Rumblings: Who will be next Habs' GM?

The hunt is on.

Or should we say, la chasse est ouverte.

One of hockey’s most prestigious jobs is open after Montreal Canadiens president Geoff Molson fired Pierre Gauthier on Thursday and announced the process of replacing him has officially commenced.

Molson stopped short of saying the next GM must speak French, saying the most important criteria is to hire the best possible man for the job, although he said all things being equal, speaking French would be important.

In other words, unless a giant in the GM world like Ken Holland becomes available -- and that ain’t happening -- it appears being bilingual in French and English will be part of the equation, to no one’s surprise.

With that in mind, in no particular order, the candidates I believe make the most sense for Molson and his new advisor Serge Savard to interview:

  • Julien BriseBois: The assistant GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning is considered a bright, up-and-coming star in the industry. The knock against him is that he isn’t a former NHL player, but those who have worked with him will tell you he’s not just a CBA/cap expert but also has a keen eye for talent. Given that he previously worked in the Habs’ front office, he’s a pretty obvious choice to get a serious look, and I consider him the top candidate at this point very early in the search process.

  • Marc Bergevin: The Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM will one day be a GM in the NHL. To be able to do it in his native province would be a blast for him. He’s picked up important front-office experience in Chicago and those who know him believe he has a terrific eye for talent. Some may feel he needs more front-office seasoning, but he’s certainly one to watch.

  • Francois Giguere: Currently out of hockey, the former Colorado Avalanche GM and Boston Bruins scout is well-respected in hockey front-office circles and is seen by some as a darkhorse candidate in this race. Some industry sources believe he got a raw deal in Colorado and would do a good job if given another GM chance.

  • Vincent Damphousse: The former Habs captain has a relationship with Savard from his playing days when Savard was GM of the Habs. They won a Cup together there in 1993. Damphousse has always been a cerebral type, active as a player within the NHLPA and post-playing career as a short-lived executive within the players’ union. The knock against him is that he doesn’t have any management experience on an NHL team. If hired, he would need some sort of senior advisor or mentor to help him navigate. Did we mention his relationship with Savard? Not to be lost in Damphousse’s candidancy is also the fact that he’s good friends with Patrick Roy, whom no doubt he would consider as Habs coach.

  • Claude Loiselle: As assistant to the GM in Toronto, the hard-working Loiselle negotiates player contracts for the Maple Leafs, and he also has important experience at the league head office. He’s going to be a GM one day and the Habs should give him a look if they’re smart.

  • Patrick Roy: He’s told people he’d rather just be a coach when he makes the jump to the NHL, but other people I spoke with Thursday also believe that if Roy figures this is his only chance at getting a foot in the door in Montreal, it’s not totally inconceivable he might try to eye both jobs in Montreal.

  • Pat Brisson: The mega agent, who represents the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, is a native Quebecer and has been seen by some as a possible GM one day. Still, given how successful his business is and the fact his kids’ roots are in Los Angeles, where he’s based out of, it would be a long shot.

  • Pierre McGuire: The well-known TV analyst and former NHL assistant coach has been interviewed in the past for GM jobs but hasn’t left the screen yet. Obviously the allure of running the team in his former town would be appealing to him. He knows the game inside out and he’s bilingual.

  • Andre Savard: He was GM of the Habs from 2000-01 through 2002-03, replaced by Bob Gainey. Currently a pro scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Savard has a keen hockey mind and some people believe he deserves a second shot at management.

  • Doug Risebrough: The former Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames GM isn’t French-Canadian, but he is a former Habs player from their ’70s heyday. He’s currently a consultant for the New York Rangers.

  • Pierre Lacroix: He's certainly the most accomplished on this list GM-wise, but the Colorado Avalanche president told me during All-Star Weekend in Ottawa that he wasn't up to the day-to-day rigors of being a GM again. The 64-year-old has battled health issues over the past few years.

Jackets' offseason questions

The 30th-place Blue Jackets have an incredibly busy offseason staring at them, from trading Rick Nash to finding a No. 1 goalie and plugging other obvious holes in their lineup.

First and foremost, they’re going to be drafting either first or second overall, depending on the April 10 lottery.

Already there’s been talk the Jackets might want to move their pick because the top-rated players in this year’s draft -- Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko -- are Russians, and the Jackets misfired on former high draft picks from Russia in Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov.

Hogwash, says Jackets GM Scott Howson.

"What I will say to that speculation is that I think it would be close-minded of us, I think it would border on stupidity to not include any player just because they’re from Russia," Howson told ESPN.com this week. "I think everybody is different. The fact that Zherdev and Filatov didn’t work out here will have no bearing on who we select in this upcoming draft."

The No. 1 priority for the NHL roster is pretty obvious.

"We know we’ve got to get better goaltending and that’s going to be an area we’re going to look very hard at to try and be active in that area," said Howson.

He likes his blue line with Jack Johnson joining the likes of James Wisniewski, Marc Methot, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin, but up front there will be work to be done especially depending on Rick Nash’s future.

"I’ll have a conversation with Rick after the year ends and see where he’s at, see where we’re at, and make a game plan moving forward," said Howson.

It’s clear Howson hopes to work with Nash in making a deal that helps both the franchise and the player. Of course, with Nash having a no-movement clause, he really has no choice in the matter.

Given the fact a star forward like Zach Parise could be available July 1 via free agency to the same teams who may covet Nash, you must question if that puts pressure on the Jackets to trade Nash before July 1 so as to not compete with those same teams.

"If we’re in fact going to trade him, it’s going to take as long as it takes for us to get the right deal," Howson said. "That’s just the way it has to be, that’s how we’re going to operate. If it takes until June 22, or July 22, or August 22, or December 22, we’ll do it until we get the right deal."

Wild's entry-level addition

A reader earlier this week asked me during my weekly chat why the Minnesota Wild decided to sign University of Denver forward Jason Zucker to an entry-level contract with the plan of using him in the remaining regular-season games. What the reader wanted to know is, why burn the first year of an entry-level contract for less than two weeks of regular-season hockey?

Great question, which I posed to the Wild GM himself.

"We simply wanted him to get some NHL experience this season to better prepare him for next year," Chuck Fletcher told ESPN.com via email. "We aren't too concerned about burning a year of his contract. It is a fairly common practice these days. And since nobody has a crystal ball, it is difficult to predict what impact this decision will have on Zucker's free agency rights. We are comfortable with the decision obviously."

The crystal ball comment refers to the expiry of the current collective bargaining agreement in September, and Fletcher is right -- who knows what kind of rules and system awaits the hockey world once the NHLPA and NHL hammer out a new CBA?