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Hockey Notes

Strain is showing on beleaguered Gainey

By Kevin Paul Dupont
April 26, 2009
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Bob Gainey, always among the game's most composed and gentlemanly characters during his playing days and as a team executive, was uncharacteristically blunt Wednesday night in the moments following the Canadiens' postseason dismissal at the hands of the Bruins.

According to Gainey, his No. 1 goalie, Carey Price, only responded to the Bell Centre crowd's "bullying" when the 21-year-old lifted his arms in frustration upon receiving a Bronx cheer for making a routine stop in the second period.

"If you're not going to stick up for yourself," mused Gainey, Montreal's general manager/coach, "then who is?"

Had he left it there, which is normally how the 55-year-old Gainey would operate, then he would have been fine. But moments later, he was more aggressive in his criticism of Habs fans, recalling how, in his days as Dallas GM, the Stars were able to obtain Darryl Sydor from the Kings.

A coveted first-round pick (No. 7 overall in 1990), Sydor was dealt to Dallas in February 1996 after he became a target of Los Angeles fans, whom Gainey depicted as "rude, obnoxious [expletives]."

Clearly, Gainey was letting Habs fans know what he thought of them, and he offered up Sydor as the cautionary tale, in hopes that the hectoring of Price wouldn't eventually force the franchise to deal him. In Montreal, they've seen the severe and lasting damage of making hasty goalie trades (witness: Patrick Roy to Colorado in December '95).

The next day, in a standard postmortem, Gainey turned his wrath on rookie Tampa GM Brian Lawton. According to Gainey, Lawton leaked to the media the names the two GMs discussed months earlier when Montreal supposedly was on the verge of obtaining Vincent Lecavalier.

"Disgraceful," said Gainey, that Lawton would tell the world that Josh Gorges, Tomas Plekanec, and Chris Higgins were in play and that his players should have to read and hear that in media accounts. It was Lawton's attempt, said Gainey, to gain leverage around the league while shopping for a better deal.

Lawton quickly shot back through the media that Gainey's accusation was "preposterous and simply not true."

What's obvious in it all is that Gainey, highly respected among his peers and in the media, is chirping like never before, likely because he is feeling the heat like never before in his some six years in the corner office.

The Canadiens have been constant postseason disappointments during Gainey's tenure (which included a DNQ in '07), and his overall plan to let so many of his best players reach unrestricted free agency this July 1 no doubt worked against team chemistry all year. The club is for sale - in part why so many of the players are now UFAs - and it is also without a coach. Gainey sacked Guy Carbonneau late in the season. He also was the GM who canned Claude Julien, the guy parked behind the Boston bench for the four-game sweep of Club CH.

No telling how all of it plays out in the next few weeks, especially with George Gillett looking to sell (Gillett, by the way, made a point to seek out Julien for a handshake in the hallway). To see Gainey so edgy, after leading a life and career so sotto voce, it would not be surprising if he were to step down and leave it to the next guy in charge to manage the roster, along with those oft-unrealistic expectations in Montreal.

Keep in mind that superstar singer Celine Dion could end up buying Gillett's controlling interest in the club. Dion is pals with Avalanche president Pierre Lacroix, busy himself these days with his search to replace Francois Giguere as GM.

If Dion buys the Habs, she could try to entice Lacroix back to La Belle Province, where he was a player agent prior to taking over the Avalanche (nee Nordiques) front office. Perhaps she can also serenade some sense into the Habs' loyal followers, whose passion, though admirable, is often fanatical to the point of farcical.

No teeth in Sharks' game

The odds didn't look favorable last night for the Sharks as they headed into Game 5 of their series with the Ducks. Jumbo Joe Thornton and his friends, who lost the first two games in San Jose, looked listless, frustrated, and passionless during their 4-0 loss in Game 4 Thursday night, leaving them in a 3-1 series deficit.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, of the 233 teams faced with a 3-1 deficit in Stanley Cup history prior to this season, only 20 (8.6 percent) averted elimination in Game 5. Thornton, the former Bruins centerpiece, was particularly ineffective in the first four games, registering but two assists and a minus-4 (three of those negatives came in the Game 4 flop).

"He was aimlessly wandering, all night," said Mike Milbury, the NESN and CBC commentator. "No purpose to his game. No energy. It's really sad. And I don't see how Steve Yzerman [Team Canada's general manager] can pick him for the Canadian Olympic team - not off of what he's shown again in the postseason."

Thornton, according to reports out of Anaheim Thursday night, made himself unavailable to the media after the loss. He has never played for a team that has been able to win more than one postseason round, and going into last night, his career playoff ledger read: 74 games, 11-39 -50, roughly 30 percent below his career regular-season average.

"My bottom line is effort," said Milbury. "If a guy doesn't use effort, then all bets are off."

Not that Jumbo Joe has been alone among the Sharks' underperformers. Captain Patrick Marleau, who stood as the face of the franchise prior to Thornton's arrival, carried but 1 point (a goal) into Game 5. Thornton at least had 11 shots, while Marleau had landed only a half-dozen.

As Sharks coach Todd McLellan noted prior to Game 4: "We're still waiting for some players to play better. [The media] can guess or anticipate who they might be."

Following the Game 4 loss, McLellan added, "I'm not surprised that [the Ducks were] hungry. I'm disappointed that we weren't. That's the only word I can use: disappointed. I think our character was questioned tonight."

Brass tacks
The only official general manager openings at the moment are in Denver and St. Paul, and all the usual names, some without a shot (such as CBC analyst Pierre McGuire), are making the rounds. In Denver, ex-Boston goalie Craig Billington, now only six years after hanging up his pads, is considered the early favorite to replace Francois Giguere. In St. Paul, where the turfing of Doug Risebrough was a surprise, the sleeper could be assistant GM Tom Lynn, ex- of Yale, who came to the Wild originally on the recommendation of NHL headquarters in New York. Look for Rick Dudley, now part of the Chicago cognoscenti, to be given a good look at all GM openings. A tireless worker with a career centered on knowing player personnel, Duds performed well in his front office stints with Ottawa, Tampa, and Florida - where it was always important to be on budget.

Deep pockets
No one has more money to spend than the Canadiens in this summer's free agent market. Les Glorieux have committed roughly $30 million to 16 players next season. If they spend to the expected salary cap, they'll have some $25 million or more to spend on seven players. Of course, if they manage to swing that big deal for Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier, he alone would eat up $7.7 million of that dough.

Changing the Oil
Among the names being bandied about as next coach in Edmonton: Todd Richards (now on the San Jose coaching staff) and Brent Peterson (Nashville). Bruins assistant coach Geoff Ward also could get a look from the Oil. He had a job in place as head coach in Springfield (AHL) for the Oilers when Claude Julien tapped him for a job here two summers ago.

The shootists
Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin led the field with 545 shots on net in 2008-09, and he also led in total shots taken, 1,069, of which 296 were blocked and 228 missed the net. No. 2, Carolina's Eric Staal, landed 382 of 661, had 137 blocked and missed with 142. Tops for the Bruins: Zdeno Chara (444 total, 30th in the league), with 225 on net, 125 blocked, and 94 off net.

Loose pucks
Don't bet against Jim Benning, Peter Chiarelli's assistant GM on Causeway Street, getting a few feelers for GM vacancies . . . Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick, who had his spleen removed last Saturday, was released from Massachusetts General Hospital Tuesday night and likely will begin very light off-ice workouts (bike riding, stretching) in the next week or two. "It's a good chance he'll be back if we can get to the finals," said Chiarelli . . . The Red Wings-Blue Jackets series had the expected outcome, a sweep by the Winged Wheels. But it was even more thorough than expected, with the Wings not trailing for as much as one second. "You can't even imagine that," said Wings coach Mike Babcock, noting how hard the Jackets play, the quality of their goaltending (Steve Mason), and power winger Rick Nash's prowess. It was only the 15th time in league history that a club completed a four-game sweep without ever trailing . . . Todd McLellan, the Sharks coach, tried seven line combinations at even strength in Game 4 in hopes of shaking his team's doldrums . . . Five years after signing with the Flyers once his contract expired in Boston, Mike Knuble is a free agent again July 1. The big winger will be 37 July 4, but still has enough overall game and net presence to help teams, although he likely won't see the $2.8 million he averaged these last two seasons with the Broad Streeters. He played all 82 games this season and potted 27 goals . . . Jeremy Roenick figures Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer may be the best defenseman he's ever seen. High praise, especially considering it came with the Ducks holding the series lead over JR's Sharks. "And," said JR, "I hate him right now."

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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