Sunday, 13 January 2013

Adios Amigo: Canadiens' part ways with Cup winner

Earlier today, many Hab-fans got their wish as Scott Gomez tenure in Montreal ended. As day one of the Canadiens' abbreviated training camp opened, General Manager Marc Bergevin made the announcement that Gomez was being sent home and would be bought out in the summer.

After an early morning meeting with the "professional" Gomez, Bergevin informed the media of his decision whch he felt was "the best decision for the good of the team."

Gomez long time friend and teammate, Captain Brian Gionta was the first to hear the news from Head Coach Michel Therrien shortly before he too was swarmed by reporters.

“As a teammate, as a friend it’s tough to see,” said Gionta.

“He wants to play and, you know, to have that taken away is a tough thing for sure.”
“We’ll do whatever we can to support him,” Gionta added. “It’s just an unfortunate thing in the game that happens.”

As he arrived in Montreal late last week in anticipation of training camp, Gomez gave the Montreal Gazette's Dave Stubbs a lengthy interview intent on shedding the ire of fans towards his astronimical $7 million plus cap hit. "I’m here to play for the Montreal Canadiens and I’m here to help the team win. My dad gave me the greatest advice: “Make them keep you. Make them play you.” That’s every year you go into. I’m happy to be back and a buyout is the last thing on my mind. I’m here to help the team win in whatever capacity they want. I’m going to give my all." Gomez will not see that chance.

Gomez has been far from totally unproductive during his Montreal tenure, amassing 126 points in 222 games played. Not statistics that scream superstar player, but not statistics at first glance that are embarrassing - until you figure in the contract. Gomez' contract was and is an albatross in a salary cap world, paying him a salary he can never live up to.  

McKeen's Rick Springhetti, a Hockey Scout by trade, believes the issues that have plagued Gomez in recent years are mental. "I think things went downhill after he signed that huge deal with the Rangers. It's as if he knew that he just couldn't justify his huge deal and started to run around the ice trying to do everything at once."

Scott Gomez is overpaid. There's no nice way to say it. There were two teams however - New York and Montreal - that saw some value in him. New York gave him the contract to start, and later the Habs picked it up. Whether Canadiens' brass at the time felt he was overpaid or not could be up for debate. What cannot be debated however, is that Canadiens brass felt that Scott Gomez could be their number 1 Center to replace Saku Koivu.

Scott Gomez came to the National Hockey league just in time for the 1999-2000 season. With 19 goals and 51 assists, Gomez was named an all-star and eventually won the Rookie of the year. His numbers tailed off in the playoffs that season where he notched 10 points en route to his first of two Stanley Cups with the Devils. In 2003-2004, Gomez tied for the league lead in assists with 56.

After the NHL lockout in 04-05, Gomez came back to the Devils in 05-06 and had a career year. During the abbreviated lockout of this season, Gomez went back to Alaska to play with his hometown team The Aces of the ECHL. Just like he did during the last lockout, Gomez excelled playing in the low pressure situation without the worry of his contract over his head. In 17 games with the club, Gomez amassed 17 points - including 6 goals in 11 games played, and at 1.55 had the best points-per-game total on a team also including NHLers Brandon Dubinsky, Nate Thompson, Chris Higgins and Joey Crabb. Initially Gomez had intended only to participate in training camp and practices with the team, however as the NHL lockout continued to drag on he signed on to play for the club.

At his best performance levels, Scott Gomez will never live up to that salary, and in Montreal we have barely seen his best. I see things differently, I'd like to see a coach come in that allows the players to play to their strengths.Gives players properly defined roles. A coach who can be systematic when necessary, but knows how to open things up too. Give that kind of coach to the players - like Gomez - and then see what they can do. If he still doesn't perform, then bury him. 

Former Habs Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill agreed with that assessment. Shortly after the pair we traded, they spoke with the Montreal Gazette's Dave Stubbs about the system that former Coach Jacques Martin employed and how it affected certain players, including Scott Gomez.

Spacek: "I think we played too much of a defensive system, I didn’t like that. I think it was even boring to watch us, to be honest. To be very honest. Come on, at home, we play like this? I think it was boring a little bit. At the end of the night, if you win 2-1, nobody cares. It’s a win. But there weren’t too many games that we win 5-2, 6-4, wide-open games in which you just had fun. There weren’t too many like that." Hal Gill elaborated "The message (from the coaching staff) was we need to play as a team with their system. I tried to preach it but the hard part was we didn’t play to guys’ strengths. With Gomez, you don’t expect him to chip it up the boards, you want him to come back and pick it up. If he can’t do that, he can’t be effective." 

Things started pretty well for Gomez in New Jersey. Rookie of the year, 2 Stanley Cups, and a career year in 05/06. He scored 33 goals and had 51 assists, that led to an arbitrator awarding him a $5 Million salary for the 06/07 season before he went on to become an Unrestricted Free Agent following that season.

As an Unrestricted free agent, Gomez was offered a 32% increase in salary (based on AAV cap hit of $7,357,143) to jump ship to the Rangers. A lucrative offer, but not a crazy increase for a player who has 2 Stanley Cups, a rookie of the year, and at only 27 years of age and entering his prime is already considered to be one of the elite passers of the game. At the time most lauded the deal.

"It's pretty exciting." Rangers General Manager Glen Sather said at the time. "We ranked them both (Gomez & Chris Drury) as number ones, and we never expected to get both of them."

When  Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey acquired Gomez 2 years later in Montreal he described Gomez as "an outstanding playmaker and an excellent skater. Having won the Stanley Cup twice with the New Jersey Devils, he brings our team a lot of playoff experience. Scott is an elite player who will certainly contribute to the success of our team for years to come."

So, what happened?

Colin Stephenson has been a reporter at the New Jersey Star-Ledger since December, 1997. He covered Scott Gomez during his tenure with both the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers. "(Gomez) had great vision, and soft hands, and he was clever. He really was an elite playmaker. He could find people and get the puck to them. He always seemed to have a chemistry with Brian Gionta -- they were linemates on Team USA junior teams before they were on the Devils.But when he was on the Devils, it didn't seem like a strictly Gomez and Gionta thing. He made plays for everyone he played with."

"(With the Rangers) they paid him big money and put him with Jagr on the top line and that never worked, for whatever reason." 

Stephenson agreed with Hal Gill's assessment, echoing what the hulking defenseman had to say. "With the Devils, other guys chipped the puck out, but he was the guy who skated with it."

Stephenson and Mckeen's Rick Springhetti's views on Gomez offer an interesting contrast on Gomez the Player. When describing Gomez at his best in New Jersey, Stephenson says that Gomez "carried the puck through the neutral zone and dished off. He actually slowed the game down and found holes in the defense."

Springhetti however counters that since signing his deal with the Rangers, "everything seems rushed when he gains possession of the puck. He complicates his game by running around the ice and  with little actual results. If anything, he too often loses control of the puck especially near the opposing blue line because he is not slowing the play down looking for passing options. Also, he has become very hesitant defensively."

Springhetti's evaluation sides with the idea that under the right situation, Gomez could once again be an effective player. Stephenson agrees feeling that the Rangers gave up on him too early "when it didn't work with Jagr."

Springhetti felt that going into this season that the approach with Gomez was simple: "(Gomez) should simplify his game, play very good defensively and work his way up from there." He feels that playing a more simple game should allow Gomez to regain confidence, alleviate the mental pressure of his contract and allow him the freedom to get back to his greatest asset. An asset that had 3 NHL General Mangers dub him as a first line center.

As far as being a disruption in the locker room, Stephenson is pretty clear "(Gomez is) a happy guy who loves to laugh and rarely seems to take anything seriously. Most of his teammates like that."

After today's announcement in Brossard, The Globe & Mail's Sean Gordon spoke with some of Gomez's former teammates and the echoed the sentiments shared by Colin Stephenson.

Travis Moen, told Gordon that Gomez good humour and leadership skills would be missed. “It’s something we didn’t see coming . . . it’s tough to see that happen to a guy, but it’s a business decision and we have to move forward,” he said. “He was a guy who would keep it loose, he’s a fun guy to hang out with at the rink, just a good guy.”

Eric Macramalla of "Offside: A Sports Law Blog" wrote an article just under a week ago stating that "The Canadiens have no choice but to part ways with Scott Gomez" . In the piece, Macramalla states that this would be purely a business decision "He is a tremendously talented hockey player and great in the room. Problem is his price tag is just too high." Today however, Macramalla put it out on Twitter that he would be surprised in the NHLPA doesn't file a grievance. "(The) NHLPA could argue healthy player with no off-ice issues cant be sent home to preserve amnesty; contrary to spirit of contract". So we'll see if this saga continues or not.

Based on previous seasons with Montreal, Gomez likely would have scored  5 goals and added 23 assists in a 48 game season, time will only tell how numbers like that would have fared on this team. If "everyone is starting fresh" like GM Bergevin and Coach Therrien have stated, I would have at least given Gomez the benefit of training camp to show what he's got.

For more from Sean Gordon, follow him on twitter: @MrSeanGordon

For more from Eric Macramalla, follow him on twitter: @EriconSportsLaw
For more from Colin Stephenson, follow him on twitter: @Ledger_Knets
For more from Dave Stubbs, follow him on twitter: @Dave_Stubbs
For more from Rick Springhetti, follow him on twitter:@Rick1042



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