Monday, June 18, 2007

Mistakes he knew he had made.

The Samsonov error is over.

On Saturday, Chicago Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon generously offered an easier pill to swallow for Bob Gainey in getting rid of one disgruntled, ineffective, and overvalued winger Sergei Samsonov. With Tallon unable to find any takers for one of their own bad contracts (D Jassen Cullimore), and unable to use the buyout option themselves after using the 2 allowed buyouts last season on forwards Curtis Brown and Matthew Barnaby, the Blackhawks presented a unique trading partner... the only kind at this point that could potentially desire Samsonov at full price.

Predictably, Canadiens fans have rejoiced upon hearing the news of the trade, heaping loads of praise on the Habs' legendary centre. In reality, though, it highlights that Gainey is certainly a very fallible GM, but at least one who is able to recognize his own mistakes and address them. I'm going to use this trade as an opportunity to examine how Gainey minimized the impact of several bad contracts on the club's future in the process.

As a disclaimer, I'll say this. "Mistake" is a word thrown around here with the benefit of hindsight. Some of these moves looked good at the time, and I'll acknoweldge those as they come up.

Mistake #1: Donald Audette - 4 years, $12m contract (Dallas, 2001 UFA signing)

I don't want to go too far back and start bringing up mistakes made that didn't really affect the Habs, but this one did have a large impact on the Habs. The Stars were a powerhouse at the turn of the century, winning the Cup in 1999 and losing in the Finals in 2000. After a disappointing 2nd round exit in 2001, Gainey decided the team needed an injection of offensive minded, slick, skilled players. This went contrary to the Stars' trap-heavy, physical style of Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, but with the team losing Brett Hull to free agency, any offence was considered a positive. Not only did Gainey sign the undersized but fairly prolific scorer Audette, but he also signed former Hab star Pierre Turgeon to a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal.

Within weeks, though, Gainey realized that Audette was not the answer for Hull he was looking for as the Stars struggled out of the gate. He was traded to Montreal along with Shaun Van Allen for Benoit Brunet and Martin Rucinsky after only 20 games in a Dallas uniform. Shortly after being traded, Audette cut several tendons in his wrist in a very scary incident where he was cut from a skate blade. The incident caused permanent damage and he was unable to ever play at the level he, or his team, expected him to.

This is relelvant because the 2001-02 season cost Gainey his job in Dallas. Audette's inability to produce also helped cost the Habs a playoff spot in 2002-03 (Audette even had a 10 game stint in the AHL that year). Whenever a team misses the playoffs, the job security of management comes into play. Andre Savard was replaced as GM by Gainey in June 2003, and Gainey once again became responsible for the Audette contract he negotiated. Within 3 months, Gainey was unable to find a taker for the remaining term on Audette's contract (which expired at the conclusion of 2004-05), and they agreed on a buyout in late December. This was following the buyout of both Mariusz Czerkawski and Randy MacKay in July, both contracts that Gainey had inherited from Andre Savard's tenure.

Mistake #2: Jose Theodore - 3 years, $16 million (2005 offseason)

In reality, this contract was not a mistake when inked. Theodore was widely considered one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and I include myself in the camp who considered him an elite goalie. The fact is, the evidence up to August 2005 showed he was, as Bob Gainey put it at the time, "an elite player in a position where there are few elite players." He had won the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002, and made an All-Star appearance in 2004. He had twice backstopped the Canadiens to the 2nd round, despite the Habs being ranked 8th and 7th in the East those playoff seasons. He was the 3rd goaltender for Team Canada at the 2004 World Cup, and was invited back for that role at the 2005 World Championships, but pulled out due to a knee injury. Perhaps that knee injury played into what would happen into his well chronicled meltdown in 2005-06. That meltdown first helped cause Claude Julien his job as head coach, then Theodore's own job as starting goaltender when Cristobal Huet took over in January 2005, his placement on Team Canada at the 2006 Olympics, and then finally Theodore's job in Montreal when he was traded on the eve of the trade deadline to Colorado for David Aebischer. A $5.33m cap hit was exchanged for a $1.9m contract.

Bob Gainey then used the money saved on Theodore's contract, as well as the increase in the cap ceiling itself, to re-sign Cristobal Huet ($2.875m), re-sign Francis Bouillon ($1.875m), and sign Sergei Samsonov ($3.525m). Increased cap space (and not retaining Jan Bulis) also allowed the Habs to swap Mike Ribeiro ($1.9m) for Janne Niinimaa ($2.5m).

Mistake #3: Sergei Samsonov - 2 years, $7.05m (2006 offseason)

It didn't work out. While Huet and Aebischer were for the most part competent (and sometimes brilliant, particularily Huet), they were unable to stop a slide down the standings in January and February that cost the Habs a playoff spot. Samsonov was dreadful, a player who spent nearly every game just skating up and down the ice along the boards, not involved in the play. Bouillon spent the first part of the season recovering from knee surgery and never regained the form that saw him become a millionaire. And Niinimaa hardly even played, let alone played well.

The point of this all is to illustrate that Samsonov was not Gainey's first misstep as the Habs' GM, nor is it likely to be his last. Just like in 2001 with Dallas, Gainey saw an opening for a slick, small offensive forward (both Audette and Samsonov are listed as 5'8"), only to eventually admit it was a mistake. And while the Theodore trade removed one problem, Gainey was unable to turn it into a real positive for the club. In theory, the Habs could've went into last season with Theodore (instead of Aebischer) backing up a re-signed Huet, with Theodore's contract not allowing the Habs to retain Bouillon or Bulis, and maybe not even allowing the Habs to take on Niinimaa's contract. And, because they still had Theodore, Samsonov would not have been acquired. We don't know how this scenario would've turned out, but it's hard to believe it would've been remarkably different in retrospect.

Now, all of that is in the past. Gainey saved himself some money by buying out Cullimore instead of Samsonov, and got Salmalienen as a throw-in. This does not make him a brilliant GM, but it does show he finds ways of getting out of tough situations. He can admit his own mistakes, and it's about time Montreal fans acknowledge that he makes them.

Here's to hoping this pattern doesn't continue this off-season. If it does, well... at least we know he'll try and find his way out of it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Introduction: Goals, Points, and Biases

Welcome to the Fastest Blog On Ice. You may be wondering to yourself, just what kind of blog is this? Well, this entry will give you a short summary of what you can expect here.

Primarily, but not exclusively, this will be a hockey blog. Consequently, the main league covered will be the NHL. There are plenty of hockey blogs out there, and many good ones, so it will obviously be a challenge to find my niche, but it's what I know and love. My favourite NHL team, as you can probably tell, is the Montreal Canadiens. There will most likely be more subject matter related to the Habs than any other NHL franchise, but I hope to cover the league moreso than my favorite team.

I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and was born and raised in various small towns throughout this province. That's relevant because there are other topics I'd like to put on this blog aside from the NHL. The first is the Western Hockey League. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I do go to some games and seeing as more WHL players graduate to the NHL than any other non-NHL affiliated league than I think any insight would be greatly appreciated. I know there are some blogs out there on major junior hockey, but obviously not nearly the number that there are for the NHL. I'll try and do my part to hold up my end of the bargain. Obviously, my hometown bias is towards the Saskatoon Blades.

My Saskatchewan residency makes my second sport, and pro league that I will cover, an obvious choice. I'm a CFL fan, and as game day approaches, and passes, during the summer my focus will be on the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The pain, the agony, the exaggerated highs and devestating lows of being a Rider fan will be on full display here. I apologize in advance.

As far as hockey is concerned, I have a positional bias for goaltenders. You will see me comment on goaltending transactions, scenarios, and issues probably more than the average hockey blog. I played goal as a kid and have ever since paid more attention to the position than the other players on the ice. I also have a preference for players from Saskatchewan, and I'm sure that will be on display a number of times as well.

Undoubtedly, I will touch on other sports. But not enough to realistically expect fans of those sports to drop by. The hockey fan that is also a sports fan in general might appreciate a small break from pucks.

I post frequently on hockey message boards around the world wide web as saskhab, but I am a moderator at the web forums. On the front page, there are some articles and I do plan to cross reference to that website when I write something more substantial.