Should Bergevin Pay the Price?
November 9, 2021
By Grant McCagg
If Montreal had lost to the Leafs in the first round, and with Price in nets and Edmundson on the blueline but Weber out, was off to a 6-7 start instead of 3-10, would folks be calling for the GM’s head? We certainly do love to “live in the now”.
Was Bergevin’s offseason a good one? When you look at the Logan Mailloux pick alone, I would say definitely not. That, for me, would be the biggest reason for him not being the GM of the Canadiens past this season. It was a serious error in both judgment and morals to select him in this draft, let alone the first round.
Eric Staal, Erik Gustafsson and Jon Merrill were not re-signed. Good riddance to all three. Corey Perry decided to accept a similar contract offer from Tampa that was two years in length, and no one can be blamed for that decision – he is a playoff performer, and until further notice, the Lightning are the top team in the league. He is noted for being a playoff performer in recent times more so than a regular-season one but he has no goals and one point in 11 games. Would the Canadiens be in a better position right now with one assist from Perry? No; they’d still be at the bottom of the division. Perry would need 16 points in his next 18 games to equal what he produced for the Canadiens in his first 29 games last season.
Tomas Tatar signed for $4.5M per season with New Jersey. He has zero goals in ten games, and has gone 22 games without scoring a goal. Safe to say at this point it was a smart decision to sign Mike Hoffman at the exact same cost, as he has four goals in ten games. We’ll see how that ultimately pans out.
Danault signs with LA for $33M over six years. The 28-year-old will be 34 when his contract is up, and still being paid like a top-two center even though within three years it’s highly doubtful that he is in a top-two slot. Danault had one goal and four points in 11 games, but one hot game in Toronto where he scores twice and adds an assist, suddenly he is on pace for a 20-goal season. Don’t expect that from Danault – we got to witness him up close for five seasons – he’s much more likely to go another 11 games with one goal than to magically become a goal scorer now. His popgun shot is still his popgun shot.
Many have argued that not re-signing Danault was Bergevin’s biggest mistake of the offseason, but do we know if Danault even wanted to return? He apparently turned down a very similar contract offer last season. Certainly from a production standpoint, Danault has not been playing like a $5.5M center the past 30 months. He has ten goals in his last 97 games, which included two playoffs, and that total was eight goals in 96 games before his “two-goal explosion” last night.
I think the bigger mistake on Bergevin’s part was not finding an adequate replacement for Danault in Christian Dvorak. Certainly, it is too early to make this a full-blown declaration but Dvorak has underachieved. He’s not as solid defensively as Danault; there are few centers in the league in that category. Dvorak is smart and decent defensively, but he lacks Danault’s foot speed. He sits second-worst in plus-minus at -13 after just 13 games, and he is struggling to generate offence.
Bergevin chose not to match the offer sheet of $6.1M given to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and he received a first-round pick and a third in exchange. With the loss of Eric Staal, Danault and KK down the middle, Bergevin HAD to hastily come up with a Plan B this shortened offseason. Clearly, the list of teams who were looking to deal one of their top-two centers for draft picks in the offseason was mighty short – there likely was only one team in that discussion, and that was Arizona.
We need to cut Bergevin a bit of slack on a few things. He couldn’t have known that Carey Price would be taking a leave of absence to start the season. He couldn’t have known that Petry in his new role as #1 defenceman would have one point in his first 13 games. He couldn’t have known Joel Edmundson would be injured to start the season. He couldn’t have known that Jordan Harris wouldn’t sign an NHL contract. He can also be excused for not thinking that Carolina would offer Kotkaniemi twice of what his current value is on the RFA market. And he couldn’t have known that a center who was on pace for 25 goals last year in Dvorak would have one in his first 13 this season.
I chatted with several scouts at the time of Dvorak’s pickup and all praised the move, especially Dvorak’s longtime GM in London Mark Hunter. So it’s easy to say that Bergevin screwed up on that one 13 games into Dvorak’s tenure with the Habs. I’d give it more time, just as KK, Danault and Tatar deserve more time before it’s declared that letting them go was the right or wrong move. Certainly, after Danault’s three-point night in Toronto, the Bergevin bashers are out in full force today, but you can’t be reactive game-to-game – let’s see what the big picture looks like at season’s end. That’s when Bergevin should be judged, not one-sixth of the way through a season with his best players/leaders missing from the lineup.
Bergevin added David Savard to the fold when it became obvious that Shea Weber would be, at the very least, missing the first half of this season. He signed the veteran defenceman to a four-year, $14M contract. The AAV isn’t terrible for a blueliner who was expected to be in the club’s top four or five as it’s the league average salary, but the four years was a little lengthy considering that the club has a ton of promising defence prospects who will be coming up over the next two or three seasons.
What is most concerning about the Savard signing, besides him being overweight and having lost a step like Karl Alzner, is that he is not a good puck mover who can generate much offence. Bergevin missed the boat once again in filling the club’s most glaring weakness – a puck-moving defenceman. One surely thought that the Alzner misfire would have been a lesson learned, but it looks like Bergevin and the pro scouts fell back into an old habit – signing a player based on how he looked two or three years ago rather than what he accomplished the previous season.
Patience is a virtue that most Habs’ fans do not possess. An NHL season isn’t a month in length. Way too early to be sharpening the pitchforks just yet.
Let’s say the Habs, as expected, drop out of playoff contention early – and by May after unloading veterans by the trade deadline, they have five or more top-60 picks for the 2022 draft, including a couple of first-rounders, one being in the top ten. At least two of Guhle, Harris and Fairbrother are in the NHL lineup and moving pucks well, Romanov has solidified a top-four spot, Caufield is back and producing and he’s brought along linemate Poehling, who is producing as well. Mailloux is back playing and showing why he was thought by many to be a top-15 talent, Mysak and Struble are in Laval turning some heads, Norlinder is back in Sweden lighting it up. Ylonen and Rafael Harvey-Pinard will also be in the mix, and hopefully, Michael Pezzetta continues to show that he’s a viable candidate to play a fourth-line energy/grit role.
Obviously, that’s the optimistic outlook…but “if” something close to that is what we’re witnessing by season’s end and fans are getting a glimpse of the bright future in store for a lot of the promising young talent on this team, are the vast majority of fans and media still calling for Bergevin to be fired? That is the million-dollar question. The answer is still likely “Yes”, but the shouts may not be quite as loud.
When a team has a down year like the Canadiens are having, what usually happens is that some veterans are shipped out for draft picks and young players are given opportunities as the “lost season” unfolds. That is what will need to happen with the Canadiens if Bergevin (and Trevor Timmins) hope to be employed by the Canadiens past this season, so that is what’s likely to transpire.
The GM has to show the fan base some hope for the future when the club is floundering. You don’t give the conservative coaching staff any choice but to play the kids if that’s what you have available for them on the 23-man roster. Ducharme doesn’t make the callups or trades; the push to give young players solid NHL auditions is pretty much strictly in the GM’s hands if he wants that to be the case, and I can’t see it going any other way, especially since the club does have a lot of young talent that is on the way over the next 12 months. It will be time for all of those top-90 picks from the past four drafts to start paying tangible dividends with fans getting to see them perform with the big club.
A Brighter Future Ahead
This is not a team without hope or talent. This is not a Buffalo Sabres scenario where the club is destined to miss the playoffs for a decade. Four months ago the club was in the Stanley Cup finals. There is a solid veteran core to keep in place, some solid young talent, and loads of good young players on the way over the next few years.
One cannot objectively look at the team Bergevin inherited almost a decade ago, and profess that it’s not a better team today. Here is what the organizational depth chart looked like in the spring of 2012:
Here is what the organizational depth chart looks like today:
The Canadiens had a better top-pairing on defence with Subban and Markov – that is the one spot where the 2012 edition was stronger. As far as every other position both quality and depth-wise however, especially when it comes to prospects in the system; it is not even close.
Bergevin has had two months to find Weber’s replacement – obviously, that’s asking quite a lot. I won’t agree with anyone who says keeping Subban and not trading for Weber was the wrong choice. Weber got the team to a Cup final and his leadership will be felt for many years to come.
You are going to see the Weber Effect with Montreal’s young core, it just may take some time. Much like all of us when we were young…sometimes it took a few setbacks to reflect and realize that things your parents or elders told/taught you was, in fact, right on the money. Caufield, Suzuki, Romanov and all of the black aces got a full dose of tutoring from some top-notch leaders, and it will pay off down the road as they continue to mature.
When you are 20-23 years of age playing pro hockey, offseason training is so important. Caufield and Suzuki didn’t really have time to train properly this offseason. It was rest, train for a few weeks, get ready for camp.
Look at the scoring race for the top 30 rookies so far this season. Not one of them played in the second, third or fourth round of last year’s playoffs. If I’m not mistaken, none of them was playing hockey by June of last season.
Caufield and Suzuki played right up until July 7. Caufield had never played hockey beyond April in his career…he always had four or five months to train and add muscle where it was needed. This year, he basically got two months. Every other NHL rookie to start this season was fresher, stronger and faster than they were five months ago. Caufield? If anything, he looked to be a little bit slower to start the year than he was in the playoffs. He certainly didn’t have the requisite time to train and work on specific things like every other offseason. Suzuki was also slow out of the gate, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. Caufield will be fine – he’ll get rolling soon in Laval, he’ll come back up, and he will produce.
The Lehkonen Quandary
Speaking of being slow out of the gate…it seems like every year at some point during the regular season one concludes that the club could survive just fine without Artturi Lehkonen. Unfortunately for him, this usually happens in the first part of the season. Last year Lehkonen scored four points in his first 22 games. This year he’s even worse, tallying just one assist in 13 games. For someone playing 13 minutes a game making $2.3M per season who is neither big nor rugged…it is simply not good enough.
Slow starts are commonplace for the affable Finn. He appears to be a completely different player come playoff time than he is at the start of the year. It’s not that he doesn’t give effort at the start of each season; he just reaches a different level of intensity when the importance of the games increases and his hard work finally pays off in points.
In 114 combined games to start the past five seasons (34, 25, 20, 22, and 13 games), Lehkonen has scored just eight goals, and never more than two in one season. 5.7 goal per season pace for a player who, going into this season, averaged 14.6 goals per 82 games.
Lehkonen’s “hottest” start in the past five seasons was 2019-20 when he “burst” out of the gate with three goals in his first 21 games. For whatever reason, Lehkonen cannot buy a goal in the first quarter of the season. This becomes a significant problem when the team isn’t very good, and could use some goals. The 2021-22 edition of the Montreal Canadiens happens to be one of those teams. Will this finally be the trade deadline where Lehkonen is dealt for a second-round draft pick to a team that could use his all-out playoff effort? As much as I hate to see him go from a personal standpoint…it will probably be best for the club to part ways with him. Now watch what happens – he gets 6-8 goals in the next 30 games, and it becomes tough to trade him once again. Ultimately, though – hard workers aren’t all that hard to find, and they are cheap. He is quite replaceable, and expect him to be one of the casualties at the deadline this time around.
The same can likely be said for Armia. Teams saw how effective he was in the playoffs. If he continues contributing next to nothing up until February and a club comes offering a second-round pick for him, look for Bergevin to bid adieu. Suddenly – a team that was once rife with Finnish players will have none on the roster if Ylonen is still in the minors. Such is life in the ever-changing world of NHL rosters.
Gallagher, Toffoli, Hoffman, Drouin, Dvorak, Byron, Chiarot and Savard may all be in play as well at the deadline if the offers are palatable. Bergevin may have his flaws but when it comes to trades he’s been well above average. By late spring, if a bunch of young prospects are in the Montreal and Laval lineups and faring well and the club has a slew of high picks for the upcoming draft where they’ll be hosting the proceedings, the doom and gloom is not going to be as prevalent. Would it save Bergevin his job? After the Mailloux, Savard and Kotkaniemi missteps (he should have been signed well before the offer sheet was tendered), it still may not be enough. It feels like it’s going to take a minor miracle at this point.
One issue you touched on that I think is significant is the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion this team is experiencing from a combination of last years compressed schedule, long playoff run and the shortest offseason in NHL history.
I think any criticism of this teams players and management should take this into account.