Feb 15th, 2012; Montreal, QC, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward Scott Gomez (11) skates on the Canadien

On the end of Gomez's Habs career

Today, Marc Bergevin told Scott Gomez to stay home and not play, pending an amnesty buyout of his contract this summer.

Gomez was not the most popular Habs among the fans, to put it mildly, so there was a lot of rejoicing about this bit of news. Three explanations have been offered for that decision. The first two are that Scott Gomez had a bad attitude that would be a distraction if he remained than the team, and that the Habs are a better team without Scott Gomez than with him. They’re both easy-to-understand, and loaded with a certain vindictiveness towards Gomez due to his poor results and the successes of Ryan McDonagh, the most prominent asset he was traded for, with the Rangers. And the third, descirbed by Bergevin himself in his press conference, had Gomez sitting to guarantee he was not going to be injured playing, which could have put a planned amnesty buyout in jeopardy.

Let’s go over these potential motivations. First, eliminating a player for bad attitude. Here’s a list of the trades under Gainey and Gauthier since the lockout, that we know or can reasonably infer were aimed at eliminating a problematic attitude from the dressing room:

  • July 12, 2006 – Richard Zednik traded to Washington Capitals for a 3rd round pick (Olivier Fortier) in 2007
  • September 30, 2006 – Mike Ribeiro and a 6th round pick (Matthew Tassone) in 2008 traded to Dallas Stars for Janne Niinimaa and a 5th round pick (Andrew Conboy) in 2007
  • July 3, 2008 – Mikhail Grabovski traded to Toronto Maple Leafs for Greg Pateryn and a 2nd round pick (Jared Knight – Boston) in 2010 which was later traded to Chicago, back to Toronto and then to Boston in the Phil Kessel deal
  • November 23, 2009 – Guillaume Latendresse traded to Minnesota Wild for Benoit Pouliot
  • June 29, 2010 – Sergei Kostitsyn and future considerations traded to Nashville Predators for Dan Ellis, Dustin Boyd and future considerations (two expiring UFA contracts)
  • December 31, 2010 – Maxim Lapierre traded to Anaheim Ducks for Brett Festerling and a 5th Round pick in 2012 which was later traded back to Anaheim for Paul Mara (February 17, 2011)
  • January 13, 2011 – Michael Cammalleri and a 5th round pick in 2012 traded to Calgary Flames for Rene Bourque and a 2nd Round pick in 2013
Those weren’t very good transactions, were they? Throughout all those trades the Habs shed a sizable number of quality players and got practically nothing in return, with Niniimaa, Pouilot and Bourque the only players to even log any games in a Habs uniform. All those transactions were to the Habs detriment. Meanwhile the players traded — Ribeiro, Grabovski, Kostitsyn, Zednik… all went on to have useful careers with other teams, sometimes even becoming top players with their teams. It could easily be argued that the number one failing of the Gainey and Gauthier regimes was this tendency to make transactions to get rid of “troublesome” players, an odd philosophy of addition by subtraction that never actually did anything to improve the club on the ice. To an extent, this became the defining trait of the Gainey and Gauthier regimes, and one of the factors that directly led to Gauthier’s replacement with Bergevin.
In fact, absent from this list is the Great Offseason Purge of 2009, in which Gainey allowed several UFA contracts to lapse in order to “clear the air” of his dressing room and letting go of players such as long-time captain Saku Koivu. This great offseason purge led, ironically, to this questionable transaction:
  • June 30, 2009 – Chris Higgins, Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko traded to New York Rangers for Scott Gomez, Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto

The very fact that the Habs have Gomez at is related to this mentality of getting rid of “bad attitudes”, in this case, because Gainey decided not to change the identity of his club by not re-signing Saku Koivu. It is this mentality that, we must hope, the change of leadership at the helm of the Habs was going to evacuate. If Bergevin is as worried about image, attitude, and distractions as his predecessors, then he’s pretty much “Gainey/Gauthier part 3, now without experience”. It would be a sad irony indeed, given how Bergevin is cast as a breath of fresh air in contrast with his two predecessors, if he were to start emulating their foremost mistake.

Then there’s the notion that removing Gomez from the lineup makes the Canadiens better. Let’s get one thing out of the way right away: Petteri Nokelainen is not a better hockey player than Scott Gomez. Nor are any of the players that may end up taking his spot in the roster, with the possible exception of Alex Galchenyuk — who, as bright as his future is, still has zero professional games to his name. Scott Gomez, for all his warts, remained a useful player in 2012-2013, able to maintain positive puck possession at even strength (52.6%) and remaining mostly neutral chance-wise (119 for, 122 against), no mean feat considering he was injured for much of Jacques Martin’s early tenure and played most of his 2012-2013 season late in the Cunneyworth era, when the team was mostly playing out the string. In fact, as we’ll remember, Gomez’s second injury coincided with the plunge that led to Jacques Martin’s firing and the final derailment of the Canadiens’ season. This is not to say that Gomez was vital to the successes of the team, or that his impact justified his massive cap hit. But compared to his replacements and without consideration of salary and cap hit, Gomez was undoubtedly a net positive.

This is not to say Bergevin’s decision to send Gomez home is unreasonable. The third explanation, the one given by the Habs GM himself, is quite sound. Due to the cap situation of the Habs for next season, the amnesty buyout of Gomez was inevitable and necessary; there’s no conceivable way in which the Habs can fit under the cap with all the players they have under contract, so they have to shed salary, and Gomez’s big paycheck and relatively small cash outlay is an obvious and natural candidate (indeed, the contract was originally structured as it was to make buying out the last couple of years easier). If Gomez had gotten injured while skating in the Habs’ employ during the season, and was on IR during the buyout period (a distinct possibility given his wonky groin), then per the CBA, the Habs would not have been allowed to buy him out. Not only would they have had to shed the salary of some other player instead (possibly even someone they’d have preferred to keep), but they would have had to carry Gomez next year as well. It’s possible they could have been able to make ends meet anyway by buying out, say, Kaberle and Bourque instead, but the savings would have been smaller and their margin for 2013-2014 would have been much narrower.

If the Habs had removed Gomez from their lineup with the goal of improving their team, or because of Gomez’s “bad attitude”, then the decision would have led to justified questioning of the organization. But I think the premature dismissal of Gomez is exactly what Bergevin says it was: a radical, expensive risk reduction move, and as such, it speaks of a certain shrewd, uncompromising ruthlessness, one that is curiously at odds with the re-signing of an old soldier like Bouillon. The decision reflects accepting short-term pain to safeguard long-term gain. It’s sound reasoning, if one is very risk-averse vis-à-vis the cap next year, and given that situation, it’s not a bad position to take.

It does, however, suggest that the Habs brass holds no great hope, or interest, for the results of this season.

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