Pierre Gauthier operated as Bob Gainey's right-hand man for more than six years but that does not mean the Montreal Canadiens will simply continue down the same track now that Gainey has handed the general manager's job to Gauthier.
Gauthier, 56, is not going to be an extension of Gainey. This is his third go-round as an NHL GM, so Gauthier has lots of his own ideas. He wasted little time sharing them when it came to the thorniest problems Gainey left behind.
The first is the goaltender issue with Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Gauthier immediately made it clear that he has no plans to trade either one before the March 3 NHL trade deadline. He said if the Habs are to stay in the playoff race and make a good postseason run they need both goaltenders.
Once the season is over, though, one of them will have to go. Both Halak and Price will become restricted free agents on July 1 and there is unlikely to be enough room under the salary cap to keep both of them. The other problem Gainey left behind made sure of that.
That problem is the expensive long-term contracts Gainey acquired by trading for Scott Gomez and signing Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri to free-agent deals. Gomez, who has four years left with a cap hit of $7.36-million (U.S.), is supposed to be the No.1 centre, but has not played anywhere near that level. Luckily, Tomas Plekanec stepped up this season to fill the void and leads the team in scoring with 58 points in 60 games.
The trouble is that Plekanec, 27, becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. He said he wants to stay in Montreal and Gauthier said in his introductory press conference that he has already started talking to Plekanec's agent about a new contract.
But how do you accommodate the three existing big contracts plus Plekanec plus Halak plus Price? You can't, of course, so one of the goaltenders has to go.
Earlier this season, when Halak's agent told Gainey that if he wasn't going to give his client a chance to win the No.1 job from Price then he should trade him, Gainey refused. As the season went on and Price continued to go hot and cold, Halak got that chance and showed he is a No.1 goalie.
In fact, he is the biggest reason the Canadiens managed to fight their way back into the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. According to the talk shows and newspapers, Halak is now the people's choice. Through it all, Gainey remained a fierce supporter of Price. Gauthier has yet to tip his hand.
According to ESPN.com, when Gauthier's hiring was announced, Price called his agent to discuss the move. "Carey is really happy in Montreal," Gerry Johannson told ESPN.com. "We respect that the Canadiens have smart guys running things, and we know that there's a time and a place for us to have a discussion, and that's in the off-season. Right now, they're doing what they think they need to do to win, and that's okay."
The departure of one of the goaltenders will not come until the summer because neither Halak, 24, nor Price, 22, has shown consistency over the long haul. Halak is flying high right now but Gauthier clearly thinks at some point he will cool down and Price will be needed.
Once the season ends, Gauthier will have to make a choice. Obviously, that decision will hinge on how both play down the stretch and through the playoffs, should the team qualify. At this point, it looks like both Halak and Price will be used in the postseason.
Still, not only will Gauthier have to choose his goalie, he will have to choose how he says goodbye. There is a good chance one of them could receive an offer sheet from another team, which would result in draft picks as compensation for the Canadiens, based on how much the player receives in the contract.
It would probably be better for Gauthier, particularly if they both play well in the postseason, to sign both of them to rich new deals and then trade one. That allows him more control over what he gets and it creates a bidding war.
Then, assuming both are signed before July 1, Gauthier can turn his attention to signing and keeping Plekanec.