In the summer of 2009, I wrote a blog post comparing the Montreal Canadiens to the New York Yankees. The premise was simple, but it was based on more than just the dozens of championships and millions of fans that place the two organizations at the tops of their respective sports. While the Yankees were suffering through one of the longest title droughts in their history, the Red Sox were adopting the same Sabermetric principles that had led Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics to immense success in the early 2000s. With a youthful 28-year old Yale graduate as General Manager, the Sox had claimed two of the last five World Series titles, and looked poised to displace their rival atop the baseball world.
That summer, the Canadiens traded for Scott Gomez. At the time, I wrote that the trade would set the club back five years in terms of development. The idea of giving up a top prospect and more for a 29-year old with declining play and an albatross of a contract was horrifying enough as it was, but what was more disconcerting was how the man who was supposed to be leading hockey's winningest franchise back to glory could do such a terrible job at evaluating talent. If I, having watched Ryan McDonagh play only a couple of times while at Wisconsin at the time, and gleaning most of my knowledge about him second-hand, could tell that he had a great shot at being an NHL star, why couldn't Gainey or Gauthier? If I, then a 17 year-old kid, could figure out that Gomez's best days were behind him, why couldn't Gainey or Gauthier? It seemed only a matter of time before a rival took advantage of the Canadiens' incompetence in the same way that the Red Sox had done.
For a while, I thought that rival would be the Leafs. Opinions on Brian Burke, and the part he played in earning Anaheim its first Stanley Cup, are split to this day. But what impressed me about the Leafs at the time was their refusal to accept mediocrity, their determination to hire the people they wanted to hire no matter the obstacles, and their new found commitment to the draft. They assembled a management team filled with knowledgeable and experienced hockey minds. Burke went out and got the coach he wanted, Ron Wilson, who had had consistent success with the Sharks, and Francois Allaire, arguably the best goalie coach in NHL history.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens fired a first-time head coach after an impressive season with his team still in the playoff picture, and then replaced him with a defensive coach, who was supposed to lead a team of undersized, speedy players, and teach them a style that didn't suit their skill sets. Gainey didn't even attempt to court Allaire, although his eventual choice of Pierre Groulx has worked out fine to this point. When Gainey stepped down as general manager during the 2009-2010 season - months too late - he left Gauthier with his job. Where there should have been real change, there was only a slight alteration. The Canadiens still hadn't learned.
Three years, one last place finish, two game-day firings, one mid-game trade, and a bevy of other scandals later, maybe now they have. It was all well and good for Geoff Molson to announce, at Marc Bergevin's introductory press conference, that ownership was ready to do whatever it took to win. But this past weekend, with the announcement that Scott Gomez would be bought out following the season, fans can finally take a deep breath and admit that maybe things have changed. After all, it is Toronto now that is replacing a GM with his like-minded understudy after trading top draft picks for stars with big contracts.
Marc Bergevin is no Theo Epstein. He is 47; he never went to college; he had a lengthy playing career. But then again, the Red Sox haven't managed to maintain consistent success lately, and Epstein parted ways with the club last summer. So maybe the Canadiens won't be signing players based on Corsi Rel. QoC for a few more years, but for the first time in a long time, the future of the club seems to be trending up, and maybe fans can look forward to a winning team sooner rather than later. If Scott Gomez - maybe unfairly - was symbolic of the ineptitude of the previous administration, then let his buyout be the indication of a reversal of fortunes, and of a new direction. Let this be the beginning of real change.