Many ‘experts’ were predicting the Montreal Canadiens to find themselves out of the playoffs this season, calling last season a fluke and claiming that the team was closer to the one two years ago than the one we saw in last year’s shorten season. So far, the Habs are proving their doubters wrong but in spite of the results in the points column, they still face more than their fair share of criticism.
PENTICTON, BC. — When Geoff Molson decided that he had seen enough and sought the help of his good friend Serge Savard, they stopped their choice on Marc Bergevin. It wasn’t an easy task to take over the most storied franchise and he set himself to bring back the pride in wearing the CH, the respect in the team’s history and brought back, with the help of head coach Michel Therrien, a level of expectations which brought this team its historical success over the years. The team had reached rock bottom, finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference and 28th overall in the NHL and that was not acceptable.
Under Executive Vice President and General Manager Bergevin, the Canadiens have played 86 regular season’s games. Their record? 55 wins, 24 losses, 8 overtime losses, good for 110 points! That’s just over one full NHL seasons worth (82 games). They finished second in the Eastern Conference last year, fourth overall, and are sitting in fourth place in the East at the time of writing those lines. This amazing turnaround didn’t go unnoticed around the NHL when Bergevin was one of three finalists as GM of the year in 2012-2013, award voted on by the 30 NHL GMs and a panel of NHL executives and members of the print and broadcast media.
In numerous occasions, Bergevin has repeated, to those willing to listen, that he does not have the traditional five-year plan. He states that he wants to make the Canadiens a contender year-in, year-out with sound drafting and player development. Understanding the need of good, young cheap labour in a salary cap NHL, he knows the value of drafting well and developing young men and feels like character is the biggest difference between winners and losers in this day and age.
Let’s break down his work since taking over Pierre Gauthier’s job in Montreal…
• He surrounded himself with qualified and experienced people on whom he is not afraid to ask for opinions and to listen to them: Rick Dudley as assistant GM, Scott Mellanby as Director of Player Personnel, Martin Lapointe as Director of Player Development and Michel Therrien as Head Coach. Other additions included Gerard Gallant, J.J. Daigneault and Clement Jodoin as assistant coaches, and Bergevin also appointed former Montreal Canadiens defenseman Patrice Brisebois as Player Development Coach.
• It had been reported on many occasions that one of the organization’s biggest asset, Trevor Timmins, was suppressed by former management and Bergevin narrowed his role while providing him more freedom, naming him Director of Amateur Scouting. The structure was then set on all levels to ensure good scouting and player development.
• After the new CBA was signed, Bergevin’s first big on-ice decision was to tell Scott Gomez that he would continue getting his salary by staying comfortably at home, avoiding injuries which might have prevented the Canadiens to buy-out the contract he inherited from previous management. This action, along with Rangers’ Glen Sather who did the same later with Wade Redden, forced the NHL and the NHLPA to make exceptions to the CBA by allowing the teams to buy one player out immediately. The culture change was starting in Montreal.
• Giving Timmins more free reign paid off immediately as experts claimed that the Canadiens stole the 2012 Draft with picks like Alex Galchenyuk, Sebastian Collberg, Dalton Thrower, Tim Bozon, Brady Vail, Charles Hudon and Erik Nystrom. While the final verdict is far from over on most of those guys, Galchenyuk has been a gem and he will be for years to come, while the others are all top end talent.
• Bergevin and most of his management team are former players and they know and recognize the need for them to be well protected on the ice and the Canadiens’ GM was not afraid to pay the price for the top tough guy on the free agents’ market, making Brandon Prust a $10 million man. Many were questioning the move around the NHL and in Montreal but all are forced to acknowledge that in retrospect, it was a great move. None know it more than Glen Sather and the Rangers, who are deeply missing him ever since.
• One of Bergevin’s biggest and perhaps most controversial decision, at least within the fan base, was the contract negotiation with standout P.K. Subban. The defenseman wanted a long term deal while Bergevin wanted him to prove himself with a bridge contract. While the jury is still out on who won that battle, it looks like so far, the Canadiens are the biggest winners as Subban won the Norris Trophy and is having another Norris worthy season while making under three million dollars a year, when the salary cap is at its lowest. If Bergevin manages to sign Subban long term, both parties will have won with Bergevin’s decision as negotiations continue.
• As the 2012-2013 season went on and realizing that power-forward Erik Cole was not producing to his multi-year contract, he did not hesitate to trade him to Dallas in return for UFA to be and former Habs Michael Ryder, who highly out-produced Cole after the trade while freeing up some much needed cap space for the 2013-2014 season, when the cap hit was announce to take a steep cut of over six million dollars. In addition, Bergevin received a third round pick in 2013 (Connor Crisp).
• Under Bergevin and his management team’s recommendation, another mistake by previous management was sat out for the rest of the season when veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle didn’t see the ice to avoid getting injured and preventing the team from buying out his contract. Instead, the team took full advantage of the situation to evaluate the young defensemen by calling them up and giving them the opportunity to show where they were at in their development, a move too often ignored or under-estimated. Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn all saw some action in the later part of the season and/or in the playoffs, under high pressure situations.
• Acknowledging publically that his team needed to get bigger and tougher and that 29 other teams were looking for big skilled forwards and that the better way to get them was to draft them and develop your own, he (and Timmins) drafted Michael McCarron (6’5”), Jacob De La Rose and Connor Crisp (both 6’2”), who are all known for their physical play.
• Sometimes, it’s in the non-moves that one can recognize a good GM with a plan as opposed to a desperate one. While the Canadiens definitely could have used either one of free agents Ryane Clowe or David Clarkson, he pulled out of the running when the prices and terms became out of control, as clearly shown by the contract the two tough guys signed. It comes to no one surprise that both guys are not living up to those contracts so far and that Bergevin made the right decision to not overbid his counterparts.
• Seeing that teams were picking on Prust in the later part of the season and during the playoffs, Bergevin traded for heavyweight enforcer George Parros, he who was only signed for one more season. Unfortunately, Parros is finding himself with concussion problems caused by an unfortunate fall during a fight against Leafs’ tough guy Colton Orr, problems which compounded later on in the season.
• With Alexei Emelin out of the line-up for the first part of the 2013-2014 season, and with the uncertainty of the young defensemen’s play, Bergevin waited for the asking price to come down before signing rugged defenseman Douglas Murray to a one-year deal, also giving the team more flexibility while allowing young Tinordi to get top minutes in Hamilton to better develop.
• Giving David Desharnais a four year deal in the middle of the season when he was having some difficulties was premature. Desharnais had an awful start to this season but with 14 points in his last 17 games, he definitely has picked up his game but it remains to be seen if he will live up to the additional three years of that contract.
• When Bergevin signed Daniel Briere to a two-year, $8 million deal, I was one who preached that he deserved a chance in spite of not liking the idea. While a two-year deal is relatively low risk, the experience has not proven to be a good one so far and one can only hope that both parties find a way to make it work… for the sake of the team.
Show me a General Manager who has nailed every single decision that he’s made and I’ll show you a liar. While Bergevin has taken multiple risks required by the position he holds, even the pundits and most negative Habs’ fans have to acknowledge that thus far, he has done an excellent job in the short term that he has been able to do his job, outside the lockout. He does have more important decisions to make as he is negotiating with P.K. Subban’s next contract and he has some important decisions to make about some of the team’s impending free agents, but if the tendency continues, we will see a winner sooner rather than later.
Go Habs Go!
En français: Analyse en profondeur de Marc Bergevin