Change We Can Believe In: Looking Back On Bob Gainey’s 2009 Free Agency Madness

by Jacob Saltiel
freeagent

That worked out…
from habseyesontheprize.com

Flashback to summer 2009, Habs fan. The Canadiens had just been ignominiously dumped by the Bruins in the playoffs. Several players from the team that had finished 1st the previous season were entering free agency. Most famously, the much-loved Saku Koivu was out of a contract, as was the lusted upon Alex Kovalev. Back then, Mike Komisarek had not been exposed as an imposter and many hoped that he might become the captain one day. At the time, Bob Gainey knew he had to do something to re-make his team- but what?

He- or his assistant, the skulking Pierre Gauthier- hatched upon a mad scheme; let the pending free agents walk, and sign as many other free agents for as much money as possible. The day before free agency, the dreadful Scott Gomez trade happened, which set the tone for maybe one of the worst months in sports management history. If not for a young Slovakian goaltender channeling the ghosts of Canadiens goaltenders past, the science experiment would have been a total failure. Let’s pick through the wreckage, player by player, to see what services they rendered to the Canadiens since that day week in July.

Jaroslav Spacek
Spacek got a 3 year contract, averaging $3.8m/year after scoring 45 points with the Buffalo Sabres. He was 35 at the time, and never scored more than 21 points with the Canadiens. He wasn’t terrible, but neither was he particularly effective. He was fun with the media and would have been fine as a 4th or 5th defenceman, but then his contract was all wrong for someone that low on the depth chart. Actually, “his contract was all wrong for someone that low on the depth chart” is Pierre Gauthier’s operating principle. By the 3rd year of his contract, Spacek had actually gained value because of his expiring contract and the perception that he could play 3rd pairing minutes. So what happened? Gauthier traded him for Tomas Kaberle, who the Canadiens still have on the books until they mercifully buy him out in a few weeks.

Mike Cammalleri
Bob Gainey gave Cammalleri a $30m, 5 year contract after a career year. Not for lack of trying, Cammalleri never lived up to that deal in Montreal. Due to injuries and never playing on a line that could support him effectively, Cammalleri’s regular season output for the Canadiens was humble. In that exciting run to the playoffs, he played out of his mind, scoring 13 times in 19 games and terrorizing other teams every time he got open with the puck. This wasn’t a horrible signing at the time, and might have worked out a lot better if the plan wasn’t to play him alongside Scott Gomez. We’ll always have this highlight, though. Despite working hard for the team, Cammalleri was shamed by Gauthier and embarrassingly (for everyone involved) traded mid-game to the Flames for Rene Bourque and a 2nd rounder. Not for the last time in the Gauthier tenure, anonymous rival GM’s would comment that they didn’t even know Cammalleri was available for trade. As everyone knows, when you need to sell something, you definitely don’t want to create a bidding war for that asset by telling multiple people about it who may be interested.

Hal Gill
Hal Macinnis! Harold Priestley Gill! Joe Beef patron and all around good guy, Gill turned out to be one of the better signings. At $2.25m/year for 2 years, he was a bargain. Then again, he might have been one of the least watchable players in the NHL. It sure was effective, but turning on the TV to watch a hockey game and seeing ol’Giller flopping around in front of his crease on the penalty kill was about as much fun as watching your dog get run over. Whatever, it sort of worked, and the Gill-Subban dynamic alone was worth the price of admission. He was extended for another year, and then traded for the probably-retiring-due-to-injury Blake Geoffrion, Robert “WHO IS THAT?!” Slaney, and a 2nd round pick. Pretty good value. Unlike say, Scott Gomez, Hal Gill is always welcome back in Montreal, and even got a shout-out in The Art of Living According to Joe Beef. Seriously, check the acknowledgements. Not bad for a guy who played for both the Leafs and Bruins.

Travis Moen
TraMoen was brought in to add some grit to the bottom half of the Habs lineup for 3 years, $1.5/year. Well, he was supposed to do that, but it’s unclear what Moen does these days. He throws the occasional hit and plays decent defence on the 4th line, but that’s about it. This didn’t stop him from getting a $350,000 raise and 3 year extension from Bergevin, but there’s not a lot to say one way or another about the big plugger.

Brian Gionta
The eventual captain of the Canadiens was also picked up on this impulse spending spree. His $25m contract runs out at the end of next season, and it’s unlikely he’ll be retained unless he’s willing to take a paycut. Like Cammalleri, Gionta’s struggled with injuries, including tearing both of his biceps in the last couple of seasons. In his first two years as a Canadien, Gionta scored 28 and 29 goals, which was respectable, but injuries and ineffectiveness, and a lockout have limited him to 22 goals total over the last two seasons. Of course, that’s not the only measure of a player’s value. He’s a hard worker who’s decent in puck possession, with a 2.92 on-ice CORSI.* He’s well-liked by his teammates and his hand-eye coordination around the net is still good. He’s going to be 35 next year and facing a lengthy rehabilitation, and certainly not getting any taller. Because of this, he may not fit into Bergevin’s plans for a team trying to get younger and bigger.

Hindsight is 20/20, But Pierre Gauthier/Bob Gainey Are Blind
So, 4 years on, the Canadiens turned  their signings not still playing with the team into two 2nd round picks, Rene Bourque, Tomas Kaberle, and the associated waste in cap space. Out of Kovalev, Komisarek, and Koivu, only Koivu’s played well since then. It’s not as if the Canadiens had to retain those guys, but the route they chose to go in recklessly handing out contract was a poor strategy. Even if the salary cap’s coming down, that won’t necessarily mean GM’s lower the salaries they hand out to free agents. For example, a 39 year old Sergei Gonchar was given a 2-year, $10m contract today, even though that cap number can never come off the cap. The Stars aren’t tight against the cap, but that’s a lot to pay for a 1-dimensional defender who might have a rapid decline.

This summer, the Canadiens won’t have a ton of cap space to use, but let’s hope Bergevin uses it prudently, since it rarely occurs that great value comes out in free agency. If it does, it’s often pricey. Adding a scoring forward would be great, but a guy like Bryan Bickell, currently playing out of his mind alongside Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, could cost way more than he’s worth in a serious bidding war. After all, free agency isn’t be one of Gauthier’s secret trade markets.

***

*All this means is that when he’s on the ice, his team generates slightly more shots than the opposition.

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