Hiring president of hockey operations logical first step for Canadiens

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman discuss all the big news around the NHL including possible changes coming to the Canadiens front office.

MONTREAL — While the Montreal Canadiens were in Pittsburgh, in the process of winning for just the sixth time in 23 games this season, most of the action truly worth paying attention to was happening off the ice.

It started before the game even got underway, when our own Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Central that the Canadiens had obtained permission from the New York Rangers to speak to former general manager Jeff Gorton.

While Gorton — along with president John Davidson — was impulsively fired from the Rangers last May by owner James Dolan, he had signed a contract extension just 14 months earlier. Because he remains on the Rangers’ payroll to this day, the Canadiens needed to ask for permission to speak to him about potentially hiring him.

That’s the minutia.

Here’s the meat: Shortly after Friedman reported this, trusted sources suggested to us the job Canadiens owner Geoff Molson may offer Gorton is president of hockey operations.

Then, just 15 minutes into the first period of what turned out to be a 6-3 win over the Penguins thanks to 47 saves Jake Allen made and three empty-net goals they scored, The Athletic reported Scott Mellanby resigned on Saturday after seven seasons as assistant general manager of the Canadiens. The team then confirmed this bombshell via press release during the second period.

Mellanby was one of the first people general manager Marc Bergevin hired after he was appointed in 2012. The former NHL veteran, who transitioned to a management role with the Vancouver Canucks before spending two seasons as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues, was initially named director of player personnel in May of that year. He was then promoted to AGM two years later.

In that role, Mellanby was Bergevin’s most trusted advisor. His strong work alongside the Montreal GM was recognized outside of this market by several teams, as he was considered and interviewed for other GM roles over the last few years.

The last time that happened was last January, when the Penguins were looking to fill their front office.

But Mellanby pulled himself out of Pittsburgh’s GM race to stay with the Canadiens.

As for why he decided to leave the organization at this juncture, Friedman, on the 32 Thoughts segment that aired during the second intermission of the Canadiens game on Hockey Night in Canada, painted a picture congruent to one that was laid out to us moments after the news broke.

“We all believe that Marc Bergevin was not coming back as general manager after this year. It would be this year, and that would be all,” Friedman said. “I believe he recommended Scott Mellanby to be his successor, or to have a significant role in the organization. I think there were conversations between Scott Mellanby and ownership to have a significant role, and I believe in the last little while it changed and, recently, Mellanby was informed that he is not going to be getting that position and the Canadiens are going in a different direction.”

Sources are suggesting that direction could be naming Gorton president of hockey ops — or to an unspecified role above GM — and doing so perhaps as early as this Sunday.

But nothing is confirmed yet on that front, and no one in the Canadiens’ organization is commenting on it.

What does seem abundantly clear at this point is that major change is on its way in Montreal.

It was anticipated that would be the case when Molson opted not to extend Bergevin’s contract prior to the start of the season. It only became more evident when the Canadiens failed to win more than two games in October, and now it’s a foregone conclusion since they’ve produced the worst record through 23 games of a season in their 111-year existence.

It’s widely believed Bergevin, the Montreal native who’s in his 10th year as Canadiens GM, will be replaced by someone who can speak French. Our sources have indicated that’s a prerequisite Molson set before hiring Bergevin and one he doesn’t wish to move away from.

What would be a departure from the owner’s philosophy would be hiring a president of hockey operations to serve beneath him.

That would be a smart move for many reasons and, considering that role wouldn’t be nearly as public facing as GM or coach, naming someone of Gorton’s experience would be a logical first step in cleaning out the hockey operations department and appointing new people.

Gorton made his start in the NHL with the Boston Bruins when he was hired as a scout. He rose to assistant GM eight years later and then assumed the GM job on an interim basis after Mike O’Connell was fired in 2006.

It was then that Gorton presided over what many consider to be the most successful draft in Bruins history — plucking out Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand and trading Andrew Raycroft for Tuukka Rask.

Before relinquishing his role to Peter Chiarelli and resuming his role as AGM in July of that year, he signed Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara as free agents.

After Gorton was dismissed as AGM in Boston in 2007, he was immediately hired as a pro scout by the Rangers. And on July 1, 2015, he took over from Glen Sather as general manager — the role he served in admirably, especially in enacting the rebuild that has them well-positioned moving forward, until Dolan shocked the hockey world and fired him and Davidson last spring.

Still, with more than 20 years of experience in various management roles in the NHL, the 53-year-old Gorton fits as a proper candidate to oversee the Canadiens’ hockey operations. That he’d likely be hiring a first-time GM — given the French criteria required to fill the role — makes his experience that much more valuable.

If not Gorton, Molson would be wise to hire someone with a resume that’s as decorated in order to help revamp the Canadiens’ administration. With the trade deadline looming in March and the Canadiens likely to land in the top-10 — if not first overall — in a draft they’re hosting in 2022, much of the planning must be done now.

Despite Molson’s deafening silence since the start of training camp, it’s clear now that he understands that. Hence all the off-ice action on Saturday.

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