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It’s mind-blowing how quickly things spiraled away from the Montreal Canadiens.
Just a few months ago, the storied Habs were Canada’s Cinderella hockey team making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before bowing out to the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Everybody was rooting for the scrappy Habs led by veterans Carey Price and Shea Weber looking for their first Stanley Cups, and the future looked bright with promising young players like Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the roster.
“But we fell short of hoisting the Holy Grail,” admitted Marc Bergevin following an overmatched Montreal’s fall in five games to the Lightning. “Despite this, I am proud of what we achieved as an organization. I sincerely hope this objective will be achieved sooner than later.
“Montreal is the city where I took my first skating strides and it's also the city where I learned to lead the NHL's winningest franchise. This city and this organization will always have a special place in my heart.”
Now they will have to hold a special Mount Royal place from afar for ex-general manager Marc Bergevin.
Fast forward to this season and the Canadiens are ahead of only the pitiful Ottawa Senators at the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings after dismissing their longtime GM Bergevin in a managerial house-cleaning just a month into the 2021 regular season.
Boy, life comes at you fast, doesn’t it?
Certainly, there were warning signs Montreal was headed for a rude awakening this summer. Captain Shea Weber was going to be shelved with an injury with it doubtful that he’d ever return, and a key young piece in Kotkaniemi was lost to a Carolina Hurricanes offer sheet that wasn’t going to be matched.
It was in direct response to Bergevin’s failure to lure Carolina forward Sebastian Aho away on a similar offer sheet a year prior to the Canes raiding Montreal for Kotkaniemi.
The Canadiens drafted Logan Mailloux in the first-round last summer after he’d specifically requested not to be drafted after displaying alarmingly inappropriate behavior while skating in Europe, a move seen as an embarrassment for a proud Original-6 franchise like Montreal.
Then it was announced Price needed time to straighten out his personal life and that there was no timeline on his return to Montreal. And 20-year-old wunderkind Caufield started the season without a goal in his first 10 games of the year before being sent down to the AHL to regain his confidence after the rocky start.
It all added up to big time trouble in Montreal.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson finally acted this weekend and hired Jeff Gorton as the Executive Vice-President of Hockey Operations to overhaul the NHL team and bring a little more stability to a hockey club that’s seemingly been riding a roller coaster for a while.
“We’re having a fresh start and I’m looking forward to it,” said Molson, who made it very clear failed drafting and development is what eventually doomed Bergeron and Co.
Former assistant GM Scott Mellanby also resigned in the Montreal housecleaning that will ultimately result in Gorton hiring a bilingual GM to essentially satisfy Montreal’s hand-tying need for Francophones in high-profile positions like general manager and head coach.
The track record with the low-key, brilliant Gorton, however, is impressive.
While in Boston, Gorton oversaw a 2007 NHL Draft that had the Bruins select Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand in a franchise-altering weekend, and traded Andrew Raycroft for Tuukka Rask as interim GM prior to Peter Chiarelli taking over hockey ops. Then Gorton worked his way up in the New York Rangers organization while helping to build a deep, talented organization of prospects prior to Rangers owner James Dolan showing him the door last season in what many hockey people believed was an unjust dismissal.
The chances of Gorton turning things around in Montreal are very strong indeed with their current group of players, the Canadiens’ vast resources and his eye for talent leading the way. Gorton is also used to dealing with the high expectations he’ll face daily in Montreal after working extensively for Original-6 organizations in Boston and New York.
One interesting thing to ponder is Gorton’s choice for GM while it seems a fait accompli he will retain final authority for all hockey decisions.
Everybody is flooding to put Patrick Roy’s name out there and the idea of the Hall of Fame goalie returning to his Montreal roots with his explosive, fiery demeanor would be pretty awesome. Honestly, we never get tired of watching the volatile highlights from his three years running the bench in Colorado with the Avalanche.
So that probably won't work.
But the name to look out for in this humble hockey writer’s opinion is Martin Lapointe.
The highly respected former NHLer is currently Director of Player Development with the Canadiens and played in Boston toward the end of his NHL career while Gorton was the assistant general manager for the Black and Gold. In fact, Lapointe was one of Patrice Bergeron’s biggest early NHL influences while a teenaged Bergeron lived in his house during his rookie year with the Boston Bruins way back in the 2003-04 NHL season.
Regardless of what happens with the ensuing ancillary moves, the Montreal Canadiens made the big first step this weekend in admitting they had an organizational problem and then acting on it rather quickly. Now comes the long process of somehow preaching patience in Montreal with a rabid Habs fan base still thirsting for that next Stanley Cup amidst a drought that’s approaching 30 years without one after routinely winning in the 1960’s and 1970s.
Bon chance with that!