MONTREAL - Rebuilding isn't a word in Bob Gainey's vocabulary these days. The Canadiens' GM made that abundantly clear, and he plans to prove exactly that this summer.
"All of us getting together today has more to do with me than Guy," began Gainey at his year-end press conference with his head coach Guy Carbonneau by his side. "I'm on the podium here and I will take the responsibility of talking to all of you about this past season and what we expect for next year."
Candid as always, Gainey didn't mince words about his team's struggles and their eventual missing out on the playoffs. Encouraged by the great strides made by his young players like Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, Andrei Kostitsyn and Jaroslav Halak, Gainey also heard his captain Saku Koivu's concerns about being on a rebuilding team loud and clear.
"We are not a rebuilding team," vowed Gainey. "We are a team who can supply Saku with the kind of team that will give him the opportunity to be a champion. It's now up to us to prove to our players and those around the league that such goals can be attained here in Montreal."
While he may not own a Stanley Cup ring just yet, Koivu certainly doesn't act like it according to his GM, who owns six of his own from his playing days with the Habs.
"Koivu is a champion," Gainey said. "He thinks like a champion, trains like a champion, acts like a champion, and one day he will win one. The success of our young players is thanks to leaders like Koivu being there to show them the way. They can't develop on their own. It takes players around them that put the team first, like Koivu."
As for his impression of what the Canadiens did and didn't do in 2006-07, Gainey held nothing back.
"I'm going to tell you exactly what I told the players this week," said Gainey. "We were a team with several important imbalances. We were incredibly strong in some areas and weak in others. We improved our play five-on-five down the stretch, we got stronger, played smarter and we almost got to the playoffs."
Seeing the Islanders slither their way into the playoffs with two less wins than Montreal's 42 victories wasn't much fun either. Speaking of 42 wins, the previous high for victories in a non-playoff year for the Habs was 38 set back in 1969-70.
The consensus from the players was that despite what the final standings may indicate, the 2006-07 Canadiens were in fact a playoff team. Their general manager and head coach agree, but that doesn't make being on the outside looking in at this time of year an easier pill to swallow.
"I'm as disappointed as all of you to be meeting so early like this," admitted Carbonneau. "I'm just going to work even harder so that when we meet next year it will be in June, not April."
With his first season as head coach now under his belt, Carbonneau has clearly been bitten by the coaching bug and is already counting the days until the opening of training camp.
"As a father I have two kids, but as a coach I have 25 kids and that was new to me," explained Carbonneau. "Being a coach isn't easy but I had a lot of fun and I'm already looking forward to next year.
"I learned a lot, something new almost every day," said Carbonneau. "I'm an emotional person. That's the way I played and that's the way I coach. I don't like to lose and that made me a good player and I hope it will make me a better coach."
As for Gainey's lengthy to-do list, including his impending unrestricted free agents, none loom larger than his defensive pillars Sheldon Souray and Andrei Markov.
"The reason I didn't trade Sheldon at the deadline is that we want to keep him with us right here in Montreal," said Gainey. "We'll work on holding onto our guys and we're hoping to take a few names off the list of players who will be available on July 1."
The players may have cleaned out their lockers this week signifying the beginning of their offseason, but this summer will be anything but that for Gainey and the Canadiens' braintrust.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com