washington Capitals and their very busy off-season? The truth is, there weren't many top calibre options available via UFA last summer, and nor will there be this coming summer. No defenseman near Andrei Markov's ability changed teams on or shortly after July 1st, with the closest probably being Ed Jovanovski and Tomas Kaberle. As sad as it is, there were also few Scott Gomez replacements available, with the biggest names being Brad Richards, Tim Connolly, and Ville Leino. Would the Habs have been a better team this season with Jovanovski dressed instead of Raphael Diaz and Ville Leino in Lars Eller's slot? No one knows for certain, but I think it's obvious that the answer at least isn't a clear cut "Yes" after all.

(keep in mind, the argument here is about the present season and the job of Jacques Martin; I fully agree with those that would rather see the money used to extend Josh Gorges, Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban, and Carey Price)

Who WOULDN'T Want to Play in Montreal?!

As just established, there weren't many names available on the free agent market, and when July 1 of 2012 roles around, the market is not much more plentiful (it starts to pick up the year after, assuming the world doesn't end in December 2012). But even this assumes that any and all available players would be willing to play in Montreal. We all know that this isn't necessarily the case, with taxes, pressure, non-contender status, and language/children schooling issues being prime reasons that keep some away. Montreal-bashing aside, you could pick any team/market in the league and there would be some players who wouldn't want to play there.

If you're not improving your roster through signings, how else can you spend money to do it? Well, you can make a trade. The thing about trading is, of course, you have to give to get. No Hab fans want to see this team sacrificing top draft picks and prospects for big contract veterans at this point, and even those moves are far from guarantees (see: Dustin Penner). The fact is, Gauthier did spend some of his spare cash by signing Chris Campoli during training camp, and then dealing for Tomas Kaberle a week and a half ago. It seems almost as though some are saying Gauthier should have just signed Kaberle instead of Markov last summer, but he has now managed to end up with both instead. If he had done that, and Kaberle had started the year here like he did in Carolina, fans would be in the streets enraged over another deal gone awry. And just imagine if, meanwhile, when Markov eventually does return, he plays like his old self. What if he did so in another market? Gauthier would need to enter the witness relocation program.

It is a myth that Gauthier is asleep at the wheel. He is a busy general manager, constantly looking for ways to improve the team. But the fact is, adding big name, big money talent that will help your team, even when you have the cap space to do so, is easier said than done.

It's Easy to Spend Someone Else's Money

Lastly, we arrive at the Scott Gomez factor. There is no Canadiens fan in the world that is happy to be saddled with his $7.357M cap hit for this season and the next two, including Pierre Gauthier. Like many, I hoped that Gauthier would find a taker for his contract this off-season, like perhaps the Florida Panthers or New York Islanders in their efforts to reach the salary cap floor. They both found more productive ways of doing it, though, so the Habs remained stuck with his deal.

Yes, there were ways to move Gomez that don't involve any other clubs. One would have been buying him out, which would have imposed a roughly $4M annual cap hit on the team for the remainder of Gomez's deal, plus a hit of $1.66M annually for 3 years to follow. This doesn't seem like the best way to spend money, not to mention that it would require an expanded budget from ownership to then be willing to spend that freed cap space. Unless the team had managed to woo Brad Richards to replace Gomez, paying a player millions of dollars intentionally NOT to play for your team is simply not smart management. Especially when no one was certain as to how David Desharnais and Lars Eller would fare down the middle this season.

The other option is to pass Gomez through waivers (he would go unclaimed) and then send him down to the Hamilton Bulldogs. From a fan's perspective, this is easily the best of the options, given that trading him would likely require sweetening the pot with a draft pick and that buying him out imposes the mentioned cap penalty. However, general managers work within budgets established in conjunction with team ownership. Considering that Gauthier was Bob Gainey's head of pro scouting when he went out and traded for Gomez (a deal I hated since day one, but at this point, we're talking about ancient history), meaning it was just as much his error as it was Gainey's, it would be a hard sell to convince your boss to not only pay him $7.5M, $5.5M, and $4.5M over this year and the next two to play in the American League, but then to give you and extra $7M to spend each of those seasons in improving your roster. From a business sense perspective, in Geoff Molson's shoes, it is understandable to ask Mr. Gauthier to find another way to deal with it or to find himself out of a job. Mr. Molson has in fact publicly stated that he is against sending Gomez to the AHL, whether you want to believe him or not. Sure, he also gave a vote of confidence to Jacques Martin and his staff, and yes, things do change, but there is no guarantee that his budget for the team will change with it.

I'm not saying Gomez's deal will forever be impossible to move, but if the Canadiens aren't going to be stuck with the Alaskan native until the summer of 2014, they're going to have to take some salary back. Here's hoping Gauthier can find a taker on a similar deal to the one Jim Rutherford got from him in order to rid the 'Canes of Kaberle's troublesome deal.

The Verdict

Is it Pierre Gauthier's fault that Jacques Martin was fired? I don't think Gauthier did the best job in putting together a top-flight team this season, but the fact is he spent all the money he could to ice a team of quality players. Are the injuries to Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Chris Campoli, and others Gauthier's fault? No. Certainly, those weren't predicable this summer.

The Markov contract has been and might continue to be a nightmare for the organization, but the fact is that there was no easy way to spend his $5.75M elsewhere that would have guaranteed a better club this year. We can only hope that he does eventually return in fine form.

The Gomez deal - particularly now with Kaberle in the fold - will prove problematic as the team is forced to give their young players raises this summer and the next. Undoubtedly, Gauthier will be forced to find a taker for one of Gomez, Gionta, Kaberle, or Mike Cammalleri, but for the present season, not only may Gauthier have had his hands tied in terms of options to get rid of the deal, but there were few veteran UFA centers on the market to replace him.

I strongly feel that Gauthier should and will be replaced prior to this June's Entry Draft, but I do think it unfair to lay all blame for this season's poor performance on him. Martin failed to get the most out of the veterans he had under contract - proven players and rookies alike - while employing an outdated defensive system. I'd push back with a question of would Martin have even lasted this long had Gauthier not signed Erik Cole, the Habs' top forward over the last 25 games. The GM's job is not an easy one, but just as Martin was deserving of the fate that befell him, so will be the Gainey-Gauthier regime when its time comes to an end.

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