Stu Cowan: Jeff Gorton is pulling the strings in Canadiens' rebuild

“We’re always looking to be better,” he says. “We’re always looking for a trade that would be really helpful to move this thing along.”

Article content

With so much of the focus on head coach Martin St. Louis and GM Kent Hughes during the NHL season, it can be easy to forget Jeff Gorton is the main man behind this Canadiens’ rebuilding plan.

The first step in the rebuild came on Nov. 28, 2021, when team owner/president Geoff Molson fired Marc Bergevin as GM and hired Gorton for the new position of executive vice-president of hockey operations.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

Now we turn the page,” Molson said at the time. “A fresh start. I strongly believe that this organization needs a fresh start.”

It was Gorton who made the decision two months later to hire Kent Hughes as GM and then to fire head coach Dominique Ducharme less than a month after that, replacing him with Martin St. Louis.

Gorton said his first goal in his new position was to bring the Canadiens into “modernized hockey” and he has done that by building an analytics department led by Christopher Boucher and improving player development with the hiring of Adam Nicholas as director of hockey development.

A big reason why Molson hired Gorton is because he had experience rebuilding a team as GM of the New York Rangers. In February 2018, Gorton and Rangers team president Glen Sather wrote a letter to New York fans explaining they were going to start a rebuild that would be focused on adding “young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character.”

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Patience is the key in any rebuild, but Rangers owner James Dolan didn’t have much. Just over three years after the New York rebuild started — and two days after the Rangers had been eliminated from playoff contention in the 56-game COVID-shortened season with a 26-21-6 record — Dolan fired Gorton. The Rangers had the youngest roster in the NHL at the time with eight rookies in the lineup.

The next season, the Rangers had a 52-24-6 record and advanced to the Eastern Conference final. Last season, they had a 47-22-13 record before losing in the first round of the playoffs. This season, they have a 45-20-4 record and are in first place in the Metropolitan Division.

This is only the second full season of the Canadiens’ rebuild, but some fans are already starting to lose patience — if they ever had any to start with. It certainly seems like Molson will be much more patient than Dolan was, which is a good thing.

There are reasons for hope with the Canadiens’ rebuild. Hughes solved the three-goalie mess by trading Jake Allen to the New Jersey Devils, allowing the Canadiens to move forward with Samuel Montembeault and Cayden Primeau with 19-year-old Jacob Fowler waiting in the wings with a 27-5-1 record, a 2.23 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage this season as a freshman at Boston College. The Canadiens are already loaded with young defencemen with David Reinbacher, Logan Mailloux and Lane Hutson working their way up.

Advertisement 4

Article content

The biggest challenge moving forward will be finding more forwards who can score. In New York, Gorton was able to sign Artemi Panarin as a free agent in the summer of 2019. The 32-year-old Russian winger has 38-56-94 totals this season to rank fifth in NHL scoring.

“Kent and I spent a lot of time and (with) Marty talking about when’s the right time to go that way — maybe it’s free agency, maybe it’s a huge trade,” Gorton said Wednesday when he was on The Sick Podcast with Jimmy Murphy and Pierre McGuire. “I think you’re always looking for something to add. We’re always looking to be better, we’re always looking for a trade that would be really helpful to move this thing along.

“You get a player (like Panarin) that gets 90-100 points, it kind of helps your lineup move it forward,” Gorton added. “Those are the things you have to decide. Listen, it wasn’t 100 per cent unanimous we got to get the Bread Man (Panarin). It was like: Hey, are we ready for this? We had a lot of conversations about that. I think that’s where we’ll be this summer, try to figure out who’s there, who’s out there to add. Those are the kind of things. But you’re always looking. We’re very mindful how hard it is to find skill. So we’ll be looking for that.

Advertisement 5

Article content

“There’s a lot of things that happened there that are happening now (with the Canadiens),” Gorton added. “As you build a team, you’re trying to build a team and put people in these spots and see if it works. Having that and knowing some of the deals we made, some of the players we brought into New York and how it’s worked out and what kind of team they have, it certainly gives me confidence going forward to know that we can handle it here in Montreal, too.”

While Gorton was surprised and disappointed to get fired by the Rangers, he’s happy now in Montreal.

“I had a wise man once tell me: ‘If you were still there you couldn’t be here,’” he said on the Sick Podcast. “So that’s how I look at things going forward.”

[email protected]

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 6

Article content

Article content