I think about the Montreal Canadiens a lot. It’s kind of my job here. There is no doubt that the Canadiens are in a strong position right now but let’s be honest. Marc Bergevin has been in charge for seven years, and there were legitimate reasons why I was so critical of him.
But then something happened. Bergevin ended up being the person in charge of the Canadiens’ rebuild, and he is doing a good job at it. He definitely deserves credit for that.
But he inherited a core that included 26-year-old Carey Price, with P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and Brendan Gallagher all under the age of 25, and the third overall pick (which ended up being Alex Galchenyuk). So the question then becomes: Why did this team need a rebuild in the first place?
That’s where I struggle. Because while I do think that Bergevin has clearly learned the right way to build a team and is putting that into practice, I still don’t know whether he should have had the chance to right the ship he set into the iceberg. To extend the metaphor, it’s like telling the guy in charge of the Titanic to not worry about it, pick up the pieces, and try again.
So I’m going to debate this with myself (yes, literally).
Credit: Bergevin changing his mindset with the experience he gained is as good as any general manager change
The real turning point for me was the 2017-18 Trade Deadline. The team was in the midst of another season that would see no playoff appearance, and all eyes were on Bergevin. There were rumours about Pacioretty, but in the end he held on to his captain (more on that later), and first traded Jakub Jerabek. He then used that pick to trade for Mikey Reilly and traded Tomas Plekanec for two AHL bodies and a second-round pick. He also got a draft pick for Joe Morrow.
Then, the next summer he acquired Max Domi for Alex Galchenyuk, acquired Joel Armia with his cap space, and then he traded Max Pacioretty and received a haul that was better than anyone could have imagined. He also held on to his draft picks, and used one of the AHL bodies he acquired in the Plekanec trade (Rinat Valiev) to acquire a NHL defenceman in Brett Kulak.
You probably couldn’t have drawn up a better 18-month period at the time than this one.
Blame: He only had to rebuild because of his own actions
The result of the Pacioretty trade was so surprising because Bergevin was backed into a corner. For over a year, there were whispers about how the Canadiens management didn’t believe in their captain. Allan Walsh, no stranger to speaking out, spoke on his client’s behalf and made the situation untenable. So while Bergevin was backed into a corner, he got there on his own by letting the situation bubble over.
That’s a metaphor for this rebuild as well. Sure, Bergevin has done a very good job. But why did this team need a rebuild, (or reset, sorry), in the first place? Even if there were issues with the Price-Subban-Pacioretty core that stopped this team from taking the next step, they never should have bottomed out as badly as they did. There was no reason for this team to go from Conference finalist to out of the playoffs three out of four years.
The team had talent. He held on to Sylvain Lefebvre and Michel Therrien for too long and it affected his team on the ice.
If Bergevin pulled the trigger sooner on either coach, maybe the development improves. Maybe the team starts winning. It’s not just a lack of talent that hurt this team and a general manager’s job is to oversee the entire organization.
As Bergevin himself said, that’s on him. He seemed like he was reacting instead of being proactive.
Credit: Bergevin has become patient and methodical in his decision-making
Since taking over as Canadiens general manager, Bergevin has had many phases that have shifted as soon as something bad happened, or at least something not as good as he was expecting happened. This phase, since February of 2018, has lasted a while and it’s arguably his best phase from a decision-making perspective.
He could have traded Pacioretty at the 2018 trade deadline. He could have traded Pacioretty at the 2018 Draft (and may have if Pacioretty signed an extension). But waiting worked out for him. He could have traded prospects or picks at the 2019 deadline but sat back. Had he traded his first-round pick for a playoff run the team would have missed on Cole Caufield.
He’s slowly building a pipeline that this organization hasn’t seen in years. There may not be a Price or Subban in waiting, but there’s quality in the quantity of prospects. He has practised what he has preached by building through the draft and emphasizing speed.
There’s no sacrificing the future for a quick fix. He’s not making moves to save his job. He’s making moves to make the Canadiens stronger.
Blame: His biggest stars have significant contracts for significant years and are not getting any younger
Price and Shea Weber aren’t ancient. A lot of the narratives around the Canadiens have become panic-mongering, yelling from rooftops, and black-and-white with no nuance. So, basically the same as political narratives.
Weber is turning 34 and Price is turning 32. So, yes, there is urgency in getting a team together that can contend with their two star veterans. And it’s not so much the age of the two players that is concerning as it is the combination of their age and their remaining contracts. Both players are the highest paid on the team and likely will be for the next seven seasons, until 2025-26. To put it into perspective, no other Canadiens player has a contract past 2022-23. If Caufield were to play 10 games in the NHL this season, he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2025-26 as well (pending his post-entry-level contract).
If the Canadiens want to win with their current leaders, they can’t be patient for much longer.
Credit: The window (in theory) extends past Price and Weber
The reason that the Price and Weber windows are so dramatic is because this team relied on Price for so many years (even when they had the team to not need to) and Weber is the team’s captain. But Bergevin is building this team so that there is stability and depth even when those stars’ most impactful years are behind them.
Sure it would be sad if Price doesn’t get another chance to contend after his prime was so dominant, but while the face of the organization may change into the future, it doesn’t mean the organization itself is worse off.
And yes, I understand that there is nobody ready to replace Price and Weber’s roles on the team, but they also aren’t gone yet. Bergevin is building this team so that any passing of the torch can be seamless and no longer depends on one or two players.
Blame: When Bergevin’s moves didn’t work, they really didn’t work
This is more than just Subban-for-Weber which, while being a move I didn’t like still provided the Canadiens with more value than the Predators got for Subban this summer. Trading Lars Eller for two second-round picks and two better second-round picks for Andrew Shaw then seeing Eller win a Stanley Cup was a tough, even though Shaw provided value in his time in Montreal.
The Karl Alzner contract was never good and somehow got even worse almost instantly. The Jonathan Drouin trade started to look better, until the final 20 games or so of last season. It doesn’t help that the team has several players who could play a similar role to Drouin, and Sergachev would be a huge boost to the team’s defence.
Smaller moves like George Parros and others were overreactions to small samples of games.
Credit: When Bergevin’s moves were good, they worked very well
Paul Byron was one of the best waiver claims in NHL history. The Phillip Danault trade was one of the better trades considering what was given up. Jeff Petry was a steal. I will die on the hill that the Thomas Vanek trade was genius even if it didn’t work out completely; that’s a deal you make any day.
The Max Domi trade looks very good although I’m not willing to count out Alex Galchenyuk just yet. The Pacioretty trade, as mentioned, worked out great.
Even one of his biggest mistakes, keeping Michel Therrien for too long, worked out when the Bruins fired Claude Julien, one of the best options for any NHL team but especially one that forces itself to hire French speakers.
Blame: The NHL team (and hey why not the AHL team) just needs to start winning
No matter how much I want to (and do) give credit to Bergevin for what he has done in the last 18 months, I just can’t shake that this team should never have been as bad as it was. This is a team that won four playoff series over four years with a Norris Trophy and Vezina Trophy winner in their prime.
His AHL team has made the playoffs once in seven years. The NHL club’s best result to date was in his second year before he put his stamp on the team.
His biggest move in arguably his biggest off-season to date saw him walk away with nothing.
He’s had seven years to build something and has six playoff games in his last four years.
That’s just not good enough.
The ‘blame’ part of me doesn’t think Bergevin should be fired right now. The ‘credit’ part of me acknowledges that the team needs to see some significant improvement on the ice despite the foundation that is being rebuilt.
Bergevin has not done much wrong lately in his role but it needs to eventually translate on the ice in some way. No trophies are given out for collecting prospects and draft picks.
This is a good run, without a doubt. But unless the team improves on the ice, he may not be the general manager to benefit from his latest work.