I loved Huey. Hewette, as the Anglophone commentators learned to call him, Ooay as the (Quebecois) Francophone ones resolutely preferred, Cristo-wall to his fans, I privately liked to think of him as Huey, in that most standard of hockey nickname forms to which his teammates occasionally referred to him in interviews. Huet was the Habs’ occasional miracle in the blue paint, a guy who- despite a few technical flaws in his game, most notably where puckhandling was concerned- could manage the kind of 40-save games that snatch narrow victory from otherwise certain defeat. At his best when pressured and harassed, his greatest skill was counterintuitive to the blunt conventional wisdom of skaters, for it often seemed that the more he was crashed and crowded, the more solid he became. Streaky at times, prone to early bouts of shakiness, he nevertheless had a cool professionalism that was palpable on the ice; and off it as well. Although his talent and the stereotypes of his role meant that the hockey world would have forgiven him any number of eccentricities, including arrogance, egotism, emotional fragility, and plain old insanity, Huet was unfailingly the most responsible, conscientious, and calm of Habs. He was chronically modest, always willing to take sole blame for a loss and give away all credit for a win, sometimes self-effacing to the point self-erasure. Insofar as can be discerned from interviews and the comments of his team, he had one of the best attitudes towards the game of any professional hockey player working today. I loved him as a goalie, and more than that, I loved him as a guy on my team, a part of my Montreal Canadiens who I could always be proud of. And when Bob Gainey traded him on February 26th, 2008 to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a 2nd round pick in the 2009 entry draft, I was not the only one who was shocked.
The analysts were mystified. On TSN, even as other deals came in- some of them considerably more glamorous- they kept again and again returning to this bizarre move by
He didn’t. And when, later in the day, he took to the press conference table to justify his move, he asserted- counter to all prevailing logic- that the move had been a single, deliberate deal. Not a panic move, not a part of some failed larger plan, but a distinctly un-GM-like leap of faith in the Habs’ two young, inexperienced goalies, the much-anticipated Carey Price and more enigmatic Jaroslav Halak. There is only one net, he said, and those were the two he preferred to fill it.
It’s a strange decision. Yes, Gainey may have some long-term plan in mind; at least, everyone assumes he does. But it takes a fair amount of luck as well as good composition to make a team a Stanley Cup contender, and the Habs are having a lucky year. Injuries have been almost nonexistent, rookies have been coming up big, and Alex Kovalev, their most talented but historically unreliable player, is on pace to have the second-best season of his 15 years in the NHL. They were supposed to be much worse than they had been in their previous season, but the ended up being much better. Long-term goals or not, this was looking like a good season to make a run. And indeed, why even consider going after a pending
This is not the first time that Gainey’s high-profile moves have seemed inexplicable. Most of his decisions over the past two years, since the unloading of Theodore, have seemed, at the time, unusual at best and foolish at worst. In my time as a Habs fan, I have yet to hear any decision that Gainey has made greeted with effusive praise from the general hockey media- hardly, indeed, from anyone at all. Last trade deadline, his decision to trade Craig Rivet to San Jose for Josh Gorges and a pick was also confusing to many, a move that was neither buying or selling at a time when all GMs are supposed to be making the decisions that will define whether or not their team is to be considered ‘in the hunt’ for the playoffs. Over the summer, despite (again) rumors that he was looking to add a platinum UFA, he let in-demand All-Star offensive defenseman Sheldon Souray walk, feeling unappreciated by his erstwhile franchise, and proceeded to give his largest contract to Roman Hamrlik- a player who was not considered one of the better available pieces. The pundits called it one of the worst signings of the off-season.
In both cases, Gainey has (thus far) been vindicated. Rivet’s absence hasn’t hurt the Habs’ blue line, and in fact cleared both roster space and money to give opportunities to younger players- Gorges among them, who has found steady work and steadily improved on the 3rd pairing. And while many of the summer’s high profile signings have thus far provided lower-than-anticipated returns, Hamrlik has been invaluable in steadying the Habs defensive play and mentoring their rookies. In addition, his earlier decisions- getting rid of Theodore, resigning Markov, Kovalev, and Koivu, drafting Price- all seem to be bearing fruit. His only action which might, retrospectively, seem a serious misstep was unloading Ribeiro, but in spite of his improved production in Dallas, few Habs fans or players seem to miss him, so perhaps even in that Gainey read his constituency well.
In Bob We Trust: this is the mantra of contemporary Habistan. Gainey has a plan, though we may not know it. Most of the time, we don’t understand it, but we believe through all our questioning, and eventually find ourselves nodding sagely, saying, “Verily, Bob works in mysterious ways, yet there is purpose behind all that he does.”
However, for all the talk of a Gainey Plan, I fear that few among us- even among those that follow the team closely- have much of a sense what it is. At this point, the Plan is more a tenet of faith for Habs fans rather than a reality. Some of us are devout, some of us can believe (implicitly, explicitly) that all Bob does is in service of some greater, unseen good. Others doubt, argue that there is no plan, there is no logic, that Gainey is merely guessing and fumbling, and tricking us all by covering his mistakes with his calm, grandfatherly demeanor. Me, however, I count myself among the agnostics. I believe in the existence of Gainey, but the Gainey Plan remains largely obscure to me. I want to believe, but sometimes- as when I saw Huet’s tranquil, dejected attempts to explain his unceremonious dismissal in front of a sea of microphones- I find it a leap to great. Faith in rebuilding plans unseen is not enough for me anymore. I need to understand the mechanism.
All explications of the Gainey Plan are speculative. Bob is a tight-lipped man who keeps his own counsel and runs one of the most effective disinformation bureaus in the NHL. If you hear about a Gainey move in advance, it’s nearly certain that it won’t happen, while his actual decisions are seldom leaked early, even in a city with a devious journalistic corps desperate for a hockey scoop. What follows, then, are purely my own speculations, my tenuous attempts to form a rationale on which to keep the faith in the wake of (yet another) test. No one can read the mind of Gainey, yet we may yet try to strengthen our devotion by the discernment of his principles.
There are, currently, two major theories of team-creation that predominate among fans and analysts. These theories are, in essence, metaphors by which we usually understand the underlying logic a GM uses when he goes about the business of acquiring players.
First, there is the assemblage method, most often described by likening a hockey team to a puzzle. This dictates that a good team will be comprised of certain pieces that fill certain roles- ask a fan who’s partial to this theory, and they could give you a run-down of the ideal player for every position on a Cup-worthy team. They believe that they already know what the picture on the box looks like, it’s just a question of being able to acquire the necessary pieces. Once one of the right pieces is found, it is secured as firmly as possible (i.e. the longest possible contract) and put in its proper place to await the others. This is fundamentally a nostalgic way of imagining a team that is based on a modern interpretation of how the great teams of the past were created. It reifies ‘team’ into a rigid, inflexible archetype of almost Platonic dimensions- there is an ideal team in the mind of the GM, and his only goal is to make it flesh. But virtually all evidence for the team-as-puzzle concept is based on hindsight. Once a team has been successful, this theory looks back on the process and sees it in it a teleology, a destiny- everything that happened was the result of an exceptional intelligence (a brilliant GM) directing hockey-history forward towards a glorious culmination.
It goes without saying, though, that the assemblage approach would be virtually impossible in a time where players had any sort of recourse to collective action. The ability to control your ‘pieces’ so perfectly, so completely, with no time limitations or necessary salaries is the only thing that might have made such a style of general management work, if indeed it ever actually worked like that at all. But nowadays, time is too pressing of a factor on any GM. A piece is only available and affordable for so long. Coordinating the windows of opportunity for all possible players so as to get all your pieces in the same place at the same time during the right phase of their career would be a Sisyphean task for a modern GM, one that would fail miserably for a hundred seasons for every one when it might actually work.
Which brings us to the second major theory-metaphor, that of construction. In this theory, a team is ‘built’ like some kind of monumental edifice. The major difference between it and the assemblage theory is that it evaluates the worth of the components in radically different ways. In this view, a GM’s primary task is to find and lock in a few players who will form the foundation, or the core, of his winning team. Everything else is negotiable, interchangeable, and entirely replaceable. The number of core players necessary can range from only one (particularly if that one is a goalie) to maybe five (which is about as many as you can afford to give massive salaries to in a post-cap world). The GM does whatever is necessary to get these pieces- begs, borrows or steals, trades or buys. He gives them, for the most part, whatever they want in contract terms, for they will be the essence of his team. The rest of the players (usually the lower echelon forwards and defensemen) are seen as marginal, to be cobbled together from whatever farm kids can be brought up or spare parts might be floating around the League. Like constructing a building, the main thing is to get a solid foundation, a solid infrastructure- the rest of it is just decoration and refinement.
Both of these are long-cycle based theories of team development, which envision a narrative arc playing out over a period of years. First comes the slow forming of the ideal team over several seasons as various pieces are acquired, then a period ranging from a couple of years to a decade of continual Cup contention and overall dominance as the ideal team peaks, then a decline as it ages and disintegrates. Hypothetically, a team which is dominant for a long enough period of time will eventually weaken from a series of low draft picks and the resulting stable of young players rising who lack the talent of the declining veterans. Conversely, weak teams get a boost in their building process from high draft choices and the (again, hypothetically) better-quality youth thus acquired.
But Bob Gainey, Fearless Leader of Habistan, doesn’t seem to be working according to either of the long-cycle theories. While most of the rest of the GMs in the NHL are trying to outdo each other with who can give the longest contract for the most money to some supposedly invaluable and irreplaceable component, Gainey has made a Habs team out of short-term, moderate-money deals. We have two players signed for the next 4 and 5 years respectively, each making between $5-6 million. Beyond that, virtually everyone else goes
Moreover, Gainey does not appear to be particularly concerned with keeping players long-term. He has a firm no-negotiations-during-the-season policy (which he thus far has only suspended for Koivu) and was willing to take his top goal-scorer of 2006-2007 to arbitration the following summer. Most of the trades he has made thus far have been of the ‘selling’ variety, seemingly more about pruning the team rather than growing it- he’s most remembered for what he’s given up at the trade deadline, rather than what he’s taken. His approach to the acquisition of established veteran players is so conservative it verges on paralytic.
The counterbalance to this is an intense emphasis on drafting and development. The Habs’ currently have one of the League’s richer farm systems, and Gainey has probably made a lot more deals featuring assets who’re years away from seeing a day in the NHL than he has with the Big Team. If his trajectory continues, the kind of ‘youth movement’ that we’ve seen this year will be perennial rather than occasional. The Habs’ current roster is comprised in majority of players who have been entirely developed from draft day onward within the organization, often playing long stints with the AHL affiliate in Hamilton- where, indeed, even now there are yet more high-potential kids nipping at the heels of the current NHL roster.
For me, the question has always been, how does Gainey see building a team out of this? If he’s using an assemblage-style build-from-within method, he’s going to have a hell of a time working out those windows of opportunity. Drafting and development are not a surefire method, or even a particularly smart method, to create a Stanley Cup team. Because of the younger era of free agency, even with the best farm system in the world, you can’t count on ‘building’ a team out of your own draft picks. If you have a good farm system that develops a lot of high-quality prospects, then guess what? You just became the League’s Kwik-E-Mart. After guiding them through all their growing pains, you’re going to lose most of those assets just when they’re hitting their peak, simply because you won’t be able to afford to keep them all; if the legal-but-discouraged practice of RFA-thievery becomes standard, then you won’t even get them that long. The main reason for having a good farm system becomes not to ‘build a core’- the guys you grow yourself aren’t going to be any cheaper than the guys you might buy from somewhere else when they go UFA at peak age- but rather to have a ready-made wellspring of cheap, docile NHL-quality filler.
It seems to me that Gainey is trying to run an entirely process-focused, short-cycle approach to team formation; one that does not have an ideal team as an end goal, but rather manages a constantly rotating cast of characters. The contracts will always be short, the amounts based on market-value for a necessary skill at certain times, but most of the roles on the team, including some of the most critical, will be occupied by youth and one/two season rentals. This gives him enormous flexibility. There’s no being tied to an unmovable contract on a dead-weight player, since there’s always some other GM who’ll be willing to take a chance in a trade if it’s only a brief commitment, and if that doesn’t work then their own natural UFA-ness will carry them away rapidly enough. But it’s also a risky style, particularly where GM job-security is concerned, in part because it will seldom make the big deals that are most pleasing to fans and sponsors. But even more because it relies so very heavily on youth, and it is notoriously difficult to discern a players’ capacities at draft age, or even several years later.
If Gainey makes decisions for the long-term future, then, I think it is not so much the future of the Canadiens team itself, but the future of the system. He will sacrifice NHL- experienced players before youth, perhaps even before prospects. In fact, I am going to work under the assumption henceforth that (with a very few exceptions) Gainey considers any player over 30 entirely expendable. His focus is not on trying to build anything out of this year’s Habs or any other particular incarnation of the Montreal Canadiens, but rather on keeping the talent pipeline that he views as the balm and sustenance of the Canadiens flowing quickly and efficiently.
A lot of Habs fans seem to subscribe to an interpretation of Gainey’s ultimate goal that I (perhaps too dismissively) call ‘Happy Family Team’. Through some miracle, by the power of their mystique, the Canadiens will exist in a suspended reality apart from the CBA, and that every player we develop will remain ours for ever and ever, out of love and loyalty to the team. Therefore, every single remotely successful youngster is ‘our future’- Higgins and Komisarek, Plekanec and Grabovski, Latendresse and Lapierre, both Kostitsyns, O’Byrne, Chipchura, and of course, Price. We can envision Bob perhaps trading one or two of them, but by and large we assume that he’s going to horde them, and in 2-4 years the Habs will be One Big Happy Family of homegrown talent, supplemented perhaps by the long-awaited Superstar, and that then Gainey will be done- his team assembled, he’ll lock in all the pieces and we’ll have another dynasty.
I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I think that Gainey has only guarded these youth so jealously because, right now, they’re the pieces he has for cheap for a few more years. Once it becomes their time to go UFA, he’s going to let most of them go, and may even trade many of them- however good- for more draft picks and obscure prospects. I think, with a very few exceptions, he does not view them as a Happy Family, he views them as assets with a detachment as cold and calculating as any in the NHL. I believe him when he says he got rid of Huet deliberately, because right now Price and Halak are the pieces he can hold onto longer for less money, and he wants to find out as soon as possible what their potential is. And to be honest, unless Carey Price is in every way the second (third?) coming of Roy, I don’t know that Gainey will offer even him a huge, lock-in, ‘franchise player’ contract- I don’t think he’s forgotten Theo.
One might suggest Gainey’s system-and-process orientation is only trying to rationalize what happens anyway. When, in fact, did anybody see a carefully, properly constructed/assembled team in this day and age? Ain’t no such thing. Most every team in the League is a work-in-progress, and the details that differentiate the more successful jumbles from the failed ones are often small and unpredictable. There is no one piece, not even a series of pieces, nothing in fact that guarantees one a playoff seed, much less a Cup.
There are no perfect teams, only good enough teams. In essence, the Stanley Cup will go not to the best team (how, exactly, does one judge that anyway?), but to the good-enough team that gets the best luck and all the associated ‘intangibles’ (chemistry, leadership, heart, determination, all those things you can’t buy or predict or even grow on the farm, all those things that might not even be real, just an elaborate code for ‘good bounces’) in a given year. The trick is to continually ice a good-enough team. In that sense, I do not think this year’s Habs are a step towards a goal, I think they genuinely are the goal, or a representative of it.
The goal of the good-enough team is liberating, in a way. A perfect team has to be stingy and desperate with their assets, a perfect team will lose its perfection with the loss of a single piece. A good-enough team, on the other hand, is free to be flawed without being crippled. A good-enough team can have a weak power play, or unreliable secondary scoring, a good-enough team can have an untested goalie or an overage defensive corps, and still be good-enough.
I don’t think Bob wants to ‘build a team’. I think he wants to build a system that will ice nearly-continuous good-enough teams, without the need for long cycles of building up and crumbling. When the luck seems good, he can always try- as he tried to do with Hossa- to make a big deal or two to make a good-enough team a little better, give them an edge, but he’s not- not now, not ever- going to sacrifice the system for a run.
His process approach is a tightrope walk in which he himself is the focal point and the fulcrum. It succeeds or fails not on the strength of the method but on he himself- his ingenuity, his diplomacy, his insight. The team of coaches, scouts, accountants, and assorted bureaucrats are hired by him and act according to his vision. If it fails, he will not be able to use the excuses that other GMs have to try to deflect their own culpability- even if such excuses are usually just roundabout ways of confessing that their team-formation plan was misguided or unsuited to their context (the current era or particular market). To believe in the Gainey Plan requires tremendous faith in Gainey himself, and if it succeeds he will be the focus of a cult of personality in Habistan the like of which has not surrounded any GM since Sam Pollock.
Any GM’s job security depends, however, not upon winning but upon faith. The faith of the owners, and to a certain extent the fans- insofar as fans can direct policy with their dollars and their media-mediated voices. And in order to earn that faith, the general manager must give hope. As long as there seems to be an upward trajectory, a light at the end of the tunnel, a sense of progress toward the better- and no matter how good a team is, the fans always believe it could be better- then the GM will get the faith he needs to do his job. When hope disappears, when it is replaced by frustration and desperation, he gets fired.
We shall see how good Gainey’s methodology is at winning Cups. We already know, however, that it is excellent at generating hope. Certain of it’s features- the high roster turnover, the constant presence of aspiring rookies and prospects in the wings- ensure that one could always believe that the team is one season (and a little luck) away from excellence. Every summer will bring the potential for bringing up bright new faces and cutting dead weight, which is sweet compensation for the occasional missed opportunity or failed deal.
However, the difficult thing for Habs fans to adjust to might be the loss of dynasties as the primary mode in which they envision true winning. Yes, people have fond memories of 1986 and 1993, but that fondness pales in comparison to the reverence given to the teams of the 1970s and 1950s. The process method- if it works- has the potential to give Montreal more regular Cup wins then they’ve had in a long time, or at least more impressive close calls. But it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything come out of it that is mythic in the way Habs fans envision a truly great team. If we’re lucky, we may get the occasional Koivu-type player who is useful enough and has a great enough affection for the organization and/or the city to last for a while, but for the most part the team will be an up-and-out system of short-term contracts and bargain-basement gap-filling, constantly hemhorraging quality 27-30 year-olds into the wilds of the NHL. Always efficient, sometimes sexy, but not romantic in the least. It is not a system under which to grow attached to players.
Around trade deadline day, everyone is a GM. Most of the time, people in the hockey world who is not assigned an actual position in the game vacillate between a number of assumed roles- fan, analyst, scout, referee, commissioner, reporter, satirist, heckler, curmudgeon. Even players and out-of-work coaches or managers dabble in commentary, criticism, and storytelling. We change perspectives and commitments as though changing clothes, according to the mood of the day. But in the run-up to the deadline, we tend to leave all that behind and become compulsive amateur general managers.
Although team management is perhaps the most difficult job in hockey, everyone who follows the sport seems to think themselves qualified to do it. The popularity of fantasy leagues and simulation video games makes even the most ordinary fan feel as though they could mastermind the greatest dynasty the sport has ever known, if only they’d been given the chance. Only the most arrogant and obnoxious amongst us would watch a game and respond to every play on the ice with ‘I could have done that so much better’, but we will often make similar claims in utter seriousness regarding a GM’s moves. There is not a person in the hockey world (including myself, on certain days at least) who does not think they could run a team better than at least one actual general manager in the League.
This is probably because we believe that the primary skills of a GM are observation, analysis, and negotiation- the first two being habitual activities of pretty much anyone who considers themselves a student of the game. We all watch and analyze zealously, at least where our preferred team is concerned, and if we may lack the skills at wheedling, cajoling and threatening that are necessary for any sort of management job, we’re inclined to believe that the self-evident brilliance of our ideal trades and offers would be enough to render such conversational tactics unnecessary. I, for one, firmly believe that if it was up to me, Ryan Smyth would have ended up drinking daiquiris and alienating cops in
But then again, I wouldn’t have signed Hamrlik, and I might have signed Souray, so it’s obvious that I’m more than a penis and a lengthy mid-eighties playing career away from the big desk in the front office. As are all fans. General managing is, in fact, an incredibly tough project to undertake, all the more so because the rules that govern it are both the written (and ever-changing) laws of the League and the CBA and the unwritten customs and etiquette of hockey’s ‘insiders’ club. In addition to understanding the general principles of team composition, a good GM must also understand the rules by which the hockey world operates- and doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring them however unfair or idiotic they might be, if he is to act in the best interests of his club.
Still, as much as we covet their jobs, and as much as we should respect them, I think it’s a rare fan who actually likes their GM. The general manager represents, for your team, hockey as a business. Gainey, I know, loves The Team in the sense of the franchise, but he does not love any particular team that he fabricates in a given season. His job requires him to view the teams and players that I love, that I cheer and scream and weep over, as nearly pure commodities. They are the parts of his mechanism, and he must care only about whether they are functioning properly.
That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. On the whole, I’d much rather have my hockey team win games then give me warm fuzzies. It’s okay with me if my GM is, by fan standards, a brutally unsentimental hard-ass (not that Gainey is entirely, but I wouldn’t necessarily mind). I may curse such a manager when he takes from me my favorite players, but I won’t call for his head on a platter so long as they’re winning more than losing. Mercenary behavior should be standard for any serious GM.
Disliking your GM is fine, but lacking faith in him would be intolerable. I have considered, of course, that my speculative interpretation of the Gainey Plan might be totally wrong in every way. The Plan may differ entirely from what I imagine it to be, or worse yet, there may be no plan at all. However, as a fan, you have very little choice but to believe as long as you possibly can, for to distrust your own GM puts you at odds with your team the way nothing else can. You can full-on hate any member of your team and the surrounding organization without running the slightest risk of undermining your overall devotion. But hating your GM means not only admitting that your team is badly made, but that the whole organization may be flawed. In hating your GM, you are admitting that at this moment, your team does not represent for you the most essential qualities of team-ness. That they are a failure, a mistake. In the absence of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, I would rather imagine a Gainey Plan that seems logical to me and thereby keep my faith in my franchise. I have no real choice.
In Bob I Trust.
But I’m still going to miss Huey.