General manager Pierre Gauthier feels the struggling Montreal Canadiens still have time to get their game together and save a foundering season.
Gauthier said getting injured veterans like Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez back and getting some other players to play better should help the club out of a slump that has seen it lose seven of its last eight games, including six of seven since Randy Cunneyworth replaced the fired Jacques Martin as coach.
“It's a trickle down effect, because there are people missing and there are veterans not performing as they should, and now there are extra demands placed on young players,” Gauthier said in a rare meeting with the media. “And if you're going to count on young players to get you out of your problems and if you're getting into slumps, it's going to be very difficult.”
He said the team has blown a lot of leads this season due to mistakes by individual players rather than the team's system of play. Many of the mistakes are made by “young players that are probably overexposed.
“One problem causes another problem and another problem. So we have a lot of work to do to turn this thing around.”
The Canadiens (14-18-7) are coming off a six-game road trip on which they went 1-5-0 to fall to eight points out of a playoff position in the NHL Eastern Conference.
They play 11 of their next 15 games at home, and Gauthier said he would wait until that is over to decide whether the Canadiens will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. He said the team rallied from a December slump last season to reach the postseason.
Gonta, Gomez and checking forward Ryan White skated separately from their teammates Monday but are expected back soon.
Gauthier said defenceman Andrei Markov, who has yet to play since signing a three-year contract last summer, will have his reconstructed knee evaluated by doctors this week. However, he said the team's top rearguard will not be back before the all-star break at the end of the month.
Without Markov, the normally potent Montreal power play has dipped to 29th in the 30-team league with a 12.8 per cent success rate.
Gauthier also apologized to any fans offended by the decision to promote Cunneyworth, who speaks little French, to the head coaching job. He said Cunneyworth's interim status would be re-evaluated at the end of the season.
“We're disappointed and we're sorry if we offended anybody by hiring someone who is not bilingual right now, but when you're in the middle of a season and you're trying to effect change and you're having the difficulties we were having, you evaluate all your options.
“We felt the best option at this time was to work from within the organization. Those things can be taken care of in due time, but having a bilingual head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is very important and it's something that will be part of our decision going forward.”
Gauthier's main reason for holding a news conference was the signing on Sunday of defenceman Josh Gorges to a $23.4-million six-year contract. Gorges had signed a one-year $2.5-million deal as a restricted free agent in the summer and was due to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Gorges said the team wanted to see how his knee responded to reconstructive surgery last season before committing to a long-term deal, and that he was delighted with the contract.
“I don't think it's Pierre Gauthier's usual way to sign guys during the season but it's more of an extension of negotiations from the summertime,” said Gorges. “I said right from the start this is where I want to be.
“Yeah we're facing some tough times now, but we have a bright future here. We have some good young players coming up and I think with the direction the team is trying to head into, there's only good things in the future. This is where I want to be and where I want to stay.”
Gorges will have a $3.9-million annual cap hit. Gauthier has more than $45 million committed to only 13 players for next season, and has five players headed to unrestricted free agency.
His restricted free agents include goaltender Carey Price and defenceman P.K. Subban, of whom he said “we have every intention of keeping with the franchise for a long time. So, in due time, we'll address those contracts.”
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