This article was originally written in December, 2013.
Looking back at the general manager (GM) Pierre Gauthier era gives Montreal Canadiens fans a reminder of a turbulent time for the Habs in the new century. Gauthier took over the position from a grieving Bob Gainey who had lost his daughter in a tragic accident at sea. Gainey left Gauthier with a roster that had qualified for the playoffs five of his seven years as GM and made the Eastern Conference Final once.
The roster Gauthier inherited had its flaws as it was still led by Scott Gomez at center, several undersized forwards in an NHL that still had not adopted the speed style fans enjoy today and lacked a quality prospect pool as Gainey’s draft record was less than stellar.
The Halak Trade
In Gauthier’s era, the one trade that will leave fans talking for decades to come was his decision to trade fan darling, Jaroslav Halak. The former ninth-round pick of the Canadiens had been sharing the crease with the future franchise goaltender, Carey Price. What made this trade so polarizing was that it came just weeks after Halak had backstopped the Canadiens to the 2010 Eastern Conference Final.
Both Halak and Price were to be restricted free agents (RFA) that summer and a decision had to be made on who to keep as the Habs starting goalie for the future. The 20-year-old Price had the pedigree and the raw skill but hadn’t found his rhythm yet in the NHL posting a record of 13 wins, 20 losses, five overtime losses (OTL) and a 2.77 goals-against average (GAA). Meanwhile, Halak had won over the fans with his stellar performances that season having started 43 games, posting 26 wins, 23 losses, five OTL and a 2.40 GAA. Halak then enjoyed a playoff performance for the ages.
Price has proven capable of being the starter a team can rely upon, becoming the wins leader with the Canadiens’ franchise and 23rd in NHL history with 348 wins as of the NHL pause in 2020. Despite good career statistics, Halak has become a journeyman goaltender who has only started 50 games in a season twice in his career.
Gauthier chose to keep Price and trade Halak, the Canadiens’ player of the year. Habs fans on social media flamed at the decision. With the 2010 decision fresh in their minds, many fans were angry, and some remain so to this very day despite history proving Gauthier’s decision that, in the long run, proved to be the correct choice.
Gauthier’s Trade History With Montreal
Much like the Habs current GM, Marc Bergevin, Gauthier was a shrewd deal maker who liked to “win” the trades he made, yet had not been willing or able to “lose” a trade in order to fill team needs. As noted above, his largest trade involved Halak; in return, he acquired St. Louis Blues center prospect Lars Eller. Eller became an excellent third-line center, however, the need was for a proven big body top-six center, a need that continues today.
Another impactful trade was the acquisition of defenceman James Wisniewski in return for a second and fifth-round selection. The “Wiz” was a great addition to the Canadiens’ blue line and power play (PP). His four goals and 12 assists helped the Habs earn the NHLs seventh-best power play in 2010-2011. At the end of the 2010-11 season, Wisniewski’s rights were traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets as his contract demands were too high for Gauthier. He eventually signed a six-year deal worth $5.5 million on the cap. He was bought out on June 30, 2016.
In return, the Canadiens received a fifth-round pick in 2012 which was used to select winger Charles Hudon. Hudon has been able to become a quality AHL player who can produce great offensive numbers, but he has had difficulties translating his skills to the NHL game. He remains on the Canadiens roster, yet he is set to become an RFA in July 2020.
Gauthier made draft deals as well, trading up to select the mountainous Jarred Tinordi. That deal, at the time, was heralded as a good move as the Canadiens needed size and physicality in their lineup as they were considered small and soft. However, with the NHL moving to a more speed-based game, Tinordi’s lack of mobility had proven to be a detriment to his ability to stick in the NHL. The Canadiens later traded him to the Arizona Coyotes and he is now with his fourth NHL organization, the Nashville Predators.
A Series of Debacles
Early in the 2011-12 season, the desperation to compete forced Gauthier’s hand. He traded an affordable and serviceable second-pairing defender in Jaroslav Spacek to acquire the former Toronto Maple Leafs star Tomas Kaberle from the Carolina Hurricanes. Gauthier hoped adding Kaberle could give the Habs’ power play a boost and help a struggling Canadiens climb back into a playoff position.
Kaberle did help boost the man advantage, scoring 1 goal and 11 assists with the extra man. The issue was his play at even strength, as he had become a defensive liability. His age seemingly had caught up to him, causing a loss of foot speed, which is what he had relied upon to make his rushes and get back into defensive position. His $4.5 million per year contract had two years remaining. It was a desperate gamble as Spacek’s deal was an expiring contract worth $3.833 million per season. Adding Kaberle meant adding millions, which proved to be a complete waste of cap space. Proving the decision to add Kaberle to be a massive error in judgment, Bergevin rectified the situation by using one of the two compliance buyouts allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement after the 2012-12 lockout.
The other debacle was one that fans have yet to forgive Gauthier for, the Mike Cammalleri trade. Cammalleri was one of Gainey’s key UFA acquisitions in 2009 and had become a top-line winger for the Canadiens as well as a playoff hero for his 13 goals in 19 games of the 2010 playoff run to the Eastern Conference Final. The debacle wasn’t just the return Gauthier negotiated with the Calgary Flames, it was the circumstances of the trade.
During the 2011-12 season, the Canadiens had a difficult time winning games or playing with any consistency. Cammalleri blasted his team when he stated:
“I can’t accept that we will display a losing attitude as we’re doing this year, we prepare for our games like losers. We play like losers. So it’s no wonder why we lose.”Mike Cammalleri
One week later, Cammalleri was traded, but that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was that, during the second intermission of an eventual loss to the Boston Bruins, he was pulled from the game and told to go back to the team hotel and await instructions. The unceremonious manner in which he was traded was an issue, and the way Gauthier treated Cammalleri during the trade also became an internal issue. After Cammalleri was traded he had asked to keep his Canadiens sweater. It has been reported that Gauthier told him he could keep it, but only if he paid $1250 for it himself. (from ‘NHL Draft: Habs pick third,’ Montreal Gazette, 04/11/2012)
Gauthier’s Canadiens Draft Picks
In Gauthier’s two draft classes at the helm of the Canadiens, he was able to select two players that impacted the Habs lineup for any amount of time. His 2011 first-round selection was defenceman Nathan Beaulieu who eventually played 225 NHL games over five seasons for the Canadiens, and only one of those in a regular top-four role.
The other impactful selection was an undersized fifth-round pick. Brendan Gallagher was seen as a long shot to make the NHL, but as fans have come to see, his determination and heart played a major factor in his ascendance into the Canadiens heart and soul player. He has played 547 NHL games over eight seasons. His multiple 30-plus goal seasons have occurred without significant power play time. His consistent in-your-face style on every shift is what makes him a key component of the Canadiens lineup.
Looking Back on Gauthier
Gauthier is no longer a part of the Canadiens management group, and Canadiens fans are thankful for that. That being said, his work over his short tenure is still felt today. His decision to keep Price over Halak and his draft selection of Gallagher are tangible reminders of that time.
Despite that, Gauthier’s time is seen as a failure. His approach to the players in the room, the press and the fans led to his downfall. It can be a warning to anyone following in his role as Canadiens GM.