For fans asking for a Canadiens rebuild, they are seemingly getting their wish. While the team has promised transparency (it’s a work in progress), there was no declaration announcing such restructuring. Yet, to me, actions speak louder than words.
This off-season, the moves made by Marc Bergevin have the look of those normally undertaken by a newly-hired general manager looking to reset a franchise. It’s obviously desperately needed after such a disastrous off-season one year ago. When Bergevin is eventually replaced, this reset will be part of his legacy.
I would argue that during Bergevin’s tenure, the Canadiens have had some very good years. With some puck luck and the right circumstances with key players performing at their peaks, the team could have made a deep playoff run. That said, it is clear that Bergevin’s teams lacked all the pieces to have a legitimate chance to be Stanley Cup contenders.
Bergevin did not have enough quality assets to acquire the missing pieces. And he was also unable to sign impactful unrestricted free agents to fill key roles.
From the beginning, Bergevin declared that his goal was to build through the draft. Achieving that goal was more difficult when the team was having success resulting in a later draft position.
As painful as it is for Habs management to admit, and fans to live with, last season was the beginning of a rebuild, in my estimation. Calling it a youth movement can help soften the blow. In the long term, a youth movement may be the best path for the Canadiens.
It has been proven time and again, that to become a contending team requires a few lean years with high draft picks. In the cap era, it has been a proven method. Teams like Chicago and Pittsburgh have won this way, others like Winnipeg and Toronto, are well along following this approach.
For the Canadiens, the youth movement has yielded 15 players at the NHL level who are 26 years-of-age or younger. The prospect pool has been restocked in the last three drafts with 13 players from the top 90 prospects and 29 players overall added to the system. It isn’t just about quantity, there is quality as well. The Canadiens will have eight draftees at the upcoming summer showcase ahead of the World Junior Championships.
So do youth movements mean that veterans over the age of 26 can be discarded? Of course not. Youth require leadership and players with experience to help guide the team.
Some have suggested that Carey Price should be traded as he doesn’t fit with this youthful core group. Yet, at 30 years of age, Price is still in the prime of his career as a goaltender. He can continue to be the anchor, providing many more years of excellent goaltending as demonstrated by the reigning Vezina trophy winner, Pekka Rinne.
The same can be said of perennial all-star Shea Weber. While he is 32-years-old, and recovering from knee surgery, it is expected he will return to his high-level of play just as Andrei Markov had when he recovered from multiple surgeries. Price and Weber are most likely to remain with the team to provide leadership and mentorship.
Whether or not team captain Max Pacioretty will return however seems to be the one question that will drag on this summer. In theory, the return on a trade for a player of this caliber should be substantial, potentially adding significant pieces to augment the Canadiens youth movement. Replacing a proven 30-plus goal-scorer with leadership abilities, willing to sign long-term in Montreal will not be easy. But it’s fair to say that it will be difficult for Pacioretty to return this upcoming season.
My advice is that fans should temper their expectations. As exciting as it is to hope that the Habs can earn the first overall pick in June 2019, keep in mind there will be a team of players looking to prove something: Price to show he’s still elite, Max Domi to prove he was worth trading away Alex Galchenyuk, and Pacioretty (if he remains) to prove he is worthy of a big contract. The burden would extend to Bergevin, Claude Julien and players as well, to demonstrate that the disaster of last season was just an aberration.
This team may or may not make the playoffs in 2018-19. In my estimation, they will not be floundering at the bottom of the standings as they did last year which will have a direct impact on the placement of their draft picks.
Needless to say, the Canadiens youth movement includes the Laval Rocket. The staff in Laval should play an integral role in the development of these young players. The job of Joel Bouchard is to develop his players to their full potential and graduate them to the NHL.
While Bouchard has a background in developing youth as a QMJHL coach, he must learn on the job to do so at the professional level, all while guiding Laval to a winning record. In my view, these goals, if met, would lead to a more successful farm system.
It is the new addition of Laval assistant coach Alexandre Burrows that leaves some scratching their heads. We know that Burrows had a hockey school and we have learned that he acted as a mentor to Senators prospect Francis Perron. But beyond that, Burrows has no coaching experience of any kind.
Some argue that Burrows has to start somewhere and there is a chance that he can succeed as a coach. But what can’t be ignored is the role he chose as a player. Burrow has had a spotty past and his record is a concern for many Habs fans.
How will Burrows’ lack of experience affect his performance as a coach? Will his poor judgment demonstrated as a player continue in his coaching role? Will these known issues impact prospects progression to the NHL?
All of these are valid questions and will generate concerns about Bouchard’s work developing the next generation of Habs.
In the last two drafts the Canadiens have added two potential top-six centre prospects that may have the potential to fill an organizational need. The simple fact is that Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling have not made the NHL yet. This season stop-gap measures will be required as fans wait for future stars to develop.
As great as it is to have an influx of youth to the Rocket and a new direction for the AHL team, it isn’t possible for all of the players to get ice-time in Laval. Bergevin’s next task is to find a new ECHL affiliate to accommodate all of the players under the Canadiens umbrella. I would like to see the Canadiens staff the ECHL team with their own coaching hires to allow proper player development for all prospects in the system.
I expect that there will be more growing pains and predict another difficult season or two before things improve for the better. At the end of the Bergevin era, I will acknowledge that there have been some good years and some bad years.
The debate may rage on for many years if Bergevin’s body of work met his own objectives and those of the team and was a positive benefit to the Canadiens. I expect that his trade of P.K. Subban, a popular player, will overshadow it all.
Yet, after six years on the job, if Bergevin has solved a long-term issue by deferring to Trevor Timmins at the draft table the past two years, I expect that his tenure will be deemed a success.