Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What sort of owners are they? The Molson test

With the injury to Mike Cammalleri, who’s expected to be out about six weeks with an MCL sprain, the Molson family under Geoff Molson, not Habs GM Bob Gainey operating in a bubble has a decision to make in the next 48-72 hours. Make a move similar to Calgary and execute a panic trade... or two... in an attempt to save the season and try for a round of playoff revenue, praying for more OR... accept the fact this season is an apparition caused by the 3rd highest loss of player salary due to injury in the entire league, sell-off and re-tool for one year?

To the casual fan that sits at home most games and only pays for their RDS HD package... and perhaps a few beers from the local Dépanneur it’s an easy decision; sell-off, tank for the next three to five years and start watching the Habs again when they’re a serious contender. For Geoff Molson and family who just paid $575 Million to buy the Montreal Canadiens, the Centre Bell and the Gillett Entertainment Group and who have the 2nd highest ticket prices in the NHL generating at least $63 Million (via Forbes) in gate revenue alone, the answer isn’t nearly so simple.

And that’s what a lot of Montreal’s media are completely out of touch about. The same media, who like the casual fan doesn't actually pay for season tickets and in the case of most, don’t buy any tickets at all. Instead we get to listen to the likes of Tony Marinaro on Team 990 in Montreal treat callers who are season ticket holders like they’re stupid, ignorant fools or any other combination of slag that best describes a chump for putting up their hard-earned money to watch the Habs play. It’s that belief which is truly ignorant.

For the Molson family who just spent $575 Million in hard economic times, there’s a great desire to make the playoffs and earn at least one round of playoff revenue. Desire that may put pressure on the Canadiens Management group to make unwise hockey decisions in an attempt to save the season with little regard for the future. We’ve seen it unfold in Calgary and it could easily repeat itself in several other NHL cities before the trade deadline passes.

More than anything, I feel this is the first real test of the Molson family. Are they a calm ownership group like George Gillett and the elder Molsons who once were the envy of the league? Will they take the long view, recognize that their rank in the standings is more a reflection of the injuries endured this season and understand that now with the long-term loss of Mike Cammalleri, there’s no rental or other short term fix who can replace his offense, let alone improve on the NHL’s worst 5 on 5 offense that had Cammalleri in the line-up. Not without significant concessions in assets.

Will Geoff Molson put pressure on his General Manager, one he inherited to do whatever is necessary to secure a playoff spot? Make the playoffs and remain GM, miss them and be fired for not delivering? A scapegoat for all that went wrong this season; significant injuries and a failure of the secondary scoring group to step up. A group that, for the most part were the only forwards Bob Gainey didn’t purge this past summer.

If the Molsons are patient and wise they would use this season and only this season to re-tool the team. An 8.10% chance of winning the 1st pick in the June Draft and having choice between Hall and Seguin is just two points away entering tonight’s game against Vancouver. Two points. Problem is, to the casual observer and the Canadiens’ book-keepers, the Habs are just one point out of a playoff spot.

How will the Molson family and Geoff Molson in particular react to the fact that Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri are gone for at least the next seven games and that barring any setbacks, Cammalleri will likely only return to the line-up with less than a dozen games to play before the playoffs? Obviously a decision on the season will have to be made long before that happens. After tonight, the Habs play six games against Eastern conference teams with a huge game coming against the Bruins on Thursday, in Boston before they break for the Olympics.

How the Canadiens look going into the Boston game will be telling about what sort of discussions Geoff Molson had with GM Bob Gainey and what decisions were made as a result. And it’s important to understand that in the Cap era especially, no major decisions are made without consultation with ownership. If the mandate is to save the season, they won’t go into that game under-manned as they are tonight against Vancouver. Instead, expect a trade for an impact UFA rental or short term contract with Bob Gainey’s job on the line should they fail to qualify for the post-season.

If the Habs travel to Boston with no outside roster moves or just a marginal trade acquisition I think it’ll signal the team’s intention to play the season out, draft high and sell-off before the trade deadline. Bob Gainey will remain as GM (should he choose) and preparations will begin to move Jacques Martin into upper management of the Canadiens and open the door for Guy Boucher, perhaps as soon as next season. The right plays in my opinion.

Given the situation the Habs are in, I feel there would be wide acceptance from corporate box owners, corporate season ticket holders as well as the individual/season-ticket buyers to tolerate a one year re-tooling of the Canadiens. It’s an opportunity to make the best of a bad, yet temporary situation that would help set the team up to have the best chance at future success. What happens next will tell us a lot about what sort of ownership group we have with the Molson family and Geoff Molson in particular.