Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gaga for Gainey

Having recently read Richard Dawkins' latest foray, The God Delusion, I find myself being especially attuned to the ring of fundamentalism in the air at the moment. Whether it be the atheist fundamentalism of Professor Dawkins, the religious fundamentalism that he wrote about, or any other type passing my way.

In a time where most observers agree fundamentalism is on the rise (in world affairs, politics and in religion), Bob Gainey seems to be getting a significant fundamentalist following of his own.

Their mantra: "In Bob, we trust"

On the weekend, Gazette Sports Editor Stu Cowan, wrote a piece that Bob's devout, unquestioning devotees will just eat up. Some of the responses to the piece reminded me that the Gazette outlook was precariously close to the unquestioning "In Bob, we trust" camp.

In his article, Mr. Cowan gives a strangely rosy account of all things Gainey when it comes to salary. Towards the end, in what would become a mathematical nightmare over two paragraphs, Gainey's signing record just keeps getting better and better as you read. Or so the article would have you believe.

Take these lines to start with:
According to salaries posted on the NHLPA website, only five other teams - the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings - have their highest-paid player earning less than Markov. Of those five teams, only Nashville made the playoffs last season.

The key to success in the salary-capped NHL is to build through the draft and spend your money wisely, two things Gainey has done extremely well.
For me, it seems these two lines of thinking are at odds with each other, while the wording is designed to make you think one comes from the other. I think the conclusion that the key to the "salary-capped NHL is to build through the draft" is a bit of a cliche, to be honest. While spending money wisely only works if you spend money at all. Detroit remains at then top with a combination of drafting, signings and trades – not drafting alone. New Jersey, the other perennial overachiever and contender has done nothing if not spend to the cap in efforts to win.

The error of equating good value signings and good team building is also common in conversation these days. While saving the money is good, the saved funds must be spent on necessary components (or bonus scoring maybe?) in order to have an impact in the standings. The fact that Gainey has been able to keep the top salary down to bottom-feeder levels (all apologies to Carolina and Nashville) is meaningless when the flexibility that fiscal responsibility bought the team has yet to pay many dividends other than Hamrlik.

The second criticism I have with the article is the runaround we get with Andrei Markov's salary, with a more positive outlook at every turn:

1) Markov's salary is a bargain, I can't argue with that. But, it is a bargain because he really elevated his play and the player we signed was only an unfulfilled version of the player we have now. Markov's salary over 4 years is $23 million. So, Markov is earning $5.75M at the outset.

2) Next we are told, Markov will earn $1 million more than Jeff Finger this season. Finger got 4 years at $14 million (or $3.5M a year for cap and fan purposes – do we care when their bank accounts get credited?). So, Markov is suddenly getting $4.5M a year.

3) Finally, we hear how Markov will earn a whopping $2 million less than Souray this year. Even if we take the money Souray is banking this year ($6.25M as quoted by Mr. Cowan), Markov is still well under his actual rate. A quick check on Souray, though, will reveal he signed a 5-year $27 million deal last summer, making his average salary $5.4M a year. So, if we are to believe the $2M savings, Markov is now earning $3.4M a year.

Now, I'm sure Mr. Cowan made honest mistakes here, both in using paid salary over cap hits and in his arithmetic, but after reading that book, this article smacked of the rhetoric I was at once being alerted to by Dawkins as well as reading through most of his chapters. The fact that few people will bother to check on the salaries of Finger, Souray and Michal Roszival is of little importance, but I would bet a hefty cap hit that I will hear about these comparisons again from Bob Gainey's staunchest. Rhetoric is nothing at all if not memorable.

Rightful criticism

When the praise in the piece ends, one doesn't have to go very far to find the criticism that both the account and the general manager of the Canadiens deserve. While most agree that having Bob as the general manager is a good thing on the whole, the critics do make several valid points about his record:

1) Bob Gainey is in charge of doling out the salary for one of the most profitable teams in the NHL. However, since the introduction of the salary cap, the Montreal Canadiens have never topped out. This season Gainey is carrying more than $7 million in space. Should Sundin be signed, we assume this space would be gone. Should he not be signed, will Bob spend the money? If not, shouldn't we all be asking why not? The money unspent will be profits for Mr. Gillett, nothing more.

2) Bob Gainey doesn't move quickly enough. At the trade deadline this year he traded Huet, presumably to create salary manoeuvrability, but did nothing else. One could still argue that the price for Hossa was much too high, but there were plenty of other players available who could have played a role in the last games of the season in the playoffs instead of saving the salary for Mr. Gillett once again. Gainey was either too focused on one deal or too slow to put a plan B into motion.

3) His draft picks haven't been league best like some would suggest they have been. It is sometimes forgotten that the Canadiens core, while young, has nothing to do with Bob Gainey's drafting. He inherited Markov, Koivu, Komisarek, Higgins, Plekanec and Ryder. What's more, most of the groundwork would have been done for the 2003 draft prior to his hiring a couple of weeks before selections (hence the reason for Andre Savard staying on) – making Kostitsyn, O'Byrne, Lapierre and Halak Savard's legacy, too. The outright contribution to the Canadiens from Bob Gainey includes many a solid player, but not the current core.

To me, this criticism seems fair. A fair-minded person would be neglectful to disregard these considerations to stand beside all the positives.

Gainey is not beyond question
All this is not to say that Bob is not a good GM, or even a great GM. I believe he is. It is to show that he is not beyond question as some seem to want us to believe.

There are many reasons to like Bob Gainey. For one thing, he is the kind of role model you could only dream of having around for the players on the team. Soft-spoken, hard-working and sincere. He does the Canadiens organisation and its fans proud with the way he carries himself and the standard he sets for all members to follow.

But while he deserves to be praised for all the things he does so well, us fans deserve the right to question when things go awry. Or when $7 million dollars go unspent on a team supposedly vying to be the best.

Before heaping on too much praise this off-season, I will certainly wait to see where that $7+M ends up. If it's in Colorado, I'm hoping it will be an addition to a certain Mr. Sakic's house and not one of George's Vail ski retreats.

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