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Week 7 in One Word: Fork


/fôrk/ the point where something, especially a road or river, divides into two parts. Similar: branch, split, divide, separate, part, diverge, split in two an implement with two or more prongs used for lifting food to the mouth or holding it when cutting.

Week 7 for the Montreal Canadiens featured three road games. On Wednesday they put on a disinterested display in a 6-3 loss in Washington. Buffalo was the Friday appointment, and the Habs made their hosts look like the Russian Red Army in a 4-1 loss. On Saturday the Habs put on the best performance we have seen in a while in a 6-3 win over Pittsburgh.

I wonder if the players were aware of the developing off-ice story on Saturday night. As they were hitting the ice Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman broke the news that Montreal had permission to talk to former New York Ranger executive, Jeff Gorton. Before the first period was over, AGM Scott Mellanby had resigned.

By Sunday afternoon, Gorton was named Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations. GM Marc Bergevin, AGM Trevor Timmins and Paul Wilson, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs and Communications, were all fired.

Here is how I saw things shake down.

While Americans were sticking a fork in their Thanksgiving turkeys, the Habs were sticking a fork in their season.

As Chris Nilan would say, “the smawt kids” tell us that American Thanksgiving is a significant marker in the NHL schedule. Since 2005-06, about three-quarters of teams in a playoff position on American Thanksgiving weekend tend to still be there when the regular season ends. Conversely, those outside of a playoff spot on Thanksgiving are in a fight with the odds to claw their way back in.

The fan police will scold me, but the math doesn’t lie. The Habs finished Week 7 with a record of 6-15-2 for a total of 14 points. They have just 59 games remaining to achieve the 95+ points necessary to claim a playoff berth. They would need to win about 70% of their games to even come close.

President, CEO and Co-owner of the Montreal Canadiens, Geoff Molson, did some math of his own this weekend, and concluded it was time to put a fork in both this Habs season, as well as the tenure of the Marc Bergevin leadership group.

Sometimes you eat turkey, and sometimes you eat crow.

It wasn’t so long ago that Molson was adamantly declaring he would NOT be hiring a president of hockey operations, a solution that had long long proposed in Montreal. Now here we are with a name plate being carved for Gorton’s door that sounds exactly like a President of Hockey Operations, with more letters.

This is not a criticism. Good on Molson for repenting and going down the right path.

Molson did more than that. He re-evaluated his philosophy and saw a way to bring in a successful executive, while remaining true to his commitment to have a Francophone GM in Montreal. A seasoned Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations (words, words, words) overseeing hockey decisions allows the Habs to hire and develop a young flock of Francophone executives.

Molson humbled himself and made a brilliant move while he was at it.

The Habs came to a fork in the road, and it’s time for everyone to act like it.

Clarity is a gift. There is no need to linger and agonize over the decision. The fork is here, and the path is clear.

The obvious path for the Habs is a strategic tank.

Let me tell you what a strategic tank is not. It’s not just playing to drop in the standings and land the high pick. The Habs have been doing that quite by accident – for the better parts of about a decade now. They have not engaged in one genuine strategic tank in the last nine seasons. Bergevin has moved pending UFAs when out of a playoff position, but that’s not all that’s involved in a strategic tank.

A strategic tank creates a vision of the team moving forward and moves assets to increase the odds of making that vision reality. Veterans are moved in favour of young assets who fit the vision, and/or draft picks. A natural decline occurs, and the high pick is a nice side effect.

I’m minimizing, of course. The high pick is an important part of a strategic tank. But it’s not the only part. The GM should be gathering a volume of picks, as well as trading some veterans for near ready assets.

But the key word in all of it is strategic! The moves must be on purpose and consistent with a vision of where the team is heading. Every game, every assessment, every decision, every second of ice time in the weeks and months ahead need to be driven by that one thing – the vision of where the team is heading.

On February 8, 2018 Jeff Gorton co-authored a letter to Rangers fans. In that letter he gave them a heads up that they were heading into a strategic tank. He painted a vision of the future, and what they would need to acquire to make that vision a reality. He also warned them they couldn’t get there without some good-byes.

I’m not suggesting Gorton’s next letter is currently with the translators. I’m not suggesting he would call what he did a strategic tank – that’s all me. I’m also not convinced the exact path the Rangers took is where the Canadiens have to go.

But I am counting on Gorton to bring some strategy and vision to an organization that has been sorely lacking in this area for a decade.

Strategy and vision are not the first words that come to mind when I think of Bergevin’s tenure.

This is not a review of Bergevin’s tenure with the Habs. He had strengths and deficits. He made good moves and bad. A visionary or a strategist he is not. He is described as working harder than anyone, but with all of his busy-ness it was near impossible to see his vision for the team, or any strategy to his many moves.

Let me remind you of Bergevin’s own words. A tank, strategic or otherwise, is managing like a GM who wants to lose games and, according to him, that would be insane. I don’t believe Bergevin was ready or willing to admit what needed to be done. I’m not even sure he knew the Montreal Canadiens had arrived at a fork in the road.

Molson had come to a similar conclusion. Bergevin was not the man to do what needed to be done. Neither was the guy he recommended, or any of his team. Molson decided to stick a fork in it and acknowledge that era was done.

How do you eat a turkey? One bite at a time.

Desmond Tutu is credited with the proverb. There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time. He was referring to how you approach an enormous task – a little at a time. Jeff Gorton faces an enormous task – to make the Montreal Canadiens consistent Stanley Cup contenders. But that’s not happening overnight.

We’re all focused on the executive search that must be under way. Who will be the next GM? Candidate names are rolling off the lips and keyboards of fans and pundits.

I’m focused on the staff Gorton inherited. What about those executives who didn’t get fired? Where do they fit? I cannot wait to see how Dominique Ducharme coaches on Monday night. He must be feeling a pitchfork at his butt right now. Is there a version of Dom we have not seen under Bergevin?

There is an entire team of players that need to be assessed and tested against Gorton’s vision for the Habs, and that work needs to be done in advance of trade deadline. Some players we love may not fit with the vision. Some may be more valuable for the return they bring that contributes to that vision.

Grab a fork, Mr. Vice President. Dig in.

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