The members of the Montreal Canadiens organization offered their final thoughts on a disappointing season on Monday. Players were disappointed, but still optimistic for the future, while the coach acknowledged that he had some work to do to develop the pieces he has into championship-calibre performers.
The general manager was a bit less optimistic about his team, criticizing his talented players and noting that he needed to be quite busy this summer in order to address the problems with the 2016-17 roster.
The first time he had such thoughts on needing to overhaul his team was after his initial season as the man in charge of a team’s personnel, addressing the Canadiens’ perceived deficiencies after 2013 ‘s five-game loss to the Ottawa Senators in the first round.
The Senators didn’t just limit the Habs to a single playoff victory, they were extremely physical with their opposition. A video of the headshot from Eric Gryba on Lars Eller in Game One of that series (for which the Senators defenceman received a two-game suspension) still makes the rounds whenever the subject of the burgeoning rivalry between the two teams is brought up.
As a result, Bergevin’s perception was that his team was too small and not tough enough, and he addressed what he thought were the issues in the summer. The main actions he took on that retool were acquiring fighter George Parros from the Florida Panthers, and signing free-agent defender Douglas Murray soon after the start of the new season in July.
To say those moves didn’t pan out would be a major understatement. Parros saw very little action with the team, finishing with one of the worst possession ratings since shot attempts began to be recorded by the NHL. Murray wasn’t much better, spending his shifts in his own end as the opposition launched a barrage of shots his way. When facing elimination against the Boston Bruins in round two, he was removed from the lineup in favour of rookie Nathan Beaulieu.
Bergevin’s most significant transaction took place in June of last year. After Montreal failed to make the post-season entirely, Norris Trophy-winner and fan favourite P.K. Subban was sent to the Nashville Predators in a one-for-one trade for Shea Weber. The explanation was that Weber added the stability, leadership, and team-first mentality that the team, and specifically Subban, lacked to successfully overcome the adversity they faced last year.
Now, with another disappointing end to the season, the Habs roster is in limbo once again, with hints at changes from the man at the top.
After their loss to the New York Rangers, there should be little confusion about what ailed this Habs team. The Canadiens had gotten older, slower, and less skilled with the most recent transactions, and the Rangers’ speed game and superior depth at both forward and defence shone a spotlight through the holes that had appeared in the Canadiens’ construction.
The Habs didn’t lose because they were too small, not physical enough, had no leadership, nor because they had an individualistic mindset. It wasn’t even from having a lack of players who’ve contributed to a championship win at the top level. They lost because what little offence the team had was shut down by a strong-yet-simple game plan on the other side and a risk-averse approach to offence that often saw Montreal defaulting to the perimeter of the attacking zone rather than trying a creative option to the middle.
Bergevin spent the period around the trade deadline adding size to bolster the fourth line. The best move proved to be the addition of Steve Ott for just a sixth-round pick, but the Canadiens also gave up a young offensive forward in Sven Andrighetto and a conditional fourth-round pick to acquire Andreas Martinsen and Dwight King, respectively. The former saw limited action in the post-season, while the latter did very little with the ice time he was given while drawing in for each of the five games.
For the Habs to find success, they need to be much better on transition from the defence to the forwards. They need to have more versatile options lower in the lineup that can’t be exploited by the opposition, with at least some threat of offence to keep teams from focusing solely on players like Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.
The problem is a lack of offensive output, so the answer isn’t to trade away a 30-goal-scorer who wasn’t able to hit the scoresheet in a tight series. It’s to address the other areas that allow those players to receive the zone time and deployments they need, and make the most of them.
The path forward was well illuminated by the Rangers, and Bergevin simply has to make the correct decisions this summer.