Habs reap rewards of ex-GM Gauthier’s smart deals

Former Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier was fired after the dismal 2011–12 season. And though his manner may not be missed, the Habs are reaping the rewards of “The Ghost’s” hockey smarts. (CP)

At a time of year when the world is crawling with ghastly creatures, Montreal Canadiens fans should take time to give it up for “The Ghost.”

Former Habs GM Pierre Gauthier came by his nickname pretty honestly. Suffice it to say, warmth and sharing weren’t his thing. Toss in the alliteration factor and Ghost became a natural moniker for the distant Gauthier.

His firing after the Habs’ dreadful 2011–12 season brought a welcome and necessary change of tone to the front office, but Gauthier’s presence can still be felt in Montreal—particularly in the rebuild now being overseen by current GM Marc Bergevin. Three moves Gauthier made in a six-month span in 2010 are making that task a lot easier.

Partially due to injuries up front, Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival represent half of Montreal’s current top-six forward crew. Each came to the Canadiens in different fashion, and each is making a notable contribution this season.

Eller arrived via the blockbuster trade that sent 2010 playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues crease. It’s a deal that’s gone from utterly shocking to highly satisfying for Habs supporters. It’s still fair to wonder if Gauthier couldn’t have squeezed more out of a big-time asset had he put Halak up for auction at the 2010 draft instead of trading him just days prior, but the move is nevertheless working out as well as Montreal could have hoped. Eller’s steps have been slow, but as a fourth-year NHLer, the 24-year-old has established himself as a six-foot-two, 215-lb. buzzsaw who can have a diverse impact all over the ice. You can bet the Canadiens are dreaming of a long-term future in which Eller slots in behind his current linemate Alex Galchenyuk—who figures to move from wing to centre at some point—as the team’s dependable No. 2 pivot.

If Gauthier erred by not holding the Halak card until he was surrounded by fellow execs on the draft floor, he made up for it by selecting Gallagher 147th overall that same year. Nobody else was anxious to jump in on an undersized winger who’d scored 41 goals in the tough Western Hockey League that season, but Gauthier pulled the trigger. The biggest compliment you can pay Gallagher—a rookie of the year finalist in 2013—is that people who hate the Canadiens kind of like him. That is, until he’s in the face of their team’s goalie. We’re not sure how prolific a scorer he’ll be, but pencil him in for a high percentage of Montreal’s greasy goals in the next decade.

And in contrast to the tidal wave of controversy created by the Eller trade, the deal to acquire Bournival half a year later barely registered outside Quebec. Gauthier plucked the 21-year-old—the 71st pick in 2010—from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for big defenceman Ryan O’Byrne. Bournival is quite capably representing the “CH” right now, while O’Byrne plays for HC Lev Praha of the Kontinental Hockey League. Bournival was the story of September with a goal-filled pre-season, but the rookie was scratched in two of the team’s first three contests. When injuries opened the door a crack, Bournival kicked it in with his high-energy, smart play. He’s gone from seeing about seven minutes of ice on the fourth line to over 17 in his most recent outing, when he got his seventh point in seven contests. Bournival is lining up at left wing beside Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta on what is, depending on the night, the Canadiens’ first or second line. Many rookies go on nice runs of putting up points, but Bournival’s headsy play is what has him in the NHL to stay. The kid who captained his hometown Shawinigan Cataractes to the 2012 Memorial Cup plays an up-and-down game with acute attention to detail, which is why he’s already earned time as a second-wave penalty-killer. Even if Bournival gets bumped down the lineup when Max Pacioretty returns from a hamstring injury — Pacioretty is expected to return this weekend — he’s going to get ample ice.

Gauthier’s tenure was full of curious management decisions, from the ill-timed firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn just hours before a game, to seemingly taking personal umbrage when Mike Cammalleri justifiably criticized a bad team, a move that quickly got him shipped out of town. But even on the day he was fired, most people still recognized Gauthier’s ability to spot talent. That’s why the Habs weren’t actually as bad as their 2011–12 showing—last in the Eastern Conference—indicated. And that’s why, in a quiet move, the Chicago Blackhawks were happy to make Gauthier their director of player personnel a couple months after Montreal fired him. Without the responsibilities of a GM, Gauthier is free to assess talent from the shadows, which is where The Ghost has always done his best work.

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