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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Debate: What now for Habs?

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

Scott Burnside and Craig Custance go toe-to-toe on the biggest news of the day, if not the week: the Canadiens' firing GM Pierre Gauthier.

BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. Well, the stripping down of the Montreal Canadiens has begun with the team announcing Thursday morning that GM Pierre Gauthier had been fired. No surprise there, given how poorly this team was constructed both in terms of the on-ice talent and the salary structure. Whoever takes over has a long road to recovery ahead of him in terms of getting the Habs back to being a playoff-worthy team, let alone becoming a Stanley Cup contender. This announcement will no doubt increase the number of Patrick Roy-returns-to-Montreal rumors exponentially, as the Hall of Famer has already been linked to a variety of top-level positions within the organization, including coach and GM. One would assume that the moment the regular season ends for the Canadiens, they will also be looking for a new head coach, given the tepid support Randy Cunneyworth was given by owner and president Geoff Molson when the whole language issue cropped up after Jacques Martin’s firing earlier this season. Roy will get all the headlines, but if the team wants to move forward, for my money it must look at a guy like Claude Loiselle, who is the assistant general manager in Toronto and has a wealth of team-building experience. Then there is Julien BriseBois, the assistant GM in Tampa who spent nine years with the Habs and knows the team well. As always in Montreal, the new GM won’t necessarily be the best man for the job but the best man for the job who can speak French. Regardless, Thursday marks the continuation of what should be a time of great upheaval for the once-proud franchise.

CUSTANCE: Not a moment too soon, either. I'd add Chicago assistant GM Marc Bergevin's name to the mix, too. There's no shortage of qualified candidates, but if I were in charge, my first call would be to Tampa Bay asking for permission to talk to BriseBois, one of the most impressive young executives in the game. The timing to me is a bit curious. Why the rush to do it now rather than wait until after the season? Whoever takes the job has his work cut out, although key pieces are already in place, like a franchise goalie in Carey Price and a potential franchise defenseman in P.K. Subban. There certainly are worse reclamation projects in the NHL.

But let's move the conversation to teams that are actually relevant right now. The Rangers looked impressive Wednesday night in beating the Jets and are starting to solidify that No. 1 seed in the East. It's looking more and more like we'll see a first-round series between the Flyers and Penguins, with those two teams battling for home ice right now. That's on the line when Pittsburgh plays the Islanders on Thursday night and the Flyers, without Ilya Bryzgalov, take on the Maple Leafs. "We have to stay in front of Philly and get home ice. It's not like it's a given," Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said when we chatted Wednesday. "It gives you the positive feeling of accomplishing something to get into the playoffs. That's the key -- to work towards something."

BURNSIDE: Hard to imagine a first-round matchup that would be more compelling than Philly-Pittsburgh -- unless, of course, it’s Detroit-Nashville, another series that looks pretty much set in stone at this point and one I know you’ll be covering. But it wouldn’t be the Daily Debate without a stop in the Pacific Division, where the division lead seemingly changes on a nightly basis. Wednesday was no different, as the Los Angeles Kings dumped Calgary 3-0, pretty much ending the Flames’ playoff hopes, and jumped back into the top eight, while Dallas knocked off Edmonton 3-1 to move back into the division lead. Jonathan Quick's shutout was his ninth of the season, and he’s tied with Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues for the league lead. Quick is tied for third in goals-against average and fourth in save percentage, and I’m wondering just where the GMs are going to slot Quick when it comes to Vezina Trophy balloting. I think most of us have envisioned Quick on the periphery of the Vezina discussion, with Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne seemingly locked in as the top two candidates. That might not be the case anymore with the Kings’ surge into the playoff picture and with Quick’s solid netminding throughout the season.

CUSTANCE: He certainly deserves consideration. I'd have a hard time prying it from Lundqvist, but the Kings wouldn't be in the playoff mix without Quick's efforts. To me, the most impressive thing has been his consistency. He hasn't had a month in 2012 when his goals-against average finished over 2.00. His worst month this season statistically was in November, when he was 4-5-2 with a 2.43 goals-against average, but even then his save percentage was .924. And I loved that goal from Dustin Brown on Wednesday night. Great spacing from the Kings, and he showed just enough patience to beat Miikka Kiprusoff. Remember those Brown trade rumors on the weekend before the deadline? That seemed to light a fire under him, because he has 17 points in the 16 games since. That's a captain stepping up. I know we've hit the Pacific hard lately in the Daily Debate, but something tells me you and Pierre will keep the streak going Friday morning, because Thursday night's game in Phoenix is absolutely huge. The Coyotes will be well-rested and waiting for a Sharks team coming off another loss to the Ducks. You think Shane Doan will be ready to go after serving his suspension and having to watch the playoff race unfold around him?

BURNSIDE: Oh, I think it’s a safe bet that the outcome of that game will be a topic for discussion Friday morning. The idle Coyotes were pushed out of the top eight, and I don’t think it’s overstating it to suggest a win is imperative to the Yotes’ playoff chances. Getting Doan back after a three-game suspension for a dangerous elbow thrown at Dallas’ Jamie Benn is huge, although the Stars also need Radim Vrbata and Mike Smith to get healthy and back to form, and quickly. The Sharks, meanwhile, continue to confound, looking like a team that could make noise in the playoffs one night and then falling flat the next. On Wednesday they couldn’t come up with enough offense and dropped a 3-1 decision to an Anaheim team whose playoff hopes evaporated some days ago. Those are points you can’t leave on the table if you’re in the Sharks’ position. Finally, how do you see the Boston-Washington showdown unfolding Thursday night? The Caps have to bounce back after having their lunch handed to them at home against Buffalo on Tuesday. The Bruins have quietly gotten back on track after wobbling earlier in the new year and have won three in a row. Is it too early to call this a must-win for the Caps, who trail eighth-place Buffalo by two points with five games to go?

CUSTANCE: No, I don't think it's too early to call it a must-win. And if they lose this game on the heels of a loss to the Sabres and finish outside the playoffs, it will set up a fascinating summer in Washington. You have to assume Dale Hunter won't be back, but what else would GM George McPhee do? Does that core need a severe shake-up? Seems like there's something flawed about that group that I can't quite put my finger on. But the Ca[s are still alive, so we can save the dismantling debate for another day. Good to see the Bruins stabilizing just in time for the playoffs. No surprise that Tim Thomas is in the middle of it. After giving up six goals against Florida in a game you witnessed live, Thomas has allowed a total of eight in his next five games. If he keeps that up, the Bruins will be as dangerous as ever in the playoffs. All right, Scott, it's been fun. Enjoy the games.