By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC – Though the wounds of a playoff loss to the Ottawa Senators are still relatively fresh, anyone with an objective point of view can say that 2013 was a good year for the Montreal Canadiens. A team that had finished 15th in the Eastern Conference the prior season played above all expectations, winning the regular season Northeast Division crown before sputtering out in the first round of the post-season.

It was supposed to be a development season, a year for some of the organization’s young players to gain experience, while veterans tried to re-gain their timing from off-years or injury problems, playing themselves into or out of the organization’s future plans. Yet from the first day of training camp, one got the feeling that this wouldn’t be sufficient for the new management and coaching staffs at the team’s helm. “No excuses,” they said. No keeping at an arm’s length from the players, referring to each as Mr. so-and-so, while nary being spotted outside of games and practices.

Bergevin and Therrien have reason to look satisfied with their first year together; but there remains work to be done (PHOTO: PIERRE-PAUL POULIN/QMI Agency)
Bergevin and Therrien have reason to look satisfied with their first year together; but there remains work to be done (PHOTO: PIERRE-PAUL POULIN/QMI Agency)

No, this group was going to ensure the Montreal Canadiens were playing – and living – like professional athletes, so that they would be ready to perform at the height of their potential on any given day. And if they weren’t? This staff quickly showed it didn’t have patience to sit through a repeat of 2011-12, jettisoning bodies (and contracts) it deemed dead weight.

That’s exactly how it worked for most of the season. Fans and members of the media alike aren’t wrong to point to this revamped a culture as a major catalyst in the team’s remarkable turnaround. It is almost certainly what earned Marc Bergevin a nod as a nominee for General Manager of the Year. However, even when the team was winning, and receiving significant contributions from pillars of the future in Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, there were some troubling inconsistencies. Certainly the men in hockey operations did their best to uphold their mantra, but anyone perceiving them as flawless is looking through unrealistic rose-coloured glasses. Thus, while most are busy singing their praises – and I’m not saying they’re wrong to do so – below is a more critical look at GM Bergevin’s rookie season and Michel Therrien‘s return to the Habs’ bench.

MARC BERGEVIN – BRINGING CLASSY BACK

I don’t known that Marc Bergevin and Pierre Gauthier have anything in common outside of the line in their biography that says they General Manager’ed the Montreal Canadiens. Right from the start, it was evident that Bergevin was ushering in a new era of work ethic and accountability, important elements missing from 2011-12’s 15th-place-in-the-East team. A coach like Michel Therrien (more on him below) and a player like Brandon Prust were key additions to embody this changing of styles, and with a few other minor tweaks, we were off to the races.

The concept of no one player being bigger than the team was put to the test with the holdout of P.K. Subban, but Bergevin wouldn’t flinch. Subban’s side eventually gave in to a two-year deal which was of tremendous value to the Canadiens. Then when Erik Cole – arguably the team’s best player in 2011-12 – was slow out of the gates and showed few signs of waking up, his contract was shipped out in return for the more productive Michael Ryder.

In keeping with his mantra of building through the draft, Bergevin also gave chances to younger players, ensuring there were roster spots for Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher out of training camp, and then providing auditions to Greg PaterynJarred Tinordi, and Nathan Beaulieu when injuries created vacancies on the blueline.

Without sacrificing a draft pick, Bergevin sought to address the team’s weaknesses this season when he plucked veteran Jeff Halpern off waivers. It may be tough to expect Halpern to play every game at this stage of his career, but when in the line-up, his work on face-offs and the penalty kill were of dire importance to the squad.

However, contrary to popular belief, not everything Bergevin touched turned to gold. Keeping Subban’s salary low for these two seasons when the club isn’t looking to be a top contender won’t be as big a benefit as would have been getting him locked up at a reasonable amount for a longer term. Now the GM will have to pony up even bigger bucks to keep the Norris candidate a part of this team’s future. If he sees him fitting that puzzle, that is. Which he undoubtedly should.

Cole-for-Ryder worked in the shortest-term, and will likely pay off in the long-term given the years and amounts left on Cole’s contract. But still, it isn’t inconceivable that Erik Cole would have been a bigger help to getting the Canadiens past the Ottawa Senators in the first round of this year’s playoffs than the near-invisible and always streaky Ryder. Particularly when you factor in the play of David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, both of whom credited their linemate Cole as playing a big part in their prior success. Would there have been a more useful addition than Ryder and a third round pick that Montreal could have obtained for Cole? Was the timing right – would he have been just as movable this summer as he was mid-season given his poor numbers? It’s easy to say that Bergevin won this trade by dumping Cole’s deal, but that doesn’t mean it was the optimal move.

I don’t think much explanation is required to say the Davis Drewiske acquisition was a failure. Sure, the price was cheap (a 5th round pick), but it may have behooved Bergevin to pony up a slightly greater asset to bring in a player who would have been a bigger help. For a 4th round pick, Toronto added Ryan O’Byrne who played a more significant role with the team, and for just a conditional 7th, Boston obtained Wade Redden. That’s without getting into the multiple picks the GM could have parted with to add a Douglas Murray or Robyn Regehr, moves that likely weren’t fits for a surprising team unlikely to challenge for a Stanley Cup. The assessment of Drewiske by pro scouting was an error, as though he had size, his defensive lapses and lack of top end physical game didn’t address the team’s true needs on the back end. Nor did he have the experience to provide net benefits over playing one of the team’s prospect d-men.

No General Manager bats 1.000, and for the most part, these are all minor/debatable misjudgments. The bigger concern, to me, was Bergevin’s re-signing choices/practices. Pundits were right to question Bob Gainey‘s policy of not negotiating contracts mid-season, but perhaps all were too quick to applaud Bergevin for taking the opposite approach. Signing a player during the season makes a lot of sense when it comes to the guys you identify as the club’s core moving forward; players your team would struggle to replace should they move elsewhere at year’s end. Unfortunately, this doesn’t – or shouldn’t – apply to any of the deals ink’ed during the 2013 campaign.

There is no doubting David Desharnais is a skilled forward, but for a team that’s been saying for years that it needs to get bigger, he shouldn’t be considered a long-term fit. His contract extension was a mistake from the day it was signed, made further evident as his play worsened down the stretch. Having a Desharnais in the line-up handicaps the rest of your roster, as you’re forced to pair him with big, tough scoring wings, and ideally ones just as responsible in their own end as they are in the offensive zone to make up for the center’s defensive shortcomings. The problem is that these ideal linemates are generally top line players, which means Desharnais has to follow along to a top line. Center depth isn’t a bad thing, but this forces a team into awkward combinations, particularly given Tomas PlekanecLars Eller, and Alex Galchenyuk may ALL be better options at the position as early as next season. Sure, moving the 5’6″ pivot to wing is a possibility, but why not wait to see how he handles that challenge before committing to him for four years? The term combined with the not insignificant dollar amount likely make him impossible to trade if it doesn’t work out. Debatably, this makes him a more sensible compliance buyout target than even Tomas Kaberle given the lone season left on his contract. Desharnais is a depth scorer at this point; a nice-to-have complimentary type, but not the guy you want your team depending on for significant minutes in a leading role. He’s the kind of guy who steps in temporarily to produce a bit, but then gets replaced/upgraded as your team improves. Let’s hope it doesn’t take four more years for this team to improve.

You can’t hate Francis Bouillon. He seems to be a good team veteran, and certainly his effort level is there night after night. But he represents yet another diminutive player on a defense not overflowing with big bodies, as tough as he tries to play. Moreover, contrary to what many claim, he isn’t that perfect partner for the youth who come up from Hamilton, a role he was pressed into this season. Sure his veteran presence and leadership are welcome, but he isn’t the Roman Hamrlik of a few years back, a defensive stalwart in his own zone able to cover for rookie mistakes of a young partner. In fact, the rookies themselves had to cover for Bouillon virtually as often as Franky would help them out on the ice. He is a favourite of Therrien’s, and at least partly as such, was overplayed for a majority of the season beyond what his true role should be, limited to No. 6 ice time with occasional visits to the press box when everyone is healthy. As it stands, with his confirmed return and the likely graduation of one of the D prospects to full-time duty in the Fall, there is no roster spot available to bring in outside help for a defensive group that struggled mightily down the stretch. It’s not that Bouillon returning is necessarily a mistake, or that his one year extension is a big problem, but would there really have been so many teams banging down his door when the UFA market opens July 5th that the team couldn’t wait to explore other upgrade options first?

Peter Budaj had a solid season. Statistically, his save percentage declined from a year ago to this year, but that’s due in part to a slow start from which he recovered nicely. He seems to be a good teammate, and content with his role in backing up Carey Price. Given a lack of quality options on the goaltender market this summer, most are happy to see him returning. But it comes down to once again odd timing of an extension for a player who will play likely no more than 20 games next year. The two-year term has to also have prospect Dustin Tokarski questioning his future in the organization. Tokarski is another one handled weirdly by the coaching and management staff, as he showed real promise when first acquired, but was never made a true starter in Hamilton and then was left apart from the team in the playoffs, with the staff opting to sit Robert Mayer on the bench and in the dressing room instead when Carey Price was injured. Budaj is likely the best available fit as Price’s back-up, and thus this isn’t a bad signing, but it just further builds the strange case of extending non-core players at unnecessary times.

The problem with these signings, particularly those of Desharnais and Bouillon, is that they were done when the team was winning. Anyone can look good when your team is on the kind of run Montreal was for the first three-quarters of the season. You see another side of players when your team is struggling, and rather than helping stabilize the situation, Desharnais and Bouillon are players who slid into the hole along with their teammates. If there is one learning Bergevin can take away from this season as a corrective measure for future moves, hopefully it’s that.

In sum, yes Bergevin played a big part in Montreal’s turnaround from fifteenth in the East to second, but so did, for example, the health of key players on the roster. It is really premature for him to have gotten such high recognition as a nomination for General Manager of the Year, as he still has room to grow into his role, but he was wise in holding on to his stockpile of picks for the coming entry draft, and there is reason to be hopeful that he will guide this team towards contendership in the coming seasons.

MICHEL THERRIEN – A LITTLE NEW, A LITTLE OLD

Not everyone was thrilled to see Michel Therrien returning to the team with whom he broke into the NHL as a head coach. While he improved in his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins, multiple coaching errors can be pinpointed back to him throughout his career that it was unclear whether or not he had used as a learning opportunity. Certainly he propagated Bergevin’s winds of change within the locker room, and thus if this is the GM’s biggest contribution to the team’s improvements, credit should also go to Therrien. But the work of he and his staff this year can also be questioned on a number of fronts.

It’s no secret that Therrien has favourites. The additions of Bouillon and Colby Armstrong as players Therrien is very familiar with were no coincidences. However, he seemed to rely on an old crutch in overplaying them through much of the season, showing bias in forcing those he knew less to earn that same degree of trust. While Bouillon and Armstrong may bring intangibles to the locker room – not an entirely ignorable factor – it isn’t a reason for them to be in the line-up nightly when better options may be available, or for them to receive greater minutes than others outperforming them.

Speaking of players deserving of larger roles, Therrien was right to limit/shelter the minutes of green rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher early in the season. But towards the end of the year, when it was evident the two were among the team’s best forwards every game, the coach was highly reluctant to let them off their leashes. While the likes of David Desharnais, Brian GiontaMichael Ryder, and Max Pacioretty struggled at times during the team’s slump, the coach continued to lean on them rather than giving the energetic youth a bigger opportunity to revitalize a squad lacking in drive and emotion. Would it have been too much pressure to put on two first year pros? Perhaps, but there is nothing in the game or attitude of either player to indicate they wouldn’t have been able to handle it, and perhaps it would have allowed some of the vets to refocus their games.

If we are to believe Therrien in his claims of giving a lot of freedom and responsibility to the rest of his staff, it’s only fair to also be critical of J.J. Daigneault. Daigneault’s experience prior to joining the Montreal staff was limited to Assistant Coaching at the AHL level, leaving him the least qualified (based on past credentials) of the new NHL hires. A solid NHL D-man in his own day, he was put in charge of managing the defense and the penalty kill, and didn’t thrive in either role. In addition to Bouillon, Andrei Markov played far too many minutes right from the start of the season, a trend many hoped would end once P.K. Subban‘s holdout was resolved. But it didn’t. Markov continued to take on the lion’s share of the load, and it was Subban whose minutes were initially limited, even once he had gotten an expected couple of games of adjustment/catching up under his belt. Rookies inserted into the line-up later in the season were also not given true opportunities to succeed, quickly seeing their ice time dwindle to six to nine minutes a game. The penalty killing was a weakness all year long, falling dramatically from 2nd in the league (88.6%) in 2011-12 to 23rd in the league (79.8%) this season. Despite the passive diamond system clearly not working, few alterations were made to try to right the course.

It is less clear who was principally in charge of the powerplay between Gerard GallantClement Jodoin, and Therrien himself, but personnel decisions there were equally as mysterious. Despite their play, Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk couldn’t buy PP time for most of the season, no matter how big of a man-advantage slump David Desharnais or Tomas Plekanec were going through. Perhaps most peculiar was the staff’s sudden decision to start Galchenyuk on the powerplay… in the final playoff game of the year! After giving him almost no time to work within the team’s systems in such circumstances, in the most critical of situations trailing the series 3-1 to Ottawa, suddenly Galchenyuk was on the first wave. It felt almost like a concession to placate critics rather than an actual admission that he had earned such an opportunity.

Was it the curse of Joe Juneau that saw Desharnais tossed from the face-off circle in game four? (PHOTO: Canadiens.com)
Was it the curse of Joe Juneau that saw Desharnais tossed from the face-off circle in game four? (PHOTO: Canadiens.com)

Speaking of that playoff series, let’s flash back to Therrien’s last tenure in Montreal. Remember that playoff meltdown against the Carolina Hurricanes? Where Therrien took an unsportsmanlike penalty, and then sent out Joe Juneau and Bill Lindsay for an overtime defensive zone face-off, leaving draw expert Yanic Perreault on the team’s bench? And Juneau was tossed out, with no second centerman on the ice. Carolina won an easy draw against a winger, scored, won the game, and never looked back? Flash forward to game 4 between the Sens and Habs this year. With the controversy of the wrong side face-off, kicked-in goal, and later poor icing calls, a similar Therrien miscue has been overlooked. The Canadiens led 2-0 with under ten minutes to play, looking to even the series at two games a piece. Carey Price froze a puck leading to a defensive zone draw. And Therrien decides to send out David Desharnais with Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. Desharnais, always weak on face-offs in the best of times, had been thrown out of the circle over and over again all series long as Ottawa players continually badgered referees to monitor his leaning in/cheating. So it was no random happenstance that he was thrown out on this draw as well, leaving Gallagher to unsuccessfully try to win one away from Zack Smith, and moments later, the puck was behind Price. Where were Tomas Plekanec or Jeff Halpern?

Therrien is a fiery coach, almost as opposite from Jacques Martin as Bergevin is from Gauthier. Coaches of that ilk tend to have a shelf life after which they begin to get tuned out. There isn’t much evidence of this happening this quickly, but something to monitor is the behaviour and mannerisms of P.K. Subban. We saw a reserved Subban for much of the season, playing some of the best hockey of his career, but in the home stretch and into the post-season, he visibly lost his cool on more than one occasion. I’m not suggesting the Canadiens should fire Therrien after a single season. Certainly he was working with a very average roster, and managed to get the most out of many of his players for most of the season. But there are some troubling tendencies mixed in with all the success that he must tighten up to avoid regressing back to mediocrity in 2013-14.

BUILDING ON YEAR ONE

I don’t mean for this all to come off as overly negative. With few holding true playoff expectations or even hopes back in January, Therrien and Bergevin were certainly important to the resurrection of a team that looked lost a year ago. They are competent hockey men, and have surrounded themselves with many other experienced and successful subject matter experts who will only help steer them to improving on their first year exploits.

But it’s also important for that staff to take a hard and critical look at this season rather than being carried away with their regular season division title. Neither Bergevin nor Therrien seem the type to settle for average results, which is reason to be hopeful that this summer brings the right changes to ascend to the next level towards being able to compete with the league’s best.