MONTREAL - Almost five months after taking over behind the bench and announcing that Guy Carbonneau would be the Canadiens' new head coach beginning in 2006-07, Bob Gainey officially handed the reins to his former teammate Friday morning.
"I didn't see the point of immediately dropping Guy into boiling water, when we could instead put him in and then warm it up gently," said a prophetic Gainey back on Jan. 14 when he first introduced Carbonneau as his coach-in-waiting.
As predicted by Gainey, the heat was certainly turned up over the course of the second half of the season, which saw the Canadiens claw their way into the playoffs before putting quite a scare into the Hurricanes in the opening round of the postseason.
No strangers to wearing the same colors, Gainey and Carbonneau held court with the media seated side-by-side in matching Canadiens golf shirts as they outlined their shared vision of what lies ahead for the team.
"We're satisfied and we're not satisfied," admitted Gainey when asked to grade what his young team managed to accomplish. "I think our group came pretty close to its potential. The next step for us now is to continue to assist in the development of our young players who all can and will be better."
The strides made by the Canadiens' impressive crop of rookies has Carbonneau eager to see what the future will bring for the likes of Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Alexander Perezhogin.
"We made a lot of progress since January and the young guys who were knocking on the door showed a lot of good things right until the end," said Carbonneau. "The experience that our young guys got this year will definitely help them heading into next season. We're headed in the right direction and I don't think we're that far off. We only need to add a few elements."
Those adjustments will be in the hands of Gainey, who will hardly get the chance to catch his breath before now shifting his focus to the free agent market.
When asked to choose from a list of potentially available players, from a power forward, to a goal scorer to a tough and rugged defenseman, Carbonneau responded with a heartfelt question of his own.
"Can we have them all?" he smiled.
While the Canadiens will be competing with 29 other teams once NHL GMs get the green light to start shopping on July 1, Gainey likes Montreal's chances of wooing the players of their choice.
"Now, more than ever, in Montreal we hold an advantage over all other cities," said Gainey. "The support our fans have shown us all year, the energy that exists in our building and the atmosphere in this city say it all.
"In Montreal, people care. And if you care, then there is nowhere else to play in the NHL," vowed Gainey. "There might be other places, but there's no place better.
"If the pressure, the expectations and the passion are too much, or if Montreal is too lively and spicy for you," added Gainey, "then this isn't the place for you."
Carbonneau knows a thing or two about what hockey in Montreal entails. Not only did he spend the first 13 years of his career with the Canadiens, he even reappeared behind the bench not once, but twice.
"I've played for and worked with a lot of coaches over the years and I've learned a lot everywhere I've been," admitted Carbonneau, who served as an assistant coach with Montreal under fiery Michel Therrien from 2000 through 2002 before working alongside his stoic current GM.
"Let's just say that Bob's temperament is a little different from Michel's," quipped Carbonneau as the jam-packed press conference room erupted with laughter. "I figure I'll end up somewhere in between."
Now that he has officially turned his Canadiens practice whistle and clipboard over to Carbonneau, Gainey took the time to reflect on his return behind an NHL bench.
"It was a good learning and re-learning experience that will certainly help me in my decisions over the next few months," said Gainey before firing off one final parting shot. "Working closely with the players is something that I really enjoyed. But I haven't heard anything about back about whether they enjoyed working with me."
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com