Short-term flashes against a growing darkness: Marc Bergevin’s tenure

The former general manager certainly had his wins, but his tenure is ultimately defined by a pervasive lack of long-term vision.

Whether you like him or loathe him, there is no question that Marc Bergevin has imprinted himself into the history of the Montreal Canadiens. Entering one of hockey’s toughest positions as a neophyte with only a year of NHL-level managerial experience under his belt, Bergevin endured a wild roller-coaster of a decade, persisting until a historically bad start to the 2021-22 season. As he departs, his nine-year tenure is the longest for any Canadiens GM since Serge Savard’s dismissal back in 1995.

Having spent so long in the hotseat, Bergevin has certainly given both his detractors and supporters ample arrows for their respective quivers. His fans will point to the team’s performance: three division titles, one Conference Semifinal appearance, and one Stanley Cup Final appearance. His opponents will note a continuing inability to fill key team needs, three years without a playoff appearance in a four-year stretch, and a team that has not finished above fourth in the division since 2016-17.

The ultimate question, as Bergevin is sent on his way, is whether the good outweighs the bad. And when weighing the team that he inherited versus the team that he bequeaths, the answer to that question, for me, is a definitive “no.”

Bergevin began his reign cautiously, using the first season to see what he had inherited. Surprisingly (given how bad the team was in 2011-12), what he had inherited was rather good. Bergevin’s core consisted of a future Norris Trophy winner, a future Vezina Trophy winner, a perennial 30-goal-scorer, three veterans (Brian Gionta, Andrei Markov, and Tomas Plekanec) that still had something in their legs, and three rookies (Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, and Lars Eller) that formed one of the more dynamic trios in recent Canadiens history.

Looking at this core, Bergevin revealed for the first time what would become one of his trademarks: a penchant for balance. Rather than doubling down on skill, Bergevin’s first moves prioritized toughness, attitude, and energy, bringing in Brandon Prust, Francis Boullion, and Colby Armstrong. But more than that, Bergevin’s attempt to balance skill and tenacity saw him hire Michel Therrien, a coach generously described as “defence-first” who acted as a brake on the Canadiens’ skill players — bar Carey Price — for his entire tenure.

The problem is that Bergevin’s pursuit of balance gradually turned into a bias toward “playing the right way” when push came to shove. As Therrien slowly turned the Canadiens’ high-octane offence — an offence that tied the Washington Capitals for goals scored in 2012-13 — into molasses, Bergevin sat by and doubled down on his coach. Certain events like the Eric Gryba predatory hit on Eller during the 2013 playoffs didn’t help matters, as Bergevin used that as a pretext to bring twin anchors George Parros and Douglas Murray into the fold.

Even when Bergevin tried to acquire additional skill (likely for the sake of balance), his tacit support of Therrien rendered the acquisitions moot. Daniel Brière and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau failed to reach their potentials, Alexander Semin couldn’t play his way off a fourth line that mixed with him like oil and water, and Nathan Beaulieu’s first season was continously disrupted by a Murray-sized roadblock.

The prevaling on-ice notion that toughness trumped skill bled over into the boardroom as well, where skill acquisitions had a much tougher road to trek. Galchenyuk, Eller, and P.K. Subban all received bridge contracts, but the pugnacious Gallagher was inked to a six-year deal immediately coming off the completion of his entry-level contract.

All of this gradually accumulated over the seasons, culminating in the first explosive decision of Marc Bergevin’s tenure. As the Canadiens floundered in the 2015-16 season in the absence of Carey Price, a flashpoint ignited between Therrien, the embodiment of toughness, and Subban, the embodiment of skill.

Bergevin chose Therrien. By February, 2016, it was clear that he had chosen incorrectly.

Subban’s departure, Shea Weber’s arrival, a healthy Price .... none of it could save Therrien from his own devices. Not only was Bergevin forced to sack the coach that he had bet his Norris-winning defenceman on, Therrien’s Price-centric systems also forced him to shell out an $84-million dollar contract to replace the $72-million dollar contract that he had just sent to Nashville.

In hindsight, the Subban/Weber trade followed by Therrien’s ouster marked a turning point for Bergevin. Having already shaken the hockey world by making that trade, the general manager was no longer content to work around the edges. That summer, he emerged from his foxhole a new man, making several notable gambits in an attempt to stamp his authority on the organization. Unfortunately, this initial off-season for this new Bergevin would prove disastrous for the team in the long-term, and play a large part in why the Habs required a global pandemic to return to the post-season.

Therrien’s departure coincided with a shift in Bergevin’s mentality when it came to personnel decisions in the summer of 2017. The general manager had received much criticism for his loyalty to Therrien, and there was an underlying veneer of bitterness to how he handled internal expiring contracts. He famously pitted unrestricted free agents Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov against each other, implying that there was only money available for one of the two by saying “first come, first served.” He also played a firm hand when negotiating with restricted free agent Alex Galchenyuk (204 points in 336 games - 0.61 PPG), denying him the Gallagher-esque long-term extension he had been seeking.

Taking each decision as a separate entity, Bergevin had sound rationale for acting as he did. Galchenyuk departed the team after the 2017-18 season, Markov never returned to the NHL, and Radulov’s performance has nose-dived in the last three years. However, playing hardball with his own players while tossing sweetheart deals to players from outside of the organization set a poor precedent. It established Bergevin as someone who thought players should be grateful to don the CH for pennies, but was also willing to roll out the red carpet to get them to put on the sweater in the first place.

His actions essentially torpedoed a team trying to emerge from Therrien’s shackles. While Radulov’s absence would be somewhat compensated by Gallagher’s emergence, Markov would be harder to replace. Bergevin appeared to be sufficiently confident in retaining Markov in July that he traded Mikhail Sergachev in June for Jonathan Drouin. When Markov called Bergevin’s bluff, the general manager’s response was to throw money at lesser players on the market. By the end of that offseason, the Canadiens had no Markov, no Sergachev, and Karl Alzner signed to a five-year, $23-million contract.

In the case of Drouin himself, the forward was very obviously brought in to replace Alex Galchenyuk as the team’s star centre of the future. Not only was he given the contract on day one that Galchenyuk had been seeking, but he was also given the position from game one that Galchenyuk had been trying to cement for three years. Again, by year’s end, Bergevin found himself with no Galchenyuk and no Drouin at centre.

In 2017, Bergevin not only gambled and lost, but he lost gambles that he could not afford to lose. The Canadiens are still looking for an established long-term star centre, setting high hopes on Nick Suzuki after having cycled through Galchenyuk, Drouin, Max Domi, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The team is also still looking for a replacement for Markov, and it is arguable that Bergevin has failed to replace the 38-year-old Markov that he originally jettisoned, let alone Markov in his prime.

But hey, if you want loyalty, buy a dog, right?

To Bergevin’s credit, he did learn lessons from these major setbacks. Julien’s leash was much shorter than Therrien’s, and the general manager was not afraid to take decisive action when the team entered a tailspin in the 2020-21 season. Bergevin has also improved on the personnel side, getting an outstanding return for Max Pacioretty. plucking Jeff Petry and Paul Byron from Alberta, and obtaining Tyler Toffoli, Ben Chiarot, and Joel Edmundson from free agency on cap-friendly deals.

Nonetheless, these events are ultimately representative of who Bergevin was and is. The prolonged retention of Therrien indicated that Bergevin could not discern good process from good results. This inability to critically evaluate good and bad process makes it difficult for a general manager to assemble a roster that actually encourages good process and discourages bad process. It also makes it difficult for the general manager to recognize players, such as Markov or, more recently, Phillip Danault, who disproportionately impacted a team’s success by driving good process.

These events are also representative of Bergevin’s inability to plan for a worst-case scenario:

Can the team play without Carey Price? Bergevin clearly believes the answer is no, based on the 2015-16 season and the mega-contract that followed. However, he also failed to insulate Price, not acquiring a proper backup goaltender until Jake Allen’s arrival in 2020.

Can the team play without Andrei Markov? Bergevin failed to even entertain the notion, so confident of Markov’s return that he shipped out his apparent replacement two weeks prior to the opening of the free-agency window.

Can the team play without Shea Weber? Bergevin witnessed first-hand the prospects of a Weber-less team in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He’s witnessing it again in 2021-22. Yet after Jeff Petry, the best that the Habs currently have is a floundering David Savard and a very green Alexander Romanov.

Can the team play without Phillip Danault? Bergevin clearly thought so, encouraged by the emergence of three young centres in Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, and Jake Evans behind the now-Los Angeles King. But can the team play without Danault and Kotkaniemi? That was the gamble Bergevin took by not signing his second third overall pick during the season.

You may ask why this article does not contain extended descriptions of Bergevin’s successes in addition to his failures. The problem is that Bergevin’s failures have team-and career-defining ramifications, while his successes, while numerous, are relatively limited in scope and reach. There is one notable exception: his exchange of Max Pacioretty for Suzuki and Tomas Tatar. How history looks at that trade remains to be seen, and will be heavily dependent on whether Suzuki can live up to his new contract.

Consequently, Bergevin’s good moves allowed him to climb out of holes that he dug himself, while his bad ones turned into spectacular albatrosses. The absence of a cohesive vision meant that definitive long-term wins were few and far between.

Acquiring Danault for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann was a stroke of brilliance, but why were Weise and Fleischmann on the team to begin with?

Turning Galchenyuk into Josh Anderson (by way of Max Domi) was excellent business, but is it also an indictment of the team’s inability to cultivate a high-end pick?

Weber for Subban turned out to be a long-term win as Subban’s body failed him, but Bergevin was looking for a short-term breakthrough as well, one that did not come.

Even getting Suzuki and Tatar for Pacioretty was brilliant, but why did the team’s productive captain (and one of its only offensive threats) need to be dealt to begin with?

In 2012-13, Bergevin inherited 25-year-old Carey Price.
In 2021-22, he leaves 33-year-old Carey Price. A downgrade.

In 2012-13, Bergevin inherited P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov.
In 2021-22, he leaves Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry. A definitive downgrade.

In 2012-13, Bergevin inherited Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Rene Bourque, and Brian Gionta.
In 2021-22, he leaves Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Jonathan Drouin, Cole Caufield, and several others. A definitive upgrade.

In 2012-13, Bergevin inherited Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, and ostensibly Alex Galchenyuk.
In 2021-22, he leaves Nick Suzuki, Christian Dvorak, Jake Evans, and Ryan Poehling. A current downgrade, but a potential future upgrade.

From 2012-17, Bergevin’s Canadiens went 210-128-38, a .609 point percentage.
From 2017-21, his team went 134-137-43, a .495 point percentage.

This may be the product of a general manager who has operated for nine years with mere fragments of long-term vision. This may be the product of the culmination of a window that never really opened.

Either way, this is Marc Bergevin’s legacy.

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