I have been critical of Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson over the last few weeks, and perhaps even longer… literally as recently as 21 hours ago. I also consider myself a realist, and I need to react to what’s in front of me.
As clumsy as the execution may have been, Molson’s hiring of Jeff Gorton as executive vice president of hockey operations was a fascinating and inspired way to make sure the best hockey executive on the market was also employable by the Canadiens regardless of language.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed since Molson last said he didn’t need anyone besides the general manager reporting to him, but it’s easy to guess even before he speaks to the media later Monday morning.
The decision to draft Logan Mailloux provided Molson with a clear picture of how hockey operation decisions can affect the business. I would assume at that point, it became clear to him that handing total control to one person over the hockey operations had its pitfalls. It also provided a clear view of the contrast between Geoff Molson the owner and president, who had to speak to sponsors and react to that side of things, and Geoff Molson, the head of hockey operations, who had to justify why he was the one to give the OK.
Molson gave the OK on the draft pick, but the backlash certainly provided him clarity that the final say might be better off with someone else. Part of being a successful leader is knowing when to say you don’t know.
2020 and 2021 have been challenging years for Molson’s businesses. From over a year without any concerts for the Evenko side of Groupe CH, to a Stanley Cup final run with reduced capacity where he wasn’t able to fully capitalize on the insane fever that would have engulfed the city otherwise.
The language issue is a hot one whenever it surrounds the Montreal Canadiens and Molson has been firm in the belief that both French and English fans should be able to hear from the team’s head executive and coach in their language. The issue critics of this approach have is that it doesn’t allow for a potential great job candidate to be hired.
Hiring Gorton as a person between himself and the team’s French-speaking general manager is a way to have the best available executive — even if he doesn’t deserve full credit for his time with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, the results speak for themselves — and satisfy the language requirement.
Gorton’s tenure with the Rangers may be defined by “The Letter”, a message from himself and Glen Sather warning fans of an approaching rebuild. It was a kind of transparency that was jarring then, but even more-so now when you compare it to the person he’s replacing in Montreal. Marc Bergevin never really was open and honest with his plans, often being vague or even contradictory in his comments. There is an argument that the letter was too open, but there is something to be said for having a plan and seeing it through.
That letter was written in February of 2018. Less than four years later, the Rangers are near the top of the Eastern Conference.
It seemed over recent months that the Canadiens lacked a plan: Sending down Cole Caufield only to call him up six games later. Mattias Norlinder not being returned to Sweden to play sparingly in the NHL. There are other examples, but when you’re in a lost season, prospect development should be the only thing that matters. This allows a reset button to be pushed, and have a new approach trickle down for the rest of the season.
There are some potential issues with Gorton. The handling of Lias Andersson, and then Vitali Kravtsov has raised some eyebrows, but in Gorton’s defence the issues with Kravtsov extended beyond his tenure.
The main thing that Gorton, and whoever he brings in to replace Bergevin as general manager, can bring is fresh ideas. Nine years is a long time for one person to be in charge, and for Trevor Timmins that time has been even longer. I have been supportive and critical of both of their moves from time to time, but a fresh perspective and new ideas can do a world of good. Some of the best teams in the NHL have been the ones that have fresh approaches.
There are some big decisions still to be made that will shape the future of the Canadiens organization. Regardless of how it turns out, the thought process behind Molson hiring Gorton to head the team’s hockey operations is one that is easy to get behind, and is the kind of creative thinking that can move the organization forward.