The question isn't just why the Montreal Canadiens traded Michael Cammalleri. It's why general manager Pierre Gauthier was the one to trade him. How does this fit into the plan for the future? What is the plan?
The Canadiens have an identity crisis, and it goes beyond whether the coach speaks French to the fans. Who are the Habs? Though they can never compete with their glorious past – an impossible task in today's 30-team, salary-capped, multicultural, modern NHL – that doesn't mean they can't reflect it. That doesn't mean they can't stand for excellence and class.
Right now they stand for neither, sitting 12th in the Eastern Conference and on the moral low ground. Before they can decide who should play and coach for them, owner Geoff Molson must decide who should run this storied franchise and, most importantly, how he should run it – from the style of play to the style of business.
Is Gauthier his guy?
Let's see. Gauthier signed Andrei Markov to a three-year, $17.25 million contract only to find out Markov's chronic knee problems are still, well, chronic. He acquired Tomas Kaberle's three-year, $12.75 million contract.
He fired assistant coach Perry Pearn right before a game. Then he fired coach Jacques Martin right before a morning skate, and he put replacement Randy Cunneyworth in no position to succeed on the ice or off, failing to anticipate the uproar that would come because Cunneyworth does not speak French.
That led to a statement from Molson, emphasizing Cunneyworth was just an interim coach and that the ability to speak both English and French would be important in hiring a permanent head coach. Gauthier later apologized for the man he hired.
Hey, best of luck, Randy.
Finally, this: A day after Cammalleri complained about his ice time and criticized the Habs for having a losing mentality, Gauthier yanked him from a one-goal game against the archrival Boston Bruins. He pulled him before the third period, put him in a taxi and sent him back to the team hotel, though the Habs had already checked out. He shipped him to the Calgary Flames and said it had nothing to do with his comments.
Look, Gauthier has got to be telling the truth when he says this deal had been in the works for a while, and the trade might turn out to be a solid one taken on its own.
This wasn't a simple swap of Cammalleri for Rene Bourque. The Canadiens also gave up goaltending prospect Karri Ramo and a fifth-round draft pick in 2012, and they also received center prospect Patrick Holland and a second-round pick in 2013. That probably doesn't come together overnight.
This also could be another Jaroslav Halak trade. Halak was the only playoff hero bigger than Cammalleri in 2010 – stonewalling the way to the Eastern Conference final, while Cammalleri scored a league-leading 13 goals. Gauthier took a ton of heat for trading Halak to the St. Louis Blues afterward, but he had to choose a goaltender. Time showed he chose the right one: Carey Price. Cammalleri's production has declined, and his goal total (nine) is actually lower than Bourque's (13) this season.
We don't know how the prospects will turn out. We do know that Gauthier just upgraded a draft pick and addressed two main criticisms of the Canadiens – that they are mired in bad contracts and they are too small. Bourque has a $3.3 million cap hit through 2015-16, while Cammalleri has a $6 million hit through 2013-14. Bourque is 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds; Cammalleri is 5-foot-9, 190.
But it's hard to believe this trade had nothing to do with Cammalleri's comments, and it's hard to believe it bodes well for the future.
Gauthier told reporters he had no problem with what Cammalleri said because Cammalleri showed emotion. Good. From an emotional standpoint, Cammalleri is the type of player Montreal needs more of – someone who wants to be there, someone who enjoys the unique pleasures and pressures of the market. Gauthier also said the trade had been discussed for weeks and was held up because Bourque was serving a five-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head. OK.
But why did weeks of discussions just happen to conclude now – right in the middle of a game – when Bourque still has a game of that suspension left to serve? Some GMs reportedly didn't know Cammalleri was on the market. If true, why was Gauthier in such a rush to move him without shopping for the best deal? Weren't Cammalleri's comments at least the last straw? Didn't they highlight the mess Gauthier had made?
Gauthier told reporters the Canadiens need to "score harder goals, not the fancy ones." Fine. But wasn't Cammalleri at his most productive in the playoffs, when goals are harder to come by? Bourque goes to the hard areas. But doesn't he have to be prodded to get there?
The Canadiens gained a player with a French name. That shouldn't matter, especially because Bourque is from Alberta and doesn't speak French. But how can we be sure that didn't play a role given all the grief Gauthier has taken over his Anglophone coach?
Gauthier just gained cap space for the Canadiens. But should he be the one to use it? Does this trade mean he is empowered to make more moves before the Feb. 27 trade deadline – and perhaps beyond?
Molson needs to start fresh. No more miscalculations. No more panic moves. No more pregame firings or undercutting statements or third-period trades.
The Canadiens will never be what they once were. We are long past the Original Six and early expansion eras. The Habs cannot expect to dominate again with homegrown, French-speaking execs, coaches and players. But they can honor their heritage and culture while trying to win like everybody else.
The Canadiens need to look for the best francophone executives, coaches and players. They need to hire them if all is equal, and they need to hire the best people if all is not. Molson needs to find the best general manager he can, and that GM needs to find the best coach who fits his vision, and they need to find the best players who fit the coach's system. They need to play an entertaining, successful style that satisfies their sophisticated fans, and most of all, they need to treat their own people with respect.
Until they do that, Cammalleri will be more right than even he knew. They will have a loser's mentality.
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