A fan weighs in

Andrew Cohen grew up in the Town of Mount Royal and has been a Canadiens fan since his childhood, a loyalty that has lasted through his residency in the U.S.
Cohen, 45, is a contributing editor  at  The Atlantic and chief legal analyst for CBS News.
These are his thoughts on the season to date.

The End of the Affair

Now that Brian Gionta is likely out for the season, now that the Habs best playoff scorer has been dispatched to Calgary, it is time to throw in the cards on this miserable edition of the team. It’s time to sell, not buy, and it’s time for the most important Canadian sports organization ever to be honest and forthright to its tens of millions of fans around the world. Trust me, we can take it. The Canadiens need to start, today, on making sure its 2012-2013 squad is much more worthy than is the current one of wearing La Sainte-Flannelle. And if that means continuing to break up the core of this group then so be it.

Please let’s be honest with one another. If this edition of Les Glorieux were a horse, it would be declared lame and then mercifully put down. The team is far less than the sum of its parts, the failed creation of an inept and inapt general manager, and, perhaps worst of all, largely unwatchable on the ice.  Everyone seems to be waiting for Andrei Markov to return, as if he were Larry Robinson or Chris Chelios, but that is like waiting for the Messiah, and, anyway, how much difference could a player like Markov make after having been out for nearly two seasons? I try to watch every game that is broadcast here in the United States. They are painful, boring affairs. I remember Canadiens’ teams which would come out on home ice and put the game away in the first period. Now we are thankful if we have a scoreless tie after one. Let me put it another way. The forgettable Habs team of 11 years ago, from the 2000-2001 season, with players like Craig Darby, Juha Lind and Patrick Traverse, were more fun to watch than the current team. And that team got 70 points.

It’s okay to be boring when you are winning. That was Jacques Martin’s professed thing, right? And, Good Lord, the New Jersey Devils won that way for years. But it’s another thing to be boring when you are losing. The Habs play like automatons. Their forwards are too small—Thursday’s trade was an acknowledgement– and they are not nearly gritty enough. The defense is too soft. They are too devoid of passionate players. And club management is only now coming to the realization that the National Hockey League is never going to favor a style that is more European than Canadian. For decades, the Canadiens have valued speed over size. This sorry team is further proof that the balance must be struck differently—look at the Bruins, heck, look at most consistently successful teams these days. Small teams don’t win the Stanley Cup anymore—if they ever did. The so-called “Flying Frenchmen” were protected by men like John Ferguson and Pierre Bouchard. This team has protection, too, but just too many little guys to protect.

Hey, Geoff Molson, I don’t yet follow you on Twitter but I still appreciate your passion. You aren’t that far from offering to your dogged fans a solid team, a team worthy of both wins and respect. But you need to move and move now if you want to expedite the return to glory we’ve been waiting for now for nearly two decades. Let’s not start with the head coach, poor Randy Cunneyworth, whom your general manager Pierre Gauthier threw into the lion’s den last month. Let’s start with the players. Let’s start with Scott Gomez. And let’s be blunt. The Canadiens will never compete for a Stanley Cup so long as they are paying an extraordinary amount of money (what is it, $7 million, which is more than ten times the amount an average Quebecois earns?) to Scott Gomez. He may be the nicest guy in the world. He may be “great in the room,” as the hockey saying goes. But the French journalists are right when they say he adds nothing to the team. Nothing worth that salary, anyway. No organization can succeed when its highest-salaried employee is one of its least efficient. It has nothing to do with Gomez’s personality. It’s just a fact of human nature. His presence on that team is corrosive. So was Cammalleri– and if the Habs had received only a second-round pick and that prospect the trade would have been a step in the right direction.

Continue to cut your losses, Mr. Molson. Get rid of Gomez—no one will care how you do it or what the team gets in return. And while you are at it make plans to move forward without Gauthier. He is not responsible for the horrible Gomez trade, the worst Canadiens’ trade since the Patrick Roy trade of 1995. That brick belongs to Bob Gainey. But Gauther is responsible for signing Andre Markov to a long-term deal without knowing more about how well (or how poorly) the player had recovered from his knee surgery. And Gauthier is responsible for dozens of smaller decisions (Chris Campoli, really?) that have shaped a team that proves weekly that it is going in the wrong direction.  That is not good enough in any town which loves its team. It is certainly not good enough for Montreal and its Canadiens. Gauthier needs to go and the sooner the better. He made Jacques Martin pay for mistakes the coach didn’t make. Now it’s time for the Habs to make Gauthier pay for his own mistakes.

So Gomez needs to go. And so does Gauthier. And nice Hal Gill– to a playoff team. And maybe Tomas Kaberle, too, if he continues to play well enough to earn some interest at the deadline. And if the team ends up with one extra decent draft pick from the sale of these assets, or one tough young forward, it will still be better off than it was this year. I will welcome Brian Gionta back next October. I think he’s an important player. But I will look forward to him being supported by a team that can more meaningfully compete. And that brings me to the scouting department. When does Trevor Timmons get evaluated, I mean really challenged, for his work over the past decade? When he was hired, he was supposed to be the drafting “genius” who created the Senators. But he hasn’t been so great with the Canadiens, has he? Along the same lines, Mr. Molson, I would like to know who the person was, in the Canadiens organization, who said: “Oh, Ryan McDonagh, we can afford to include him in the Gomez trade because he’ll never amount to anything.” That person should be fired.

Which brings me, at last, to the coach.  Poor Cunneyworth. A nice guy, by all accounts, but he never had a chance. In a perfect world, the Canadiens would be able to select a coach without regard to the language the coach spoke. In the real world, however, as even my 78-year-old former Montrealer mother said the other day, “the Canadiens ought to have a coach who can at least speak a little French.” Word. Let’s be honest with one another yet again. By embracing the notion that the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens ought to be able to speak French, the team embraces the notion of affirmative action and at the same time dramatically limits the pool of qualified candidates for the job. I am a big fan of affirmative action (really, you can look it up). But I want the coach of the team to be the best candidate regardless of the language of his birth. It’s sad that cannot happen. But there is a lot about the language debate in Quebec, and its history, that is sad. I hope Cunneyworth stays with the organization— that would send the right message, would it not?

The Canadiens need new management. They need to reshape the size and swagger of the team. Opponents ought to fear playing the Habs, or at least consider it an annoyance, which is another concept that seems to be lacking each time this team takes the ice. If the idiots who run the Boston Bruins could have achieved all this, and I say that with all due respect, there is no excuse for the Canadiens not to have done it now for nearly 20 years. That’s what Geoff Molson must contend with. That’s why it’s so apparent that this current team stinks. And it’s why big changes are going to have to take place, now, before long-time fans of the team can have their confidence restored. This team is unworthy of the playoffs and desperately in need of a top draft pick. We all know that. Now Molson and Company simply have to muster up the courage, creativity and vision to make it happen.

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