It’s now or never for Marc Bergevin and the long term success of the Habs
Emerging from the lockout with so much promise, the Canadiens have stalled in recent years. The window isn’t closed, but the long-term fate of the team hinges on the short-term actions of the general manager.
For the three seasons immediately following the lockout of 2012, the Montreal Canadiens appeared to be trending upwards, ready to emerge as a genuine contender.
Although the Habs had underlying issues, they were not so great as to irreversibly torpedo the team’s long-term prospects, so long as these issues were properly identified and rectified.
The 2015-16 season, following the injury to Carey Price, exposed these issues to the light and gave General Manager Marc Bergevin a legitimate opportunity to push the team to the next level during the offseason.
We all know what happened instead.
The moves culminated in a disappointing 2016-17 campaign which saw the termination of Bergevin-loyalist head coach Michel Therrien and a limp first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers. Although the Canadiens were able to (some would say forced to) remove an significant anchor holding them back from 2014-15 onward, the collateral damage was a heavy price to pay.
To make matters worse, the GM is now staring at the very real possibly that the coach he passed over in the offseason (Guy Boucher) might face off against the defenseman he rejected (P.K. Subban) in the Stanley Cup finals.
But when it comes time to call, one must play with the cards in their hand, and despite everything, the Canadiens remain a very good hockey team heading into 2017-18.
However, their margin for error has significantly decreased and their overall future outlook is quite a bit darker. Now, Bergevin needs to recognize that the next 14 months, encompassing the 2017 offseason, the 2017-18 season, and the 2018 offseason, will not only cement his legacy, but the future of the CH for perhaps the next decade.
The team he has
Let’s look first at the current state of the Montreal Canadiens.
At forward, for all the ink printed about the team’s weaknesses down the middle, the Canadiens, while not elite, remain above average. Phillip Danault’s emergence has given the Habs four top-9 centers in Alex Galchenyuk, Danault, Tomas Plekanec, and Andrew Shaw. Galchenyuk’s late season struggles have been well documented, but properly replacing a player who has been a more prolific goal scorer than Evgeni Kuznetsov over the last 3 years is a large and risk-laden task. Galchenyuk’s potential upper ceiling, combined with how the Habs finally have winger depth (assuming Alexander Radulov is retained) following the breakout seasons of Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, means that the Habs easily have the capacity to play Galchenyuk at center in order to see what they really have.
In the same way , Brendan Gallagher and Plekanec are also due for bounce back seasons. As noted, Gallagher’s capacity to generate offense never actually decreased, and Plekanec at worst is a savvy defense-first 2.5C in the mold of Mike Fisher and Ryan Kesler. He will never be worth his contract, but the Canadiens have no immediate need for that cap space and Plekanec remains a steady part of the roster for the time being.
One major hole in the roster is the 4th line - which is not a bad situation to have. Bergevin’s trade deadline focused extensively on building a bigger, grittier 4th line, and it backfired spectacularly as their speedy Rangers counterparts such as Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, and especially 3rd pairing rookie Brady Skjei skated circles around them.
On defense, Shea Weber fulfilled all expectations and Andrei Markov continues to defy Father Time. Jeff Petry provided consistency in driving possession (although not actual goal production), and Jordie Benn was a pleasant surprise. Nathan Beaulieu had a very up and down season, but again, is at worst a useful 3rd pairing/2nd PP player. The recent acquisition of Jakub Jerabek and the expected promotion of Mikhail Sergachev means the Habs will not be short of mobility on the blueline for next season - should they choose to use it.
The team he needs
The Canadiens have an elite goaltender, a very good forward unit, and a solid defense corps. Apart from the lack of elite skater talent (outside of perhaps Pacioretty), Bergevin’s primary decisions for this season concern relatively minor issues. He needs to decide whether he wants his 4th line to be useful or to simply soak up minutes. He needs to figure out what to do with Alexei Emelin, who still has value, but simply doesn’t fit in this defensive corps given his lack of hockey sense and the increased emphasis on fluid transition play.
And while he should to try to obtain an elite 1C, he doesn’t need to (and definitively shouldn’t) bet the farm in order to do so. Despite everything, the Habs team that enters the 2017-18 campaign could be very similar to the division-winning team that started 2016-17… with one major improvement behind the bench.
What the future holds
However, Bergevin very much holds the potential to rend this relatively optimistic picture asunder. The Canadiens currently have just five forwards under contract for the 2018-19 season: Max Pacioretty, Gallagher, Shaw, Byron, and Lehkonen, with two additional players (Galchenyuk and Danault) as RFAs. This gives Bergevin the potential to either keep the forward core intact or blow it up altogether – especially down the middle.
I cannot claim to read Bergevin’s mind, but he has offered a very public vote of non-confidence for the current batch of AHL prospects, meaning that he may try to fill between 5-7 forward slots through free agency over the next 14 months.
Given Bergevin’s propensity for risk aversion, character, and the relative lack of value in the free agent market, this path likely means more grinders for the 4th line, and at worst, could result in a Matt Beleskey-like anchor for the top 6.
On defense, Weber, Petry, and Sergachev will be under contract after 2017-18, and Bergevin will finally be able to free himself from the Emelin contract. His main priority here will be to replace Andrei Markov (although... you never know) and provide proper support for a Shea Weber who will likely not be an elite 1D (given that there’s debate that he isn’t an elite 1D presently).
This is a major task, and Bergevin’s track record with big moves is not promising, nor is his track record regarding talent evaluation for modern defensemen.
Finally, the major reason why 2017-18 could be a tipping point is the impending expiry of Carey Price’s contract. Bergevin’s ability to construct a team capable of contending for 4-5 years will likely play a large factor in what could be Price’s final NHL contract. Alternatively, Bergevin’s inability to build a contending team in the modern NHL could result in Price’s exodus, as he seeks to cement his legacy with a Stanley Cup. In the latter scenario, Price’s departure could serve as the tipping domino for Pacioretty (after 2018-19). Depending on what has been done with Galchenyuk, the departure of both Price and Pacioretty would be the end of the current core and likely spell the end of the Canadiens as a playoff team.
Bergevin’s legacy will be defined by the next 14 months
Facing a window that has shortened but is not fully closed, Montreal's GM needs to properly recognize what he actually has and what he really needs in the modern NHL landscape. Given the coaching and system upheaval that has occurred in the last quarter of the Canadiens’ season, the worst thing that the Montreal GM could do is overreact based on a poor 30 game sample.
At the same time, standing idle and making minor adjustments of little to no consequence is no longer an option if the Canadiens want to make a deep run. Bergevin is faced with a situation where he must make moves, and they must be the right moves. Going into what could very well be his final season at the helm of the Canadiens, Bergevin is treading a fine line between euphoria and disaster – for both himself personally and the franchise as a whole.
The man who has been one step behind for much of his tenure now needs to be one step ahead of the game.