The Montreal Canadiens have made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1993. Many analysts are being forced to eat their words, as virtually all of them have been betting against the Habs in their predictions since the first round.
There comes a time for everyone where they have to eat their words. Today is that day for myself, as I was calling for Marc Bergevin’s dismissal just a few months ago. As he is the architect of these unlikely contenders, it is time to give credit where credit is due, and admit I was wrong.
In my defense, I was far from the only pundit to voice a desire to see Bergevin handed his walking papers. Numerous outlets ran pieces that ranged from pondering if the end was near, to flat out asking for it. In all fairness, these questions and requests were warranted when the team was at legitimate risk of missing the playoffs for a large part of the year.
Stephane Waite revealed after his firing that Bergevin himself was concerned about his job security. He cleaned house behind the bench due to this concern, and Waite was the final one to receive his pink slip specifically because Carey Price returning to form would be the key to saving the GM’s job.
It seemed like he was grasping at straws, so how could it possibly be that his team ended up flipping the script and becoming contenders? Well, he stuck to his guns, and believed that he already built a roster made for the playoffs. He was right.
Habs GM Marc Bergevin before the season: ``We mean business.''— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) June 25, 2021
Well, the season was full of twists, including a coaching change, but his team has proven him right.
His team had undeniable young talent in guys like Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. His signing of Tyler Toffoli in the offseason was a stroke of brilliance. He traded for Josh Anderson and signed him long term. He brought in Corey Perry at league minimum, adding veteran presence. Indeed, they meant business.
The early returns were excellent. For the first 10 games or so of the season, they absolutely looked like contenders. They were getting scoring from everywhere. The only team in the newly formed North Division that looked to be on their level were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were acclaimed contenders in their own right.
Then things fell apart rather quickly. The scoring dried up, and with Price looking average in net, they didn’t have him stealing games to overcome the lack of offense. They slowly fell to the fourth and final playoff spot, and struggled at times to hold that position for the remainder of the season.
It would have been easy for Bergevin to go full panic mode. When the trade deadline came, he could have sold the farm to go after the big fish on the market, and it would have made enough sense for most people to swallow it. He was out of straws to grasp at, and there were even calls to consider the idea of rebuilding given the circumstances.
He chose neither of those routes. Instead, he opted for a quiet deadline that featured the additions of Eric Staal, Erik Gustafsson, and Jon Merrill. A bit more depth, and a bit more veteran presence in the lineup acquired at reasonable cost. No big splashes, but certainly not moves that could be construed as starting a rebuild.
These moves came with little fanfare, and when the results didn’t improve rapidly, it was easy to write them off as half measures. Forget rapid improvement, things almost seemed to deteriorate, and though they’d make the playoffs, they limped their way in on a five-game losing streak.
Bergevin had bet on the roster he built, and it seemed he lost the wager. His veterans weren’t turning the tide. His coaching changes didn’t do what he thought they would. Worst of all, Carey Price missed the final stretch of the season with a concussion, so any hope of him regaining his form seemed distant at best.
But then came the playoffs. From the very first game, it was clear that Price was on a mission. He came back looking like the only thing missing for him was that time off. The most important player on Bergevin’s Canadiens — the man he signed to an oft-questioned $10.5 million AAV contract — was back with a vengeance.
The veterans? Well, Bergevin’s interim coach Dominique Ducharme found a combination on the fourth line with Staal, Perry, and Joel Armia that was a breath of fresh air. Not only were they hanging in there against an ostensibly superior Leafs squad, they were — and still are — legitimately dangerous.
Toffoli, his major offseason free-agent leads the team in playoff points. Three young stars in Kotkaniemi, Suzuki, and Cole Caufield — All three of whom were acquired under his direction — are key contributors.
There is certainly a measure of luck here for Bergevin. Everything aligned perfectly at the right time with his goaltending, veterans, and the youth movement. But sometimes you make your own luck when gambling, and since he gambled on something he built, I’d argue that’s the case here.
It’s impossible to deny how impressive this run has been, and how it was made possible by him sticking to his guns, and believing in his roster when nobody else did. I’ve been one of his biggest critics throughout his tenure in Montreal, and I have to hand it to him here. He allowed this team the chance to prove to everyone else what he already saw.
All that’s left is to find out if this team can reward his belief with the ultimate piece of hardware.