Gainey makes painful, surprising move

Five minutes after we saw the stunning news release from the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, we dialed up Lou Lamoriello's cell phone.

Because if there's one guy in the hockey world who knows just how Montreal general manager Bob Gainey probably felt in making the difficult decision to fire his coach (Guy Carbonneau) this late in the season despite holding down a playoff spot, it's definitely the New Jersey Devils' GM.

Lamoriello fired Devils coach Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the 1999-2000 regular season and the team 11 games over .500 and comfortably in a playoff spot. New coach Larry Robinson would lead the team to a Stanley Cup. Lamoriello dipped into that well again with just a week to go in the 2006-07 regular season, canning Claude Julien, who had the Devils atop the Atlantic Division with a 47-24-8 record.

In both cases, something just wasn't quite right in Lamoriello's mind. And no one has a better feel for his team than a GM.

"It's just your feeling, the way you are at that time," Lamoriello told ESPN.com on Monday from the GMs meetings in Naples, Fla. "You believe in your team and it's just not working, through no one's fault. You look back and you sometimes wonder how you made that decision. But you do it for the right reasons. It's very, very tough.

"But in the seat you're in, if you don't make the decisions that you believe in, then you shouldn't be there."

On Monday, the Canadiens sat fifth in the Eastern Conference at 35-24-7, but only two points away from the danger zone. More to the point, this is a team that's won only eight of its past 22 games since Jan. 20, looking nothing like the Cup contender that finished first in the conference in 2007-08 and had high hopes coming into its centennial season.

Earlier this season, Gainey was asked what he believed was his best move since taking over as GM of the team, and he said it was naming Carbonneau as head coach. It was a clip played over and over again on the French sports television network RDS on Monday.

"But in the last eight weeks, the team's performance has been below average," Gainey told reporters Monday night at a news conference in Montreal, noting that clip in his opening address. "And I believe that a change in the direction at ice level is necessary."

Firing the coach wasn't Gainey's first option during his team's two-month slump, so he gets credit for that. He made a nice trade, acquiring veteran Mathieu Schneider to bolster the blue line, and the bold move that should have given Carbonneau some breathing room, sending Alexei Kovalev home for a few days late last month to set his head on straight.

But the team still didn't respond. The Habs looked listless in losses in Buffalo and Atlanta last week and were lucky to escape with a win in Dallas on Sunday night.

"Our team would not seem emotionally engaged," Gainey said of the recent run. "I find myself in a position that requires my intervention."

We figured Carbonneau might have gotten the ax if the Habs either missed the playoffs or lost in the first round. But like many on Monday afternoon, we were surprised to see this move come this quickly.

With the embarrassing possibility of missing the postseason, Gainey no doubt figured he couldn't wait until the offseason to act. And again, just like with Kovalev's headline-grabbing vacation, this was a gutsy move from the Canadiens' GM. Because you know it wasn't easy.

Carbonneau, a former linemate in their playing days, was Gainey's hand-picked coach, the one who was going to lead Montreal to its 25th Cup title; so firing him Monday was a painful admission that Gainey made the wrong choice. But Gainey has always been a great leader, as a player, coach and GM. This decision once again showed true leadership, swallowing pride and putting aside a long-standing friendship to make what he believed was the right decision for his floundering franchise.

"Absolutely," Gainey said in French when asked if it was a hard decision from a personal point of view. "Guy was a special player with the Canadiens, he was the captain of this team, he took over a difficult job here, he tried his best to advance the team's goals in three years here. Today, that wasn't an easy thing to tell him. But I was at the point where I didn't have any other possible decision."

Regardless of how Gainey fares in his second tour of duty behind the Canadiens' bench, he'll gain a better understanding of his players from an ice-level view during the stretch run and playoffs. He'll get to see their true character. With about half his team headed for free agency, what better way to find out who you would want to keep around next season?

"I feel that we have some players who have been below their potential," Gainey said. "It isn't a unique responsibility of the coach to get the players to their potential. The players have a responsibility. That will be my task, to get it laid out in front of them, to get a map of how certain guys, individually, can improve their play and improve their production and assist in the group effort of moving our team into the playoffs."

If not? Pack your bags, boys. Some of you aren't coming back. Because if there's one thing we've again learned about Gainey during this tumultuous season, it's that he won't be afraid to act if things fall apart in the end.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.