BROSSARD, Que. -- The Geoff Molson Era in Montreal has begun in earnest.
Just over two years after taking over as owner, CEO and president of the Canadiens, Molson made his biggest move to date Thursday when he fired general manager Pierre Gauthier and brought in former GM Serge Savard to help in his search for a successor.
Molson said he wanted to re-establish the "winning culture" of the Montreal Canadiens organization, one that has won by far the most Stanley Cup titles in the NHL with 24, but one that also is in the midst of its longest Cup drought ever at 19 years and counting.
"Montreal is one of the best places to play hockey in the world, and our fans deserve the best possible team on the ice," Molson said during his opening statement at a press conference at the Canadiens' suburban Montreal practice facility. "The Montreal Canadiens is a storied franchise, often cited as one of the best sports organizations in the world. Our 24 Stanley Cups are a testament to this. However, the traits that are common to all successful organizations have been lacking in recent years."
"Many fans have asked what our strategy is. It's one thing, and it's one thing only -- to have a winning organization. Just qualifying for the playoffs cannot be our goal or our standard. Not for this team, not for this organization. This organization going forward must set its sights on competing for the game's ultimate prize every season, and no lesser standard should be accepted." -- Geoff Molson
"It is my responsibility to identify solutions and to rebuild the winning culture that this franchise's fans, its history and its tradition demand," Molson said.
In addition to Gauthier's departure, Molson announced that Gainey no longer would be serving as an advisor to the club -- a decision Molson said was mutual.
"We felt that the direction of the club needed to change from a hockey standpoint," Molson said.
Gainey and Gauthier have shaped the direction of the Canadiens for nine years, but Molson admitted that while the team has had nominal success during their reign, it was not good enough to meet the lofty demands he has set for the franchise.
"We need to remember that our fans want us to win -- period," Molson said. "Our organizational culture needs to support and adopt this passion for victory. Nothing else matters. Many fans have asked what our strategy is. It's one thing, and it's one thing only -- to have a winning organization. Just qualifying for the playoffs cannot be our goal or our standard. Not for this team, not for this organization. This organization going forward must set its sights on competing for the game's ultimate prize every season, and no lesser standard should be accepted."
Gauthier had held his current position since Feb. 8, 2010, when he replaced Gainey. The Canadiens finished eighth in the Eastern Conference that season, but led by goalie Jaroslav Halak, they upset the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the conference finals, where they lost in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Last season, the Canadiens finished sixth in the East with 96 points, and after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Boston Bruins in the first round, they fell in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
Molson said the process of finding a new GM with Savard's help begins immediately, and that it will remain entirely confidential. However, when hiring a GM in Montreal, the question of language is impossible to ignore. When asked numerous times whether the next GM will need to speak French, Molson appeared to place the emphasis on winning.
"The priority is to find the best person possible to help us win," Molson said in French. "Having said that, it is important that the new GM be able to speak French. But the No. 1 priority is to find the best person for the job."
However, just after Molson finished speaking to reporters, Savard was far more adamant about the language criteria of the new GM in speaking with several media outlets.
"Let's be clear on one thing -- he'll speak French," Savard told French-language all-sports station TV network RDS. "I think it is absolutely essential in a market that is 80-percent Francophone that the next GM not necessarily be Francophone -- because we can't place that limitation on it -- but that he at least be able to speak an acceptable level of French."
Thursday's announcement is the latest entry in what has been a tumultuous season in Montreal.
It began last summer when Gauthier decided to give top defenseman Andrei Markov a three-year, $17.25 million contract even though the health of his reconstructed knee was a source of serious concern. On the first day of training camp, Gauthier said that if Markov was not ready for opening night, he would be ready soon thereafter. Ultimately, Markov did not play until March 10, long after the Canadiens had fallen out of playoff contention.
In part because of Markov's absence, the Canadiens had their worst start to a season in 70 years. Their record was 1-5-2 when Gauthier decided 90 minutes before an Oct. 26 home game against the Flyers to fire assistant coach Perry Pearn -- against the wishes of Martin.
Montreal subsequently went on a four-game winning streak to get back to the .500 mark, and they were 13-12-7 when Martin was fired Dec. 17, prior to the morning skate on the day of a game against the New Jersey Devils.
Gauthier named assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth as Martin’s interim replacement that day, setting off a firestorm of criticism in Montreal because Cunneyworth does not speak French, making him the first unilingual Anglophone coach of the Canadiens in decades.
After Cunneyworth lost seven of his first 10 games and with the Canadiens trailing the Bruins 2-1 after two periods in Boston on Jan. 12, Gauthier pulled Mike Cammalleri from the game because he had been traded to the Calgary Flames.
Aside from his language limitations, Cunneyworth has been unable to right the Canadiens' ship and enters Friday's game against the Rangers in New York with a 16-22-7 record.
"There's a lot of stuff that has gone on this year that can be considered distractions," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "But there's always going to be something. If it's not a coach getting fired, it's a player doing something, or something happening on the way to the rink. There are always circumstances that will get you off your game. It's our job as professionals to play through that. … We faced a lot of it this year, probably more than most teams. But it's not an excuse for us to roll over and die."
In another move, Larry Carriere returned to his post as assistant GM; he had been working as an assistant coach. Replacing Carriere on the bench is goaltending coach Pierre Groulx.
Whoever comes in as the new GM will be left with some interesting pieces to build around.
Montreal's starting goaltender (Carey Price), top defenseman (P.K. Subban) and top forward (Max Pacioretty) are 25 years old or younger. Assuming Markov can return to his pre-injury form, he will be part of a veteran group that also will include Gorges, captain Brian Gionta, Erik Cole, and Tomas Plekanec. In addition, David Desharnais, 25, busted out with a tremendous season, while Lars Eller, just 22, scored 16 goals this season and is progressing well in his development.
The new GM will also be saddled with some expensive, long-term contracts for veteran players who have underperformed this season, such as Scott Gomez, Tomas Kaberle and Rene Bourque.
But the one parting gift Gauthier left his successor was collecting seven picks in the first two rounds of the 2012 and 2013 NHL drafts -- including a first-round pick in 2012 that has a strong chance of falling in the top three, two second-round picks in 2012 and three second-round picks in 2013.
"Most organizations have experienced a disappointing season like ours this year," Molson said. "However, I look at this as an opportunity to emerge even stronger with a focus on consistency, stability and, most importantly, on-ice success."