Hating Marc Bergevin is a cottage industry in Montreal. There are niche broadcasters and columnists whose entire schtick is based on ripping the guy day after day after sorry day. It saves effort, I suppose, and thought, and dispenses with the need to actually know what you’re talking about – but it’s also ugly, unfair and ignorant.
There are still individuals in the Habs Mob who will tell you that Bergevin’s biggest mistake was trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber when it has been clear for at least two full seasons that Subban simply has too many negatives to live up to his talent while Weber is a towering leader on and off the ice.
Yet today, with a triumphant offseason already well in the bag, Bergevin is already a strong candidate for next season’s executive of the year. He took a team that began to flex its strength during that odd summer playoff and carried it right on through to the Thanksgiving Day signing of former Kings and Canucks forward Tyler Toffoli.
So far, we should emphasize, this is a paper victory. You never quite know what you have until you put a team out on the ice and see how it performs. If there’s a negative to all this, it’s that Bergevin now has what he did not have in the past, a salary cap problem. But if he’s as deft with everything else as he has been with his deals over the past two or three years, he’ll handle it smoothly.
The transformation began with players who were already under contract, with young centremen Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi asserting themselves during the series against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Jonathan Drouin showing signs that he might be able to click with Suzuki and Brett Kulak.
Bergevin already had defenceman Alexander Romanov and his thunderous reputation on the way – if not for an absurd ruling from the NHL, Romanov would have been able to get some experience during the Summer Games.
Then in quick succession, Bergevin made the following moves:
Acquired Jake Allen and a seventh-round pick in 2022 for third- and seventh-round picks in the 2020 draft.
Traded another 2020 pick, this one a fifth-rounder, to Carolina for defenceman Joel Edmundson.
Dealt the disgruntled and mercurial Max Domi and a third-round pick in 2020 to Columbus for big Josh Anderson.
Drafted big, strong defenceman Kaiden Guhle with the 16th pick overall after the Toronto Maple Leafs, desperate for defence, decided to go for yet another skilled forward.
Signed Toffoli to a four-year, $17 million deal.
Just like that, the Canadiens became bigger, stronger, deeper and without any discernible holes.
In the 26 years that I’ve been writing about the Habs on a regular or semi-regular basis, I can’t recall any stretch when the club acquired so many quality players or plugged so many holes in such a short time.
That deal is somewhat lost in the shuffle now but the most critical move might be the acquisition of Jake Allen. After years of struggling with the likes of Antti Niemi and Keith Kinkaid, the Canadiens finally have a backup goaltender capable of stepping in and becoming the number one as long as necessary, should Carey Price get hurt.
Should Price stay healthy, the club absolutely must reduce his work load. We saw this summer what Price can do when he’s rested, rather than going into the postseason after battling through 70 regular-season games in goal.
With Allen in the fold, Price can play 50 games and emerge ready for the playoff grind – and make no mistake, barring a raft of injuries, this is a playoff team. The acquisition of Allen might not be as sexy as some of Bergevin’s other moves but it’s more important than the rest put together.
The next edition of the CH will be bigger, stronger, deeper and more talented. There is more than enough protection around for the club’s smaller players and perhaps some (thinking of you, M. Drouin) might play a little bigger knowing they have the likes of Anderson, Romanov, Edmundson and Toffoli around.
No, Bergevin did not turn up a pure goal-scorer. The only one available in free agency was Mike Hoffman and Hoffman has in tow a wife who was responsible for one of the strangest and most toxic incidents in NHL history. The Habs Mob was openly panting for the highly questionable commodity that is Taylor Hall but even Hall has only topped the 30-goal mark once in his career.
In Toffoli, the Canadiens got a more complete player, one with Stanley Cup experience, the ability to score on the power play and a measure of size and grit. At the price, Toffoli represented the best possible option.
Meanwhile, Geoff Molson looks very good for sticking with Bergevin.
We’re all formed by experience and I’m no exception. I came onto the hockey beat as a Gazette columnist in March of 1994, just as the defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens were preparing for what would be a brutal, seven-game loss to the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
After the 48-game lockout season in 1995 when the Jacques Demers team managed to go 3-18-3, Demers was fired when Ronald Corey was fired four games into the ‘95-’96 season. From that time until Bergevin was hired, coaches and GMs were in a permanent revolving door and not one could stick around long enough to accomplish much, although Bob Gainey came closest.
The best of the bunch, in my view, was André Savard, a soft-spoken judge of hockey talent who would have made a superb general manager had he been given time and support from on high. But the Canadiens panicked, installed Gainey over Savard, and Gainey eventually drove Savard out and put all his confidence in Pierre Gauthier, one of the strangest dudes in the entire history of the CH.
Having fired Gauthier and hired another GM with extensive experience in Bergevin, Molson had the sense to stick with him – or perhaps he simply doesn’t like firing people.
That’s a good thing. Teams with revolving doors don’t succeed, period. Fans and some segments of the media always want to see people fired. They want blood on the carpet in the executive suite. Make a mistake and they’re on you like flies on a manure wagon.
Trouble is, most of the time, firing people doesn’t work. Sometimes, you need to make a move.
Far more often, what you need to do is to hire a capable individual and stick with him when he makes mistakes, because they all do.
Molson stuck with Bergevin and now it’s paying dividends. Big-time.