After a finish in the basement of the NHL this past season, Marc Bergevin promised a deep look at each level of the organization and also promised that changes would be made. That press conference was on April 9, and many people expected changes over the course of the off-season.
Eight days later, he relieved AHL coach Sylvain Lefebvre of his duties after the Rocket finished last in the AHL. It was the fifth time the Rocket had missed the playoffs under Lefebvre’s tenure, which Bergevin clearly targeted as an area in need of change.
The sweeping changes to the coaching staff did not end with just the AHL. Both Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Dan Lacroix were let go from their positions behind the Canadiens bench. For Daigneault, the writing was on the wall after a disastrous season by the defensive unit and the penalty kill, both areas where he was primarily in charge.
While they have yet to find a direct replacement for the defence position, they didn’t wait long to add a new name behind the bench, hiring Dominque Ducharme to take charge of the forward group as one of Claude Julien’s assistant coaches.
Ducharme was one of the leading candidates to take over the AHL job, but adding him to the NHL staff is a fantastic move in its own right. He’s won multiple gold medals with Team Canada in the World Juniors in addition to a Memorial Cup and QMJHL titles during his coaching career. Not only was he arguably the top coach on the market this off-season, joining the NHL staff allows him to be groomed as a potential replacement to Claude Julien should the day come that he retires or the Canadiens choose to move on from him.
That left the AHL position vacant — at least until this week when the organization announced Joël Bouchard as Lefebvre’s replacement. The delay in the announcement was entirely due to Bouchard’s QMJHL club, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, making it all the way to the President Cup Final in the QMJHL, falling just short in a tight series with Acadie-Bathurst.
Not only does Bouchard bring a great coaching pedigree to the AHL level, he’s also a knowledgeable manager in his own right. He’s spent most of the decade as GM of the Armada, and his arrival appears to have shifted incumbent GM Larry Carriere to a new role within the Laval Rocket. While the GM spot is remaining vacant, it’s extremely likely that Bergevin will communicate and plan out his moves with Bouchard and Carriere to help better the Rocket in the coming season.
Before the off-season truly clicked into full swing, Bergevin made moves to help bolster a dwindling prospect pool at the professional level. Fresh off an appearance in an NCAA final, Jake Evans was inked to a two-year entry level contract, as were Michael Pezzetta and Memorial Cup participant Will Bitten. These were expected signings, but still add some depth to the Rocket next season.
Bergevin then went out and took a page from the Maple Leafs organization, taking a chance on two undrafted free agents in the CHL. Alexandre Alain was a participant in the Canadiens development camp and clearly did enough to catch the scouting staff’s eye. Alain went on from camp to captain Joel Bouchard’s Armada team, and led them in scoring through the QMJHL playoffs. The performance landed him an ELC with the Canadiens, and adds another young player to a prospect pool, and one who has experience playing as a centre during his junior career.
Alain was always a possibility given his previous experience in the organization, but the signing of Hayden Verbeek was out of left field. Despite playing on one of the best clubs in the entire CHL, Verbeek was under the radar as a player of interest, but Bergevin and co. saw something they liked in his play.
He’s another centre who will join the Laval Rocket next season, and while it’s not clear how high his ceiling is, these signings give the prospect pool more chances to graduate plyers without needing to spend anything more than a contract slot.
Couple this with the signing of multiple players to minor-league deals, and the Rocket roster now boasts some much needed depth after it struggled to fill spots at various points of the season last year. There’s no guarantee they’re going to become anything more than depth, but for the low risk involved, there’s no reason to not try to find out.
Not only has Bergevin hired up-and-coming coaches to fill roles within his organization, he’s also set things up for the future by hiring two candidates who could take over behind the bench as needed. That’s forward-looking planning by Bergevin — whether or not he’s still at the helm of the franchise should that strategy pan out. He’s also added to the prospect pool with a number of low risk, but still add players at positions where the Canadiens are weakest overall.
Bergevin promised changes throughout the organization this off-season, and so far he’s delivering them in spades. With the NHL draft and free agency looming, he’ll have a chance to keep making positive changes to his franchise.
Both events present unique challenges for a GM, but if Bergevin approaches them the way he has his coaching hires, the Canadiens might turn out just fine after this summer. He’s not a perfect GM, having made his fair share of mistakes, but to qualify these moves as anything but positives would be doing him a disservice.
I have been vocal with critiques of Bergevin’s tenure, but as it stands these signings and hires overall are nothing but encouraging. He’s still got a lot of work to do, but these are steps in the right direction.