OTTAWA, ON – Fans and media are talking about the Montreal Canadiens as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Someone please pinch me. Not because I disagree, but because it’s taken too long for this to happen.
Until the last few seasons, who could blame anyone for having a “meh” attitude about the Habs? They developed a stigma as being a “fringe” team, one that had a lot of question marks and gaps in its roster. One that could compete to take a playoff spot but never had the “it” factor of a true contender. For about two decades the Montreal Canadiens were stuck in mediocrity.
Slowly over the last few seasons the mediocrity paint has started to settle into something great, much to the credit of General Manager Marc Bergevin.
This week, Geoff Molson announced a contract extension for Bergevin that will see him at the helm of the team through 2021-22. A move that’s been welcomed with large smiles and praise from fans and media alike.
Who wouldn’t be happy? Bergevin is widely known as the man who righted the ship, and there’s a great deal of truth to that.
Bergevin began his tenure as GM in Montreal with nowhere to go but up, taking the reins shortly after the Canadiens finished 15th in the Eastern Conference. Since that season, the Montreal Canadiens have won their division twice, taken a trip to the Conference semi-final, and Conference final in the past three seasons.
After Wednesday night’s win over the New York Rangers, the Montreal Canadiens are first in the NHL standings and seem poised to take another step forward this year. People are finally starting to drink the “kool-aid”, they’re truly starting to believe in this team, top to bottom, front to back… and yes, that includes the coach.
From the get-go, Bergevin has had a plan and stuck to it. Here are a few common themes from the GM that has brought this team to where they are now.
The Montreal Canadiens have countless rumours about them swirling each and every day. Of course there is! They are the league’s most beloved team supported by a global fan-base. People like to talk/read/hear about the Habs, it only makes sense that rumours surrounding the Canadiens are constant.
But never do we hear rumours from the Canadiens organization itself. Bergevin’s deals and personnel decisions have been tightly sealed, taking media/fans by surprise when they’re announced.
Look no further than the several trades he has made and even internal announcements such as Alex Galchenyuk’s move to centre. The team has notified Alex of his move to centre months before it was announced at the team’s Annual Charity Golf Tournament.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know how Marc Bergevin and his team has implemented such silence within its walls but I like to think it’s based on respect for the players and the game. Decisions that any General Manager makes affect lives, and when rumours start circling, whether true or false, can create distractions within the dressing room and personal lives of the players involved.
Mr. Bergevin has assumed the title of a true bargain hunter. If the price for a player is too high, you know Bergevin isn’t interested until it drops.
Two glaring examples are when Marc Bergevin traded fringe NHL defenceman Raphael Diaz for an under-appreciated forward Dale Weise. We all know how that has panned out.
Or, how about the time Bergevin moved prospect Sebastien Collberg and a second round pick (Johnathan MacLeod) for sniper Thomas Vanek. Bergevin was able to acquire one of the trade deadline’s biggest targets on an expiring contract without giving up a first round pick or a highly touted prospect in the system.
Additionally, Bergevin is willing to take the long haul to get the player he wants at a price he is comfortable with. Take Jeff Petry for example who was highly coveted by many teams last season, and apparently targeted by Bergevin for months. On trade deadline day, Bergevin acquired Petry many hours before the deadline for a second round pick and a conditional fifth round pick. A deal many at the time considered lopsided in favour of the Canadiens and further proven by the play of Jeff Petry, who Bergevin managed to sign to a five-year contract extension this past offseason.
Choice and Support of Personnel
Marc Bergevin has preached the notion of a “team” since his arrival and his philosophy transfers to his front-office.
There seems to be a select few people who have believed in Michel Therrien since his re-hiring with the Habs. One of them is Marc Bergevin, and I assume the rest of the individuals are either related to Therrien or work for Marc Bergevin. He’s stuck with his coach thru all of the scrutiny he has received. He has publicly defended Therrien’s system, the long-term approach he has taken with Galchenyuk, and has even traded players that don’t seem to jive with Therrien’s type of play (ie. Jiri Sekac.)
Now, nearly a quarter into the 2015-16 season the Habs are first in the NHL, a puck-possession driven team and nearly everyone, including myself, is starting to give Therrien the credit he deserves.
Stephane Waite, the Canadiens goalie coach, has been another personnel acquisition of Bergevin’s. Having seen Mr. Waite work with Corey Crawford in Chicago, Bergevin sought out his services to help Carey Price develop into the world class tender he has become.
Ah, the importance of depth.
After a 2014-15 season where the Habs were faced with minimal injuries, they’ve suffered several very early into the 2015-16 season. Key injuries to players such as Price, Alexei Emelin, Brendan Gallagher, and Torrey Mitchell have forced the Habs to rely on their depth and they are responding extremely well.
Organizational depth is allowing prospects such as Charles Hudon, Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak to develop in the AHL, while more seasoned prospects like Sven Andrighetto fill in for injured players. The depth is also providing Bergevin with a unique opportunity to perhaps make a trade via moving one of the team’s defenceman.
With Emelin’s injury, Greg Pateryn was given an opportunity to play a few games. However, Jared Tinordi has not been so lucky. Young defenceman, like Tinordi, need to be playing consistently in order to develop. Bergevin needs to find a way to either find ice-time for Tinordi or receive value for him in a trade.
Cap management is vital in the new NHL. Every little bit counts, and having a GM that can find good bargains is crucial. Bergevin has done a great job at shedding salary to leave him some wiggle room. Let’s take a quick look at three separate deals where Bergevin shipped Brandon Prust ($2.5M), Travis Moen ($1.85M) and Josh Gorges ($3.9M) out of Montreal. All of these players were underachieving relative to their salary and had remaining term left on their contract. In return, Bergevin managed to receive a second round pick, Zack Kassian ($1.75M and a restricted free agent at the end of the season), fifth round pick and Sergei Gonchar ($5M which expired the year he was acquired).
With these three deals alone, Bergevin managed to dump about $6.5M while acquiring picks and Zack Kassian. Note that I didn’t include Gonchar’s contract as it expired the year he was acquired and he was not resigned.
I could go-on and on about the make-up of this team, from bargain finds, to methodically choosing a captain, to the character of each individual and the collective unit, but from the information above I think it’s safe to say that Marc Bergevin has done an exceptional job with the Canadiens. The team has finally made the leap from mediocre to one of the league’s best. Let’s enjoy this, shall we?