The Habs handed the reins to Marc Bergevin on Wednesday, naming the longtime NHL defenseman as their new general manager.
It's uncertain how good Bergevin will be in the new post. It will be his first time running a team. He returns to his hometown after spending the last seven years with the Blackhawks, serving as a scout, assistant coach, director of player personnel and assistant GM. He was the director of player personnel in 2010 when Chicago won its first Cup since 1961, but the Blackhawks have been eliminated in the first round the last two years.
Still, the biggest reason for optimism in Montreal comes from the fact that Bergevin succeeds Pierre Gauthier, which may be the only way to work "Gauthier" and "succeeds" into the same sentence.
In fairness, Gauthier's tenure in Montreal wasn't all bad. After being elevated from assistant GM to the top spot in February, 2010, the Canadiens did make an unlikely run to the Eastern Conference Final that spring as an eighth seed after upsetting top-seeded Washington and defending champion Pittsburgh.
But Gauthier then immediately traded away goalie Jaroslav Halak, the man primarily responsible for that playoff run. The Habs were ousted in the opening round of the playoffs last year, falling to the Bruins after winning the first two games in Boston, then bottomed out this season with a last-place finish in the conference.
Along the way, Gauthier jettisoned Sergei Kostitsyn, otherwise known as the only Kostitsyn brother who actually adheres to curfew. He has scored 40 goals and 93 points in two seasons in Nashville. In return, Montreal received Dustin Boyd, who managed one goal in 10 games before heading to the KHL this season, and Dan Ellis, who signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent two days after being dealt to Montreal.
And that just begins the Gauthier greatest hits list. He also re-signed Andrei Markov to a new three-year deal with a $5.75 million cap hit last summer despite the fact that knee injuries limited him to just seven games in 2010-11 and 45 games the year before. Markov rewarded Gauthier's faith by getting into 13 games this season.
Gauthier filled the void on the blue line by trading for an even worse contract, sending Jaroslav Spacek and his expiring deal to Carolina for Tomas Kaberle, who will clog up $4.25 million a year on Montreal's cap through 2013-14.
At least Gauthier can't be blamed for Montreal's most egregious waste of money. When the Habs acquired Scott Gomez and his $7.357 million cap hit in 2009, Gauthier was just Montreal's assistant GM. That contract is on the books through 2013-14 as well, and it only cost the Canadiens a package that included Ryan McDonagh, now one of the Rangers' top defensemen. Hey, you're not going to get a guy that can go a full calendar year between goals like Gomez without giving up something.
If Gauthier's hockey acumen could be questioned, at least he had impeccable people skills. Sure, he fired assistant coach Perry Pearn just hours before a game in October, then did the same to head coach Jacques Martin in December, but it's not like he'd can a guy during a game. No, he just traded players midgame, as he did one memorable night in Boston when Mike Cammalleri was shipped to Calgary between periods.
Gauthier compounded his mistakes by replacing Martin with Randy Cunneyworth and failing to anticipate the inevitable backlash in Montreal to Cunneyworth's inability to speak French. Gauthier followed that up two weeks later by apologizing to fans for not installing a bilingual coach, undermining any chance Cunneyworth had of succeeding as the Habs' season continued its steady downward spiral.
Cunneyworth isn't faring any better under Bergevin's stewardship, as the new boss made returning Cunneyworth to his post as an assistant coach the first order of business at his introductory press conference on Wednesday. Even that position will be at the discretion of whomever Bergevin hires as the new head coach, leaving Cunneyworth in limbo even longer.
Maybe this new regime won't be any less dysfunctional than the last one after all. Still, it's hard to imagine a repeat of the circus that Gauthier orchestrated. And with the resources available to a GM in a hockey-mad market like Montreal, anything close to competent leadership could make things a lot more difficult for the rest of the teams around the NHL.