You see, this was how it was going to work in the city that still believes in hockey fairy tales. Gainey, with one Stanley Cup as a general manager in Dallas, would remake the once-proud Montreal Canadiens one year at a time with draft picks and judicious trades and signings. With the hockey gods' permission, in five seasons -- culminating in the team's centennial of 2008-09 -- the Canadiens would reaffirm their birthright by winning the Cup and throwing those fabulous made-in-Montreal parades.
And then everyone was going to live happily ever after (or at least until the power play went 0-for-16 the following season). The end.
Well, five seasons turned into six with almost nothing to show for it. There was a surprisingly strong run in 2007-08 when the Canadiens were the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season -- and seemingly poised to mount the next step the following year, right on schedule -- but they faltered in the 2008 playoffs and barely qualified in 2009. Considering how Boston brushed them aside last April like a man picking lint off his blue suit, you almost wonder why the Canadiens even bothered.
With the team now on the far side of the mountain after the failure of his first five-year plan, Gainey had no choice but to begin a new one. It included a stunning summer during which he did not re-sign any of his 10 unrestricted free agents and looked elsewhere to stockpile skilled but pint-sized forwards who are better suited to battling Gulliver than the elite teams in the conference. Montreal's financial flexibility vanished in the blink of an eye with the signings of Brian Gionta (five years for $25 million, as Gainey essentially outbid himself), Mike Cammalleri (five years, $31 million), and his taking the rest of Scott Gomez's absurd contract (another five years, $33.5 million) off the hands of the grateful New York Rangers.
Like the gift that keeps on giving, those astonishing contracts can now bedevil Gainey's interim successor, assistant Pierre Gauthier, who managed Ottawa and Anaheim in the pre-salary cap era.
The profligacy that took the Canadiens to the cap for 2009-10 (and the financial box for the next five years) ultimately might not have sat well with the new Montreal ownership fronted by Geoff Molson of the brewery family. Gainey already had saddled them with coach Jacques Martin, a safe but hardly inspired choice. The Molson group, which had not yet formally taken control of the Canadiens -- a franchise that had been part of its family business between 1957 and 1971, and again between 1978 and 2001 -- was essentially guaranteed a bubble playoff team for as far as the eye could reasonably see.
Still, the resignation on Monday was Gainey's choice. He said he didn't want to remain in the job after his contract expired following the season. After a difficult period of reflection, and with the trade deadline looming on March 3, he decided "to pass the torch" now. When asked what he will do with his time -- beyond his role as a special advisor to Gauthier -- Gainey said he wasn't quite sure. Maybe, he said with his inscrutable smile, he'd learn to play the piano.
Gainey's costly summer was just the landmark moment of a tenure that began in 2003. There were underlying and revelatory themes, constants that marked a tenure in which the franchise brand recovered -- book it: a sold-out 21,273 fans per game -- but the hockey team often seemed to be skating into a 20-mile-per-hour headwind.
Here are four:
While Montreal's amateur scouting has been constantly scrutinized because of the inability to hit a first-round home run -- the jury is still out on 22-year-old goalie Cary Price, drafted fifth overall in 2005 -- its pro scouting under Gainey was far more problematic. The Canadiens routinely erred in their evaluations of NHL players. Indeed in the past decade there might not have been a more lopsided player-for-player deal than Mike Ribeiro for Janne Niinimaa when Gainey settled for an end-of-the-line sixth defenseman in exchange for a player poised to become a No. 1 center in Dallas. (Although Ribeiro was viewed as a stray cat in Montreal, Gainey conceded last year that the trade truly was horrible.)
Sure, there were good ones. Moving Craig Rivet to San Jose at the deadline for Josh Gorges and a first -ounder (Max Pacioretty) was a deft stroke. Acquiring Alex Kovalev for Jozef Balej and a second-rounder -- then getting Kovalev to sign in Montreal -- was sublime. But too often the Canadiens' scouts failed to find the pieces on other teams that would fit nicely in Montreal. Alex Tanguay cost a first- and second-rounder. He lasted exactly one season before walking via free agency.
Inability to sign marquee free agents.
Maybe this is not quite as damning as it sounds. Gainey lost Paul Kariya to Nashville and Brendan Shanahan to the Rangers, but given the impact the venerable wingers had on their new teams, Montreal is lucky that Gainey didn't get to spend the money. Still, their snubs (and Mats Sundin's dithering after the 2008 draft when the Canadiens acquired his rights from Toronto in an effort to sign him) contributed to the league-wide impression that Montreal is not a destination of choice.
When Gainey did manage to bag a free-agent player in 2009, he generally paid first-line money to second-line players. This will go down as his biggest failure in Montreal: the GM never could manage to find the blend of size and skill that top teams have on their top lines. After the strong 2008 playoffs in which Boston mussed the Canadiens' hair in a difficult first round, Gainey overpaid for the essentially useless Georges Laraque ($4.5 for three years, about a million over market price), an enforcer the Canadiens dismissed last month.
A spasmodic willingness to be proactive.
Sometimes Gainey moved smartly -- securing the rights to Sundin -- and sometimes quickly. He left the young Price without a safety net in the 2008 playoffs by trading soon-to-be-UFA Cristobal Huet, which might have cost the Canadiens a playoff round. But too often, Gainey just didn't move.
Because of a philosophical opposition to negotiating contracts during the season, Montreal let defensemen such as Mark Streit and Sheldon Souray walk to free agency for nothing. Now, Tomas Plekanec, their de facto No. 1 center and leading scorer, finds himself in similar circumstances. Unless Gauthier is convinced that he can re-sign Plekanec at a mutually acceptable number, he would be better served trading him before that March 3 deadline than banking on a player with no playoff portfolio to carry the team for a round or two.
Lack of vision and patience with coaches.
In 2003 Gainey inherited Claude Julien, exactly the kind of coach who could grow with the franchise. In a perfect world, the Jack Adams Award-winner last season in Boston could have been the Canadiens' coach for a decade, able to dance through the emotional tangle of the job while running a good bench. But although Julien took Montreal to the second round in 2004, Gainey fired him midway through the next season, 2005-06, and took over behind the bench to groom Guy Carbonneau for the job. Carbonneau, whose hiring Gainey once called his best decision, was an edgy choice.
Carbonneau's personality was never going to allow him to have a long shelf life, but it was shocking when Gainey fired him less than a season after the team's first-place finish. After Gainey 2.0 was a failure behind the bench, he opted to hire a coach, Martin, who had not been able to get Florida into the playoffs. Martin did, however, speak French -- one of the tacit requirements of the job.
Gainey is an easy man to like and a tough one to know, even for someone who has been acquainted with him since 1979. He keeps his counsel. When his daughter Laura perished after being swept overboard on a ship in the North Atlanta in December 2006, the guessing was that Gainey would soon walk away from the job. That was always the thing with him. If you guessed, you were probably going to be wrong.
When the Canadiens celebrated the 100th anniversary of their first game last Dec. 4, the franchise, classy as always, flew in many of their alumni to join the celebration. One of Gainey's teammates from the 1980s was kibitzing with the general manager when Gainey said, "Maybe the game has passed us both by." The line seemed funny then. It is less droll today.
The next GM of the Canadiens should be Jim Nill, currently the most qualified candidate who does not currently hold the job in the NHL. He is Detroit's assistant GM, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the business, a strong work ethic and absolutely no ties to the organization. If the Molson Group doesn't reach out to the Red Wings for permission to talk to him -- and owner Mike Ilitch previously has denied Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Boston requests to interview Nill, who is signed through 2010-11 -- it will be making a grave mistake. The Canadiens have a wondrous history, but they now have the chance to start fresh and operate a heritage franchise like an actual hockey business. Placing patrimony aside, Montreal should think outside the box - and the organization.
In the sixth year of a five-year plan, it is time.