Though it was no surprise, it was quite a week in Montreal, as Canadiens ownership flushed the front office Thursday by firing general manager Pierre Gauthier and much-loved Bob Gainey, previously the club’s GM and more recently Gauthier’s special adviser.
It marks a thoroughly new start for the Habs, even if owner/CEO/president Geoff Molson has put yet another ex-Habs GM, Serge Savard, in charge as his No. 1 eyes-on-the-transition guy.
Hotel CHalifornia: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
There is plenty to like about Savard. He remains a much-admired figure in Montreal. But when trying to craft a new approach and create a new vision and culture, reinstalling the 66-year-old iconic defenseman as the guiding light instantly casts a same-ol’-same-ol’ patina on the long-struggling franchise.
Not that anyone in Montreal needs reminding, but Les Glorieux’ last Stanley Cup was in 1993, back when Savard was calling the shots as GM. Much has changed in the NHL nearly 20 years later, which isn’t to say that Savard is incapable of identifying the new-age guy to run the franchise.
But he really hasn’t been in the everyday hockey mix since transitioning out of the front office in the mid 1990s, which led to Rejean Houle’s bumbling run as GM in charge of the continuing disintegration. Given another chance, Savard is going to get it all right this time? Possible, but . . .
Gauthier’s abysmal tour turned comic when the Habs were playing the Bruins in Boston Jan. 12 and he traded Mike Cammalleri to the Flames while the game was in progress. Cammalleri played the first period, then was back in a downtown hotel room by the time the game ended, making plans to fly the next morning to Calgary. A whole new definition to changing on the fly.
Postgame, Gauthier stood outside his club’s dressing room, noting that newcomer Rene Bourque, acquired for Cammalleri, would be a more effective, grittier scorer. Today’s NHL, said Gauthier, valued Bourque’s grittiness over Cammalleri’s skill.
Fast-forward 10 weeks. Bourque entered Saturday’s games with a popgun line of 5-3-8 and a grim minus-21 rating in 34 games with the Habs; Cammalleri was 8-7-15 and a minus-8 in 25 games with the Flames.
The trade didn’t prevent either club from missing the playoffs, but Gauthier clearly missed the boat in his player evaluations. Bourque has been a bust.
Now, to whom do Molson and Savard turn to revive what was once the proudest of all NHL franchises? The rumor mill immediately churned out a list of four favorite candidates: ex-goalie Patrick Roy (in net for the 1986 and 1993 Cup wins), former front office man Julien BriseBois (these days Tampa’s assistant GM); ex-defenseman Marc Bergevin (Blackhawks assistant GM); and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire.
All four speak French and English, which Molson says is not mandatory - but it is, just as the team colors aren’t ever likely to be anything but bleu, blanc, et rouge.
Roy will be the fans’ choice, of course, because he has the highest name recognition, is a Hall of Famer, and still does business in the province as co-owner, GM, and coach of the Quebec Remparts junior team.
Not a bad pick, but St. Patrick, whose parting as a player was downright ugly, may not want or need the hassles and institutional second-guessing related to the job. His fiery disposition, especially in a city with such scrutiny from media and fans, could make for an uncomfortable fit.
Of the others, Bergevin may be the most talented and experienced guy, and acquaintances say he has a very healthy sense of humor. Given the state of affairs in Montreal, that quality alone may win the day.
Bergevin, 46, played nearly 1,200 games as an NHL defenseman, including 79 with the Forever .500s in Hartford at the start of the 1990s. He has been in the Chicago front office the last four years, and last June became assistant GM.
Two longtime player agents said Bergevin was head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field.
“If he hires a really sharp assistant GM and player personnel guy and head scout, he might be perfect,’’ said one. “Fans would love him.’’
The latter point is very important, and it came through Thursday when Molson emphasized that the new hire must also be a strong communicator.
Gauthier, a borderline recluse, came across as smug, even disdainful. Gainey, forever soft-spoken, never embraced the spotlight, as a player, coach (Minnesota, Dallas, Montreal), or manager.
The Habs need a GM who can reassemble a broken team and reconnect with a fan base that, despite all the disappointment of the last 20 years, remains rabid about all things Canadiens.
SIZING UP KRUG
Small world on blue line
The Bruins figure they’ve found a gem, albeit a small one, in Torey Krug, the 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound defenseman they signed out of Michigan State last weekend and brought straight to the varsity.
It’s doubtful that the 20-year-old Krug will play this week, his addition to the roster mostly about attaining a favorable contract, one that makes him eligible for his next deal after the 2013-14 season. In essence, he gets to reload after two years instead of three.
Per NHL rules, Krug is ineligible to participate in this year’s playoffs because he signed with the Bruins as a free agent. It’s the same for goalie Marty Turco, who can’t play beyond Saturday’s season-ender vs. Buffalo because he signed (out of Salzburg, Austria) at the start of March after being unable to land an NHL contract last summer. He played last season with Chicago.
Krug, never drafted, ostensibly because scouts considered him too small for prime time, looks to be closer to 5-7 than 5-9. He’s in the Greg Hawgood/Hawgie Hockey/Lilliput division.
Hawgood, the 202d pick in the 1986 draft, was at least a couple of inches shy of his purported 5-10. But he had enough talent to play for eight NHL teams, the last fling coming with Dallas before he ended his pro career in Europe. His final NHL line: 474 games, 224 points.
Some of the other smaller back liners to have varying impacts in the NHL in recent times: Phil Housley, 5-10 (1,495 games/1,232 points); Don Sweeney, 5-10 (1,115 games/273 points); Brian Rafalski, 5-10 (833 games/515 points); Risto Siltanen, 5-9 (562 games/355 points); and Reijo Ruotsalainen, 5-8 (446 games/344 points).
A look Friday at the top 10 point-getters among NHL defensemen found only three under 6 feet: Brian Campbell (5-10), Dan Boyle (5-11), and Mark Streit (5-11). The other seven, including 6-9 Zdeno Chara, averaged 6-3 1/2 and 222 pounds.
Krug grew up in Michigan, as did another one-time Boston back liner, Al Iafrate. Born in Dearborn, the Planet was 6-3, 240. His son, Max Iafrate, who turned 18 last week, grew up in Krug’s hometown of Livonia and played this season in Kitchener (OHL). He is 6-2, 220, and loves to shoot it (surprise). Based on Central Scouting’s reports, he figures to go in the third or fourth round of June’s draft.
Falling Leafs a horror show
It has been a meltdown of epic, and sad, proportions in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs in early February looked destined to make the playoffs after six DNQ seasons. All that’s left this week is to figure their standing among the lottery picks in the draft. What happened? The biggest issue, again, was goaltending. The freefall began well ahead of the Feb. 27 trade deadline, and general manager Brian Burke hoped to find an answer but came up empty. He then canned Ron Wilson as coach, and the teamwide response under new boss Randy Carlyle went from bad to abysmal (4-8-2 in 14 games entering Saturday night’s game). Old pal Phil Kessel: “Not a good feeling. We’re just not doing anything right.’’ It’s not going to get better until Burke finds a true No. 1 stopper, and his offseason charge also will be to reconfigure the mixture of skill and size among the forwards and defensemen - currently light up front and heavy in the back. That’s a lot of summer homework, which might force Burke to consider dealing Kessel for a top goalie. The former first-round Boston pick remains the Leafs’ top asset and therefore most coveted trade target. As of Thursday, the Leafs had lost a franchise-record 11 straight on home ice. Painful. “There’s not a lot we can say,’’ said Carlyle.
Ordering up the shots
Through games of Thursday night, not a single rookie NHL defenseman had landed 100 shots on net. Tops in the field: Carolina’s Justin Faulk (94), followed by Colorado’s Stefan Elliott (84), and Los Angeles’s Slava Voynov (76). Last season, five rookie defensemen landed more than 100, led by Montreal’s P.K. Subban (197). Overall, Dustin Byfuglien topped the charts last season with 347, followed by Zdeno Chara with 264. This season, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson has been the most prolific, with 245 entering play Saturday. Chara ranked fifth with 215.
Aiming high from ice level
No doubt intrigued by the front-office shakeup in Montreal, St. Louis forward David Perron, born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, tweeted this Friday to TSN host James Duthie: “What’s the latest on my chances to be a GM. Haha.’’ To which Duthie, a man of economic words, replied: “Front. Runner.’’ Perron has recovered nicely after his protracted stay on the sidelines that was due to a concussion, the result of a hit from San Jose’s Joe Thornton. Entering Saturday night’s game, the former first-round pick (No. 26, 2007) had 18 goals and 39 points in 53 games. When the Bruins were shopping for trade partners for Kessel in the summer of 2009, Perron was among their targets.
Calder coming down to two
Not an easy call for NHL Rookie of the Year (Calder Trophy). Had Ryan Nugent-Hopkins been healthy all season, he would have been a runaway favorite, and the slick pivot still may win. He has 18 goals and 50 points through 58 games. Good pal Bob McKenzie of TSN figures it’s a two-man race between RNH and instant man-among-men Gabriel Landeskog of the Avalanche. The 19-year-old Swede, who tuned up for the NHL with two years in Kitchener, hasn’t missed a game all season and has a line of 22-29-51. RNH looks destined to be a more prolific scorer, but for a freshman body of work, for consistency and completeness, it would be easy to give the nod to Landeskog.
Bergeron deserves honors
It’s far less glamorous than, say, the Calder, Hart Trophy (MVP), or Norris Trophy (top defenseman), but the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward should go to the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron. Is there a more complete two-way player in the game? And while he’s at the podium, hand him the Lady Byng Trophy, too. Through 78 games, often butting heads with the game’s most prolific pivots, Bergy has only 20 penalty minutes. Steve Kasper (1982) is the lone Bruin to win the Selke. Rick Middleton (’82) was the last Bruin to win the Byng. Others: Jean Ratelle (’76), John Bucyk (’71, ’74), Don McKenney (’60), Bobby Bauer (’40, ’41, ’47).
Silence isn’t golden
Other than what would best be described as idle chat and exchange of pleasantries (probably forced), there has been no substantive talk between the NHL and its Players Association toward forging a new collective bargaining agreement. Absent a new deal prior to September’s training camps, the league will implement its third lockout in less than 20 years.
Face in the crowd at a recent Bruins practice in El Segundo, Calif.: Ralph Barahona. A lifelong Californian, the former Boston center works at the Toyota Center rink in El Segundo these days, after wrapping up his pro career in 2000-01 with the Long Beach Ice Dogs. Another recent visitor to the rink in El Segundo, according to Barahona, was ex-Bruins winger Randy Burridge, who now works out of a rink in Las Vegas . . . Recent chant at Maple Leafs home games in Air Canada Centre: “Let’s go, Blue Jays!’’. . . The Flyers’ Matt Read, formerly of Bemidji State, also will receive a few Calder votes. Entering Saturday, he led all rookies with 23 goals . . . Ex-UMass goalie Jonathan Quick registered a franchise-record ninth shutout with the Kings Wednesday, turning back 19 shots by the Flames. Rogie Vachon held the old mark of eight, with the 1976-77 Kings . . . At least a couple of GMs are of the firm belief that the new CBA, whenever it’s tidied up, will allow clubs to retain a portion of a player’s salary when trading him to another club. The current CBA prohibits such dollar sharing, part of the reason trades have been so difficult in the New NHL era. “Slam dunk,’’ said one GM. “Most of the GMs want it, and it’s only a good thing for players - they’ll get new chances with other teams.’’ . . . Last week, the Sharks signed a California kid, Matt Tennyson, out of Western Michigan. He thus became the first Junior Sharks player signed by the home team. Tennyson, a 6-foot-2-inch, 212-pound defenseman, grew up about 30 miles to the north, in Pleasanton, and was a finalist for the CCHA top offensive defenseman award - an award won by new Bruin Torey Krug . . . Ex-Bruin Tom Fitzgerald of Billerica will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at his alma mater, Austin Prep, April 21 at 6 p.m. at the Andover Wyndham Hotel. Ex-Globe scribe Robert E. Duffy Jr., also an Austin Prep grad, will handle emcee duties, which could mean Fitzy is in for a tough night at the faceoff dot . . . Boston’s playoff record against the Senators: 0-0. Just for the sake of something new, it would be a fun matchup. And the wheel-and-deal Senators might be the most fun team to watch in the NHL. Their defensive backbone is in question, but they scoot and shoot.