At the conclusion of a dismal 2017-18 campaign, Marc Bergevin was tasked with turning the Montreal Canadiens around. The next 12 months were filled with transactions that helped shake things up and alter the makeup of the team.
In a move that many had expected after a tumultuous tenure in Montreal, Alex Galchenyuk was traded not long after the Stanley Cup was handed out. On June 15, he was on his way to Arizona in a one-for-one deal with the Coyotes that brought in Max Domi.
At first, it was difficult to see how Bergevin won the trade, acquiring a player who, like Galchenyuk, was more regarded for his potential than actual performance, and without the 30-goal season on his record. Domi’s suspension in the pre-season before fans really got a look at him didn’t help on that front. But it wasn’t long into the regular season before Domi started finding consistent offence — in the centre position, no less — making it difficult to see the transaction as anything but a positive change.
Just before the free-agency period opened, Bergevin was able to use some of his cap space to help the Winnipeg Jets gain some of their own. The cost for the Canadiens was a two-year buyout cap hit from Steve Mason and defence prospect Simon Bourque, but the gain was Joel Armia, who became a fixture in the lineup right beside Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and two draft picks to boot.
Bergevin spent July 1 making small ripples rather than big splashes, mostly adding replacement/minor-league depth with the likes of Kenny Agostino, Michael Chaput, Xavier Ouellet and Matthew Peca. Bergevin also brought Tomas Plekanec back after his brief career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with both parties agreeing to a mutual contract termination after Plekanec had hit the 1000-games-played milestone.
It can be seen as a noble gesture to allow a long-time Hab to reach that milestone before his NHL career came to an end. But a team that struggled to find a fourth line that could be trusted on a nightly basis probably could have used Plekanec’s services for the entire season as they attempted to make the playoffs. The decision to part company may have been made too early.
With the free-agent market browsed, Bergevin’s attention returned to his own properties. The two weeks that followed the official open of the 2018-19 season brought about the signing of restricted free agents Jacob de la Rose (eventually lost on waivers after two weeks of the regular season), Armia, who needed a new deal after being acquired, and Phillip Danault, who went on to reprise his role as the team’s top-line centre, earning a significant amount of Selke Trophy votes for his efforts, all for a little more than $3 million.
Readying for the season
Like most general managers, Bergevin wasn’t very active after mid-July, but did perk up the ears of fans when he made a trade on August 20: Kerby Rychel for Hunter Shinkaruk. Shinkaruk wasn’t able to have much of an effect with the Laval Rocket this season, while Rychel had a 20-goal year for the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate. The gamble of one underperforming player for another didn’t work out as hoped.
Everyone was in full scramble mode when a major trade was announced very early in the morning on September 10. After several months of speculation, a draft full of rumours, and an off-season of anticipation, Max Pacioretty was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for a package with blue-chip prospect Nick Suzuki as its centre.
The return for the captain also featured a second-round pick and Tomas Tatar, the latter reportedly a contract throw-in to even the scales.
Tatar went on to become an important piece of the Montreal roster, one of the players on the Canadiens’ top trio that ranked among the very best in 2018-19. Looking at the pure offensive numbers, Tatar’s 58 points (25G, 33A) outclassed Pacioretty’s 40 (22G, 18A). The comparison of the NHL players alone has Montreal coming out ahead in the short term, and when you add in a high draft pick and a player of Suzuki’s calibre, it turns into a great trade. It’s one that needs a major offensive outburst from Pacioretty over the next few seasons to shift that decision.
Bergevin also decided to use that day to get Michael McCarron back under contract: a one-year deal.
Just before the regular season began, two AHL defencemen were on the way to Calgary for Brett Kulak. Neither Matt Taormina nor Rinat Valiev played a game in the NHL. Brett Kulak rose through the ranks to finish on the Canadiens’ second pairing. That’s about as big a win as you can get.
A few days later, William Bitten was traded to the Minnesota Wild for Gustav Olofsson. Bitten was a half-point-per-game player with the AHL’s Iowa Wild, which is quite respectable production for a first professional season. With Olofsson’s year scrubbed out by injury, we won’t really have an idea of how this trade panned out until the 2019-20 season campaign is well under way.
The forward units looked very good to start the year (and there was a multitude of optons to try on a fourth line that didn’t), while the defence corps held together during Shea Weber’s recovery from surgery. For that reason, it wasn’t until after the All-Star Break that Bergevin decided to make a move.
That trade saw AHL forward Byron Froese and defender David Schlemko head to the Philadelphia Flyers, who sent Dale Weise and Christian Folin back the other way. Folin claimed a steady role on the third pairing, so the defence portion of the trade seems to be neutral at worst. Weise did not fare well in his minutes in Montreal, and still has one year at $2.35 million left on his contract, slightly more that the $2.1 million the Flyers now have to pay Schlemko. The dust hasn’t yet settled on this deal, but it can perhaps be called a lateral trade.
Two days later, Montreal moved down one round in the 2019 draft — from Calgary’s spot in the fourth round to the Coyotes’ place in the fifth — to bring in Nate Thompson. Thompson played 25 games for the Habs and re-signed on an inexpensive one-year deal.
The first trade partner of the off-season was also the final one the year, and the Coyotes provided another good forward to the roster. Jordan Weal’s price was AHL forward Chaput, but Weal showed just how well he fit into the system as soon as he entered the lineup. A strong puck-control game meshed perfectly with the Habs’ possession style, especially on a power play that had struggled to gain the blue line all year long.
Weal’s contract was extended for another two years at a very palatable $1.4 million after the season ended. It was a deserved contract for the style of game he played, and his work over the final fifth of the season.
After outlining the trades that were made, it’s also important to point out one that wasn’t. Despite the obvious struggles of Antti Niemi in net, Bergevin didn’t make a move to replace the team’s backup goaltender. That decision led to Carey Price having to play every game down the stretch in a tight playoff race, and also forced Claude Julien to adopt an unorthodox strategy of playing Price versus the easiest two opponents on the California road trip in an attempt to grab as many points as possible.
Setting up the pieces again
Bergevin is now working to prepare the team for 2019-20, reportedly in on several big-name free agents, angling for trades, and even mentioned in offer sheet speculation. The roster doesn’t need as much attention as the one that he held at this time a year ago, but there is still plenty of room for upgrades to turn the team into a contender.
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