The Canadiens are making a habit out of proving the doubters wrong this playoff run.
They weren’t even supposed to be in the playoffs if you took what was uttered by thousands of Twitter folks seriously, including the ramblings of a lot of so-called experts. The 16th seeded team playing in a conference that somewhere along the way was deemed, mostly by Americans that never watched much of the hockey, as being inferior to the other three divisions.
Never mind that the North Division laid claim to six of the best centers in the game. Never mind that Hellebuyck, Markstrom and Price are three of the premier goalies in the world. Never mind that the worst teams in the division were basically .500 teams in a group that had no truly weak sisters.
Bergevin has taken a lot of heat through the years for preferring heart-and-soul guys to inconsistent high-skilled ones. How could he deal an exciting puck carrier like Subban for the less flashy Weber? How could he sign Ben Chiarot and trade for Joel Edmundson instead of grabbing a smaller, more mobile point-getter? How could he sign Corey Perry and Tyler Toffoli instead of Mike Hoffman and Anthony Duclair?
In a word – character.
Bergevin stressed it for years – that he wanted the right mix in the dressing room. Skill, heart…and character.
It’s why he traded for one of his former first-round picks in Chicago in Phil Danault. It’s why he picked Paul Byron off of waivers. It’s why he signed Brendan Gallagher to a lengthy contract extension this past offseason. It’s why he’s stuck with Artturi Lehkonen over the years instead of a Scherbak or a McCarron. Character.
Lehkonen led the SHL in goals and points for Frolunda at the tender age of 20 in capturing the league title. It’s all about heart with Artti. Just call him Heartti. This shift epitomizes the Lehkonen heart:
The roster is full of proven playoff performers. Bergevin made a point of adding several former Cup winners in the offseason, and they were all important pieces in addition to that experience because they provided plenty of…heart.
What must be remembered is that the Canadiens already had plenty of winners on the roster; they just hadn’t won at the NHL level….yet.
Nick Suzuki led all OHL scorers in playoff scoring by a country mile in pushing Guelph to an OHL championship his final junior season in 2018-19. His 42 points are top ten in OHL playoff history and only bested by Mitch Marner and Connor McDavid in the past decade.
Paul Byron had a league-best 21 goals in 19 playoff games as he and Claude Giroux were dominating forces on Gatineau’s QMJHL championship team in 2008.
Brendan Gallagher helped guide Vancouver to the WHL conference finals in his 2010 draft year, leading all players in goals-per game with 12 in just 16 contests.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi was an all-around force for Finland at the 2018 U-18 championships, defeating Jack Hughes and the Americans in the final, outplaying the future number one overall pick in their vital head-to-head matchup.
Jake Evans was captain of Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish reached the national championship game in 2017. Evan had two goals and an assist in the huge semi-final win over Michigan, and his stellar defensive game was a major reason why Notre Dame made the Frozen Four two years in a row. The previous season, he picked up assists in every game as the underdog Fighting Irish made a surprise run to the semi-finals before bowing to the eventual champions from Denver.
Cole Caufield led all players in goals in leading the US to a U-17 championship in 2018, and then repeated the feat at the U18 the following season where he was named tournament MVP. This past season he was a key part of a gold-medal winning US team at the WJC.
Even the elder statesman on defence – Shea Weber – anchored a Kelowna team that made back-to-back trips to the Memorial Cup. He made the tournament all-star team when Kelowna won the Memorial Cup as hosts in 2004. Weber would, of course, go on to be the defensive anchor for Canada in capturing two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup championship, two of them as an assistant captain.
Carey Price’s big-game resume is loaded as well, having won gold medals at the Olympic, a WJC where he won in a shootout, and a World Cup of Hockey, all as Canada’s starter. Throw in a Calder Cup title as a rookie pro, and there’s little doubt that, when given the opportunity, he rises to the occasion in big-time events, just as he’s doing in these NHL playoffs.
One would have to think that Weber and Price have gone a long way towards solidifying their spots in the Hockey Hall of Fame. A trip to the Cup final? You have to like their chances a lot. A Cup win this year? They are locks.
Bergevin is a finalist for the GM of the Year for his great additions in the past year and the team’s playoff success, but the above examples show that he has been trying to build a team of winners for quite some time now.
I told a colleague last year that the Canadiens had a team with a whole bunch of playoff-type performers…the trick was to make it there. They made some noise last year after getting a unique opportunity to compete for the Cup after finishing 12th in the conference but they still needed some Cup-winning experience and goals.
Bergevin had an obvious game plan in September. He thought the Canadiens could make the playoffs this season, and he also thought the club could compete once it got to the playoffs if he got the right pieces.
It was a reasonable gamble. It is a roster built on heart and leadership, and that is shining through right now,
I tweeted in the offseason that the club needed to find some big guys that could get to the dirty areas and score some greasy goals. A team built on speed needed to alter the plan a bit and put more emphasis on size/scoring even if it meant getting a player or two that wasn’t overly quick.
Bergevin did just that. The additions of Anderson, Perry and Toffoli addressed that need in spades.
Perry is also making a strong case to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame some day. How many Ontario-born players in history can boast a resume like this?
OHL Cup Champ
Memorial Cup champ
Stanley Cup champ
Olympic gold twice
World Cup gold
That sterling resume may include three trips to the Cup finals with three different teams if the Canadiens can complete the upset of Vegas. If the Canadiens are able to win the Cup this year and Perry hits the 400-goal mark before he retires, he will have to be heavily considered for HHOF enshrinement – he’s the epitome of a winner.
Eric Staal is also one of the rare players in the Triple Gold Club, having won Olympic gold, world championship gold and the Stanley Cup. It could also be strongly argued that he should also have a Conn Smythe Trophy in his mantel case.
Tyler Toffoli has been a winner since his mid-teens, winning an Ontario AAA bantam championship and OHL Cup title before joining the Ottawa 67’s and capturing a scoring championship. He won a Stanley Cup championship as an NHL rookie, and just to prove that it wasn’t a fluke, was part of a world championship team the following season.
Josh Anderson may not have a Stanley Cup (yet) but he knows what it’s like to play in important games too. In a four-year span, he won two OHL championships, made three straight appearances in the Memorial Cup, and won a Calder Cup title.
After winning two gold medals at the U18s, Jon Merrill joined Michigan and lost 3-2 in the national championship game…making the All-Tournament team as a freshman.
Even Erik Gustafsson has tasted success as part of Sweden’s World championship gold medal team in 2018.
Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen also won Stanley Cup titles with St. Louis of course, and when you add everything up, this team has had winners at every level of hockey. Bantam, midget, junior, U-17, U-18, WJC, AHL, World Cup, Olympics, NHL, world championships.
You look at the pedigree….the number of championships, the number of big-game and big-series accomplishments…should it really be THAT surprising that it is the first Canadiens’ team to have a 2-1 lead in the semi-finals since the 1993 Cup winner, or that they came back from a 3-1 series deficit versus a heavily favoured Leafs team?
The answer has to be no.
To hell with the Shanaplan. Marc has his Bergeplan…and so far it’s working to perfection. Ladies and gentlemen – Marc Bergevin should be this year’s GM of the Year winner.