Fans and media across the NHL have decided it's as close to guaranteed as a hockey move gets that Pierre Gauthier is relieved of his duties when the regular season concludes. While the hyperbole surrounding Gauthier's tenure, usually on the negative side, is fairly inaccurate, I don't think fans or media can be blamed for assuming he will be fired or wanting him gone.
He has a demeanor that puts people off and he has made his fair share of blunders or moves that had no effect or a negative one:
-Trading for Brent Sopel
-Trading for Petteri Nokelainen
-Trading for Paul Mara
-Firing Jacques Martin
-Hiring an English coach and then issuing an apology for it
-Firing Perry Pearn moments before a game
-Advising Gainey on trading Mike Ribeiro for Janne Niinimaa
-Advising Gainey on trading Ryan McDonagh and Chris Higgins for Scott Gomez and Tom Pyatt
And some moves that are divisive but inconclusive in results as of yet:
-Trading Mike Cammalleri and a 5th round pick for Rene Bourque, Patrick Holland and a 2nd round pick
-Trading Jaroslav Spacek for Tomas Kaberle
-Trading Matt D'agostini for Aaron Palushaj
So operating under the premise that he will be gone sometime around April, what can we expect from the next general manager of the Montreal Canadiens? A lot of fans want sweeping change, but not only is that not likely, it would be a terrible decision. This is because the next GM of the Habs is already set up to be universally praised.
Recently when I was invited onto Puck Daddy's Marek vs Wyshynski podcast, Greg Wyshynski expressed doubts that Jim Nill would leave his comfortable and rewarding job with the Red Wings. In most cases I would agree with Wysh completely, but this is a unique situation. He would be taking over a marquee franchise coming off a terrible down year, taking over for a universally hated GM, and the team you're inheriting is actually really damn good. Don't believe me? Let's take a look over the team as it stands and evaluate.
The forward group is by no means the NHL's best, but they have three players who are realistically capable of 30 goal seasons in Max Pacioretty, Erik Cole and Brian Gionta. To bolster that they have 2 players realistically capable of 20-25 goal seasons in Tomas Plekanec and Rene Bourque.
Add to this two burgeoning young centers in Lars Eller and David Desharnais who are already at 14 goals a piece in their second NHL seasons. It's not hard to imagine either of them hitting 20 goals next season.There you have a top 9 in need of two wingers, a top 9 that is capable of an above average offense in the NHL.
With the way Louis Leblanc has played, it's likely that he could replace Andrei Kostitsyn's loss going into next season on the 3rd line. At this point it is assumed that the Canadiens will sign pending UFA Travis Moen, who along with Ryan White would create a solid 2/3 of a 4th line.
The Canadiens defense has a bigger question mark than he forward group in Andrei Markov's long term viability as an NHL player. We don't know yet if he can be his former self, or if he can withstand the rigors of an NHL season on his twice repaired knee. If he can return however, the Canadiens have a solid top 4 going into next year.
P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges are now the pillars of the defense, taking the tough minutes matchups and looking excellent all year long. Subban has become one of the best defensemen in the NHL in just his second season and Gorges has drastically improved his game with improved skating following knee surgery last year.
Alexei Emelin is the player most likely to be paired with Markov should he return. Emelin has taken massive strides forward this season, becoming one of the best body checkers in the NHL and staying slightly above water in possession relative to the rest of his team.
The Canadiens also have Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber as bottom pairing defensemen on the right side. Both players are impressive offensively but have limitations to their game, but this is expected on the 3rd pairing. Along with Emelin and Subban they're both still adjusting to the NHL and are only going to get better.
The Canadiens are more than set in the netminding department with Carey Price already entrenched as a top goaltender in the NHL at age 24. Heading into next season Price will be closing in on the beginning of his prime years as he turns 25. Behind him is Peter Budaj, who's been a serviceable backup in his first year with Montreal. Budaj has improved his numbers from last season and is likely to do so again as Pierre Groulx irons out problems created from years of not having a goalie coach.
Prospects & Drafting
The Canadiens have an undervalued group of prospects, especially at defense where Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi lead a talented and deep group. But the real strength the next GM will have is the accruing of draft picks by the outgoing Gauthier. Whether people like him or not, Gauthier has set up the Habs nicely in this area with 7 picks in the first two rounds in the 2012 and 2013 NHL Entry Drafts. The Canadiens are likely to have a top 3 pick in this year's draft to work with as well, which could instantly improve the fortunes of the franchise.
It's assumed that Gomez will be traded, bought out, or sent to the AHL in the summer, so there's also a lot of cap space to tinker with for this next GM. Assuming the cap only increases by 5%, and that Scott Gomez is gone, the Habs will have $31,306,667 of cap space to dole out. This is without the possibility that Tomas Kaberle could be moved.
Accounting for maximum payouts for Subban and Price (A combined $12.5M cap hit), raises above qualifying offers for Emelin, Eller, Diaz, and White; the Canadiens would still have close to $12M in cap space to fill out their roster. ~$8M if they play their new top draft pick next season, although that's if bonuses count directly against the cap, which may not be the case.
Shrewd managing concerning new contracts for Price and Subban, and a possible trade to move Kaberle and the Canadiens next GM will be in a position to buy anyone they want.
The Big Challenge
The only real challenge for the next GM of the Canadiens will be to find the right coach. That is a legitimately hard job in Montreal due to the pressure and language issues. If this nameless GM can do that, he will undoubtedly gain universal praise due to the false expectations of everything going wrong this year. Fans expect more frustration, but the chess pieces are there for a contender.