The Ghost Speaks! Looking Back at Pierre Gauthier's First Months as GM

I was putting off writing this last part of my off-season analysis for the Montreal Canadiens, looking back at a year's worth of trades, signings, firings and draft picks for management, for several reasons.

For starters, Pierre Gauthier's work as general manager wasn't done, as Carey Price remained unsigned for a large portion of the off-season. Gauthier finally delivered, signing Price to a 2-year contract 11 days ago. He actually proceeded to make another move to round out his forwards a few days later, signing veteran center Jeff Halpern to a deal at nearly the league minimum. Now that Price's contract is out of the way, and that final depth move for the forwards signed and delivered, it's pretty safe to assume that Gauthier is pretty much done until the season begins.

With Pierre Gauthier's off-season chore list presumably completed, only one thing remained. For the man himself to speak.

When the Canadiens announced Gauthier's promotion from assistant General Manager to General Manager last February, with Bob Gainey stepping down in order to take a "lesser" role as advisor, not much could have been said by Habs fans or even the media about Gauthier's seven years with the organization. Frequently described as "The Ghost" by certain overweight Ottawa journalists, from his time as General Manager of the Senators, Gauthier is not known for being one to face the cameras very often, and that definitely applied to his time with the Canadiens (although the assistant’s job is not generally to speak to the media).

While certainly leaving his mark on both the Senators and the Anaheim (then Mighty) Ducks, whether that impression was positive or negative is a discussion for another time and another place.

In Montreal, while he served under Bob Gainey, since the summer of 2003 when Gainey himself joined the team, Gauthier was frequently involved in the decision making of the General Manager. Over the course of the seven years he was assistant, he consistently acquired more and more responsibility, eventually taking over the role of GM. But while his role as assistant allowed him to lurk in the shadows of the Bell Centre, his new role General Manager of the Canadiens is a whole different monster, especially in the Mecca of sports. Gauthier's responsibilities have changed, and in this market, you sort of have to pop out every once in a while or people start to go crazy, gravitating towards rooftops and bridges if the GM stays inactive for too long.

Gauthier fulfilled this requirement this morning, spoking at the start of rookie camp and breaking his silence. Thanks to Mike Boone of Habs Inside/Out, we can share our impressions from Gauthier's press conference. Interestingly, Boone said that Gauthier seemed more at east with the media than his predecessor, a man who was also known to ignore and lament the media over his tenure. In any case, amongst what Gauthier had to say, three major topics stood out and could be a source of interesting discussion (including three questions that you can answer in the comments!):

On the carry-over from last season:
Gauthier opened with "impressions of optimism", thanks to the Canadiens' surprise run in this past season's playoffs. Moreover, Gauthier cited the 17 (18 if you count "Mr." Subban) from last year's roster as a sign of stability. Gauthier raises some interesting points. With most of these players having gone through three playoff series only months ago, including lots of adversity, and both moments of glory and deception throughout the months of April and May, the effect can only be positive for this group of players. On top of the obvious bonding and playing experience, PK Subban got to see what the NHL playoffs are like before he could even wet his feet with the team. Mike Cammalleri got to score 13 goals, more than any other player in the playoffs. Even Carey Price has to be motivated, despite sitting on the bench for most of each series.

This group has definitely gelled together and learned what it's like to both win and lose, and this could mean that the Canadiens will be a force to be reckoned with and a very underrated team this upcoming season. On the other hand, we could also have a repeat of what happened when the Canadiens finished 1st in the conference a few years back, and didn't do so well the year after. Still, Gauthier’s optimism on the core of players returning for another season with the team is well justified, and his argument sound:

"Last year's process developed an identity for our club," Gauthier said in the press conference. "We felt stability was going to be important. We wanted to solidify and keep our core of players. We have a better knowledge of who we are and what we can accomplish."

The only players not returning to the team are two depth forwards (Moore and Metropolit) who had positive impacts on the team and stepped up in the cases of bad play or injuries from players above them, but both are players who can be (and have been) replaced. Paul Mara and Marc-Andre Bergeron also found themselves in the unemployment line on July 1st, but both are, again, depth players and easily replaceable.

The only major loss for the Canadiens was Jaroslav Halak, but as it’s been discussed, time and time again, the decision between Halak and Price had to be made, and while the jury is still out on which will be the better goaltender in the coming years, I respect and personally approve of the decision to stick with Price. But more on that later.

Gauthier didn’t really have much choice in the matter, but he deserves credit for keeping the core of the team together and choosing an identity to move forward with, with a good leadership group, a number one goaltender who will get his chance to prove himself, and a group of players that know each other well and know they will remain teammates for the foreseeable future. I share Gauthier's optimism for this upcoming season, but would like to add the word "cautious" to his statement.

What do you think of the Canadiens going into the upcoming season with 18 of 23 players returning from last year’s run?

On Carey Price and the Goaltending:
Gauthier proceeded to put his confidence on the back of Carey Price, saying that he is "more mature" and that he "really fits into the group", but also adding that his success is dependent on the team in front of him, an issue that has been well-documented over the rollercoaster season that Price suffered this past year, and an issue that has even been admitted by several forwards and defenseman over the course of the summer.

Price’s performance can only be described as disappointing from this past season. Say what you will about his stats, and about the team in front of him, but the player that Price is, and the player that he should be indicate that losing the starting job that, for all intents and purposes, was his at the start of the season, can only be a failure. We can be optimistic about him and we can make our excuses, but Carey Price needs to go into training camp and into the next regular season looking for redemption. Not everyone gets a second chance, and with the moves Gauthier made over the summer, Price is getting a clean slate.

Gauthier said that it "was a difficult decision and we did the best for both young goalies. Never at any time was it a matter of contract. You could predict (their money) based on comparables and salary. It was a matter of who it was going to be going forward."

Gauthier may have taken steps a little further, ensuring Price will have absolutely NO competition for the top spot this season. Halak is gone, Cedrick Desjardins is in Tampa Bay, Karri Ramo in Russia, and Alex Auld and Curtis Sanford are not threats to the number one spot.

That being said, do you think the strategy of putting ALL of his eggs into the Carey Price basket was the right direction for Gauthier to have taken?

On the captaincy:
Gauthier also confirmed that the team WILL have a captain when the season starts in Toronto on Octover 7th. How the team will announce the captaincy, and who will occupy the post, are facts that have yet to be revealed. It does seem nearly confirmed that Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin will be the ones making the announcement, and that it won’t be decided amongst the team, but Gauthier said that he was very happy with the team’s leadership group. "The process is ongoing. What happened during the playoffs and before when we had to push hard to make the playoffs at the end of last season, that's where a leadership group formed inside the team. Now the core of the team understands better who the leaders are."

While most of us could have told Gauthier and his friends who the leaders of the team were before last year’s playoffs, he does raise an interesting point in saying those playoffs were a definite bonding experience for the group, and that it allowed for management to see which players, amongst those leaders, would step up the most. Most of us lamented at the entire season the Canadiens went without an official captain, something that’s never happened before in the team’s history. Ironically, it happened in the year where the Canadiens played their 100th season. But in the end, the leaders of the team will come out stronger, and the team can ensure that the right choice will be made for the captaincy.

While there really can’t be that bad of a choice amongst the candidates, earlier in the summer, I predicted that Josh Gorges would occupy the role, when the decision was finally made,. and I will stand by the pick, since certain Twitter bets require me to. I’m looking at Roz (AKA Tygerlylly and Elizabeth (AKA HabsFan1980), both of which I will owe a drink if I’m wrong.

But since I’m seldom wrong, expect Josh Gorges to don an extra “C” on top of the crest on his chest when the Canadiens take the ice on October 7th. Gorges had some interesting things to say last week on the matter, citing that he had a pretty good idea of who it was, implying he wasn't the top choice, but that only reinforces my argument that he should be named captain. With the off-season he's had (representing the Canadiens at a Heritage Classic in Calgary, being honored by the city of Kelowna, joining Jacques Martin as a camp in Magog, etc), the consistent play he puts forth every game he plays, the way he battles and his really underrated role with the team, I don’t see how you don’t make this guy captain..

Still, other candidates include Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Andrei Markov and Mike Cammalleri, and all would be good choices, players who care about the team very much. But Josh Gorges, in my humble opinion, is a model player in this league and the future of the Montreal Canadiens.

One final time before they FINALLY make their decision: Who’s your choice for the captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens?

Beyond this cliff-notes version of what Gauthier had to say, he spoke of positions being available on the team, his new staff both in Hamilton and his new assistants with the team, and the organization’s top prospects taking the leap to the Canadian Hockey League, positioning themselves much closer to the Canadiens and their NHL careers. Not to mention, of course, all the regular talk and words GMs tend to use before the start of the season. The full audio can be heard here.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

It’s hard to really give Pierre Gauthier an overall grade for his work in the seven short months that he was promoted. He has definitely stayed active, signing key players, clearing up the goaltending controversy and contributing to the development of the Canadiens’ top prospects by helping to bring them to Canada and junior hockey.

The hand that Gauthier was handed by Bob Gainey was a tough one to play. To say that the organization is stuck with certain contracts, and that it will be faced with some tough situations in the upcoming seasons might be an understatement. The core of the team, for the most part, is here to stay, and Gauthier has to make due with it and build around it, plugging the voids as best he can while he occupies the role of general manager.

That being said, Gauthier really hasn’t faired that badly:

- He made an immediate impact, acquiring Dominic Moore, a forward who proved many naysayers wrong during the playoffs (myself included), and delivered on the second round pick that was spent to acquire him.

- As stated, he cleared up the goaltending controversy by trading Jaroslav Halak and signing Carey Price to a new contract. Whether trading a way Desjardins and filling the void with nothing more than back-up goaltenders was the right way to go after the Halak trade remains to be seen, and the whole situation is definitely a risk, but in my opinion, a risk worth taking.

- Tomas Plekanec was signed to a lucrative contract after a career year, a situation that could have been avoided if Bob Gainey wasn’t so stubborn, but this is not an issue to be blamed on Pierre Gauthier, who did the best he could in the situation.

- Gauthier also replenished the Canadiens prospect ranks, trading up to acquire Jarred Tinordi at the draft, acquiring Lars Eller and Ian Shultz, and even acquiring Dustin Boyd to replace Sergei Kostitsyns. The Canadiens future looks a little bit better today than it did in June, especially with players like P.K. Subban, Louis Leblanc, Alex Avstin, and more developing well, and Gauthier definitely deserves some of the credit.

I’ve been hard on Gauthier in the past, and while the jury is still out on his moves as GM, and it will ALWAYS be out, he really didn’t have all that bad of a summer, in retrospect. The core of the team remains intact, and the Canadiens are riding a high after making the final four in the NHL last season. Gauthier’s job in the past few months was not to mess with that, or make any major changes, but to keep things afloat.

With a few more forwards and defensemen starting contract years this month, his real work will come with extending players such as Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, and filling the voids that may be left by Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik when the season up.

Until then, things really don’t look all that bad for the Montreal Canadiens heading into training camp.

Pierre Gauthier’s grade, after half a season as General Manager: B.

Comments and your own grades are welcome, and please respond to the questions posted above in the comments:

1. What do you think of the Canadiens going into the upcoming season with 18 of 23 players returning from last year’s run?
2. Do you think the strategy of putting ALL of his eggs into the Carey Price basket was the right direction for Gauthier to have taken
3. One final time before they FINALLY make their decision: Who’s your choice for the captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens?

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