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Smell test reveals Canadiens stink Print
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Written by Denis Gorman   
Monday, 16 January 2012 17:33

Michael Cammalleri was traded from Montreal for saying the Canadiens have a losing attitude. The results show that he is right and with several salary-cap crippling contracts, it might not improve anytime soon for the Habs.

Denis GormanIf you’re in journalism long enough, you come across a six-word phrase:

Did it pass the smell test?

It did not pass the smell test when Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier traded Michael Cammalleri to the Calgary Flames Thursday night.

Nearly a week later, it still has not passed the smell test.

Gauthier banished Cammalleri to Calgary between periods of Thursday’s 2-1 loss in Boston after the left wing told the French-language newspaper La Presse Wednesday that the Habs “display a losing attitude” and “we prepare for our games like losers.”

Despite his lack of production – nine goals and 22 points in 38 games – it’s tough to argue with Cammalleri. The Habs’ 17-20-8 mark after Sunday night’s 4-1 Bell Centre win over the Rangers ranks 12th  in the East and 24th overall.

Just the lack of on-ice success guarantees this season is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions in La Belle Province. Coupled with myriad off-ice controversies surrounding le bleu blanc et rouge, The Bard would be envious of the near-nightly tragicomedy at 1909 avenue des Canadiens-des-Montreal.  

The first act occurred 20 days into the season. Gauthier fired assistant coach Perry Pearn on Oct. 26 before the Habs’ 5-1 win over the Flyers later that evening. Even with the win, Montreal had lost seven of its first nine games (2-5-2).

Fifty-two days later, Gauthier replaced then-head coach Jacques Martin with Randy Cunneyworth on Dec.17. Martin had a 13-12-7 record this season and a 96-75-25 mark in his 196 games as coach of the Canadiens.

The decision reached by Gauthier and Canadiens owner Geoff Molson was condemned in Montreal because Cunneyworth does not speak French. As our Frank Seravalli noted in his Dec. 28 column, French is the official language in Quebec.   

Two days after the coaching change, Molson acknowledged the obvious in a statement. “Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach."

The Canadiens are 4-8-1 under Cunneyworth’s stewardship.

Not exactly Martin. Not exactly Dick Irvin. Not exactly Toe Blake. Not exactly Scotty Bowman. Hell, it’s not even Mario Tremblay. Tremblay had a record of 71-63-25 in 159 games with the Canadiens spanning the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons it’s not as if Quebecois are racing to erect a statue of the man who unceremoniously dispatched Patrick Roy from Montreal’s crease.

Still, coaches are hired to be fired. Fans, especially those in demanding markets, will guzzle a season’s worth of castor oil if there is a certainty of health in the years ahead. In Montreal, it appears that losing is in an incubation period.

That falls on Gauthier and his predecessor, Bob Gainey.

The Canadiens' payroll is $62.464 million. They are $1.179 million under the cap. But it is hard to see Montreal being players in the 41 days until the trade deadline because of cap-crippling deals given to Tomas Plekanec (six years, $30 million), Brian Gionta (five years, $25 million), Erik Cole (four years, $18 million) and Andrei Markov (three years, $17.25 million). That doesn't include the unfathomable contracts of Scott Gomez (seven years, $51.5 million) and Tomas Kaberle (three years, $12.75 million) that were voluntarily added to the books.

Fans, especially those in demanding markets, will guzzle a season's worth of castor oil if there is a certainty of health in the years ahead. In Montreal, it appears that losing is an incubation period.

The sextet are useful cogs, but are paid as if they are vital to the franchise’s future. In a macabre way, they are. Those deals make it a Sisyphean task for the next general manager to rebuild one of the great franchises in professional sports while signing franchise goaltender Carey Price and defenseman P.K. Subban to long-term deals.

Price seems to be the successor in goal for the Habs, following the lineage that started with Georges Vezina through Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Roy. He will receive a long-term deal, especially after Gauthier traded 2010 playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis.

Subban’s negotiations might be far more fascinating.

Spectacularly talented, he is also one of the league’s most controversial figures – despised league-wide for what his detractors call antics and his advocates call joie de vivre.

Subban's 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) and his even rating are tied for fifth-most and sixth-most on the team, respectively, and he leads the Canadiens with 51 penalty minutes. At its zenith, his game is an intoxicating mix of speed, skill, strength and agitation.

For all of the good Subban brings to a team, there are some negatives.

Rivals across the league have charged Subban with instigating, then skating away when challenged (although he did fight Plekanec during a Jan. 2 practice). There have also been speculation that he is content to engage in cheap shots among other untoward behavior. Video replay showed Subban spit on the ice as New York Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto skated past the Canadiens’ bench following a Habs goal during Sunday’s game.

Subban told Newsday that he “wasn’t spitting at anybody,” and noted that he knows Del Zotto. The Rangers defenseman told the New York Daily News that he didn’t “know what happened. I know nothing about it.”

So when Cammalleri used the word “losers,” it seems like an apt description of the Canadiens.

Yet, there is a positive.

Molson has opened a Twitter account.  

Sacre bleu, mes amis. Sacre bleu.

On Twitter: @HockeyPrimeTime and @DenisGorman

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 January 2012 13:26