It’s now difficult to recall, but the Montreal Canadiens had hit close to rock bottom at the end of the 2011-12 season. The franchise had finished dead last in the Eastern conference and a calamitous season had seen fan protests over the appointment of non-French speaking interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth and the firing of General Manager Pierre Gauthier before the end of the season.
In the wake of those controversies, Marc Bergevin stepped in and his task was perceived to be one of re-building an organization.
A little less than three years on and it’s fair to say that Bergevin has been tremendously successful. The Montreal Canadiens are the top seed in the Eastern conference, in control of their first round series against Canadian rivals Ottawa and rightfully one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Bergevin’s intelligent cap management, shrewd deals and talent management (and of course a little luck) have made him one of the most highly regarded general managers in the NHL.
A glance at some of the moves that Bergevin has made so far this season are a pretty good indication of the meticulous thinking that goes into his decision making.
November moves that sent Travis Moen and Rene Bourque away in exchange for Sergei Gonchar and Bryan Allen may not have caused too much of a stir at the time. Bourque and Moen were bottom six forwards (though Bourque did have eight goals in the 2014 postseason), while Gonchar and Allen looked like little more than veteran depth pickups.
However, it’s pretty apparent that Bergevin was carefully moving assets around. Allen is an expensive AHL player, while Gonchar was relegated to a reserve role later in the year. Both players come off the books at the end of the season, while Moen and Bourque have deals through the end of 2015-16. In its entirety that means that Bergevin is likely to have around $15 million to play with this summer with Alex Galchenyuk, Nathan Beaulieu and possibly Jeff Petry is only concerns in terms of re-signing. Galchenyuk and Beaulieu are both only restricted free agents.
If the Canadiens are stopped in the playoffs this season, then Bergevin might have an even better opportunity to build a championship contender in 2015-16 as he attempts to take advantage of the current championship window for the Canadiens..
That window is largely provided by goaltender Carey Price, whose rise from good young goaltender to one of the NHL’s elite net minders has also coincidentally coincided with Montreal’s return to prominence.
Meanwhile, P.K. Subban provides a package of elite physical, offensive and defensive play that is rare in the NHL. He is often at the center of controversy and his overall defensive game probably still needs refining, but he plays an electric brand of hockey that clearly ignites his teammates. He followed up a 53-point campaign in 2013-14 with a 60-point season this year and he’ll be the catalyst for any postseason success that Montreal enjoys.
Price and Subban are 27 and 25 respectively and Bergevin has been fortunate to inherit a roster with a pair of premier players at their positions. You can probably throw this season’s 37-goal scorer into that mix in Max Pacioretty as well. However, that’s not to dismiss the impact he has had on this roster. It is Bergevin who has filled this lineup and has made the “right” decision on a number of players.
All three of Montreal’s top centers have faced questions about their status in the roster over the past couple of seasons. David Desharnais struggled after scoring 60 points in his second season, but appears to have settled as a 50-point man with a gritty streak. Tomas Plekanec’s $5 million salary has been questioned, but a 60-point campaign playing largely with the team’s youngster Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher has put most of that to rest. Lars Eller’s role in the team has been up in the air before finally finding space on the third line as a physical player with some offensive skills and the ability to step up in the playoffs.
Devante Smith-Pelly felt like a better fit than Jiri Sekac, who Bergevin beat many teams to sign and then showed no hesitation in shipping to Anaheim for a bruising goal-scoring winger. Smith-Pelly has hardly set the world alight in a Canadiens’ uniform, but he is currently skating on Montreal’s top line.
Meanwhile, the steal of the trade deadline was picking up Jeff Petry from the Edmonton Oilers for just a second round pick. The trade is likely to do Petry’s new contract as a UFA a world of good too – in a Canadiens uniform Petry has established himself firmly as a quality shutdown defenseman. He has helped to balance out Alexei Emelin’s game on the team’s second pairing.
Bitter rivals the Boston Bruins made the first big offseason move of the NHL offseason firing GM Peter Chiarelli last week. One of the biggest reasons cited was Chiarelli’s failure to draft effectively and to bring Boston’s prospects through the system.
Whatever you may think of that (Chiarelli’s defenders are many and make a strong case), it is clear that in the salary cap era, managing young talent is a vital part of both the coach’s and GM’s jobs. Bergevin scores top marks there (though he has only been involved in two drafts to date) with the lineup reliant upon its core of young talent including Galchenyuk, Gallagher, Pacioretty, Subban, Nathan Beaulieu and backup goaltender Dustin Tokarski.
Bergevin has impressed with his approach and he has brought a stability and belief to the organization of the Canadiens’ franchise, which had previously been lost.
The Canadiens will have some tough competition to reach the Stanley Cup Final in the East potentially facing the President Trophy winning New York Rangers, or tough division rivals the Tampa Bay Lightning.
However, Montreal possesses a mix of speed, grit and depth that makes them a formidable postseason opponent. Bergevin surprised a few people by swapping out 10 players from the team that reached the conference finals one year ago, but the core of this team still carries over that valuable playoff experience.
The Stanley Cup winning window is wide open in Montreal and Marc Bergevin is the man who opened it.