We are closing in on nine years since Marc Bergevin was hired to generally manage the storied Montreal Canadiens.
The mythical five-year plan (that he never promised BTW), will soon be two five-year plans. No Cups yet for Bergy, no induction into the HHOF as a builder. Not even a lifetime pass to Goodlife Fitness.
When you are put in charge of revamping a struggling team with little prospect depth, what matters above all else is asset building. That includes improving the current roster.
Many fans are impatient. They want results yesterday. No excuses, no free passes. “Where are our Cups? We have 24…and we want more!”
The unfortunate reality is that there are 30 other NHL teams striving for the same thing. This isn’t the 1965 Montreal Canadiens fighting against five other teams for the hallowed chalice. Nor is it the 1975 edition battling 17 other teams…a dozen of which were ran by GM’s who, in today’s NHL, would likely be part-time scouts.
The on-ice NHL product isn’t the only thing that has improved over the past half century. Today, there are at least 20 quite competent NHL GMs, and even winning Cups in back-to-back seasons, let alone four straight seasons, has become an almost impossible task. They ALL want to win, and many of them are capable of doing so in a parity-drive league.
So you keep building assets. You keep draft picks (and even add some), you make trades that, in the long run, help the on-ice product and hopefully improve the team culture.
As the Canadiens embark on their 112th season, I thought it would be fun to look back at the roster Bergevin inherited, and speculate on how many players from the team that ended the 2011-12 season would be locks to be on the 21-man roster that is opening the season tonight versus Toronto.
Would you believe….seven? Maybe?
Carey Price, PK Subban, Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Erik Cole and Lars Eller. That’s it, folks.
There are two or three others that would perhaps be on the cusp. Either fourth-line forward or sixth defenceman roles. It’s arguable that 25-year-old Alexei Emelin would have a spot over Brett Kulak, but 2011-12 was his rookie season and he had some struggles, ending the season at -18. Kulak is a lot more mobile, and in today’s game, that is important. The only real advantage Emelin had over Kulak is that physical edge, and that’s not as pertinent in today’s game as mobilty on the back end.
Josh Gorges was a pretty steady defender in 2011-12 and perhaps he would have a roster spot over Kulak. Certainly, he was a safer defenceman. From a physical standpoint, however, Kulak is bigger, faster and stronger.
The same rings true in a bottom-line winger role. Travis Moen was more suited to fill that role in 2011 than he would be a decade later as the game moves away from big, tough pluggers with limited mobility playing utility roles.
Recrutes asked Habs’ fans on Twitter which player would be best suited for a fourth-line role on this year’s team – the 29-year-old Moen, 30-year-old Rene Bourque or 31-year-old Paul Byron. It was no contest. Byron got 77.4% of the 1062 votes. While I would argue that it should have been closer between Moen and Byron…in today’s fast-paced NHL with less emphasis on being able to beat up an opponent, Byron is the likely choice.
The other argument is that Moen could have a spot over Lehkonen, but Artie is in his mid 20’s, is faster, and every time the Canadiens make the playoffs he is one of the team’s better forwards. A fourth-line role for Lehkonen is pretty ideal in today’s game. You know what you are getting every game, and it’s at an affordable price.
Erik Cole scored 35 goals in 2011-12, so he would likely be playing tonight versus Toronto if he was nine years younger. We can recall how quickly his game deteriorated, however. He was not the same player in 2012-13 as the previous season, scoring just three goals in 19 games with the Canadiens before being shipped off to Dallas for Michael Ryder. The 2012-13 version of Cole (who by then was turning 34) would have found himself replaced in the 2021 lineup pretty quickly.
David Desharnais was Montreal’s number-one center at the end of the 2011-12 season. Desharnais in his prime likely does not crack the 2020 roster unless Michel Therrien is the coach. Perhaps in a fourth-line role replacing Evans, but Desharnais was never a checker. He was the last forward back on almost every rush into the Canadiens’ end – he wasn’t in the lineup for his checking ability. Do I give him a top-two role over Phil Danault or an emerging Nick Suzuki? I do not. Do I send Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the minors or hinder him with eight minutes per game in a fourth-line role for the sake of DD? I REALLY do not!!
29-year-old Plekanec would both likely be a top-six players on today’s roster, replacing Danault on the third unit and knocking Kotkaniemi down to a fourth-line role, which as just noted, would be far from ideal. If the Habs had a Plekanec in his prime; perhaps the top two centers would be Plekanec and Danault, and Suzuki would still be cutting his teeth on the wing.
Pacioretty was the only forward from the 2012 roster that today would be a surefire first-line winger. The only forwards ftom that roster who would be strong bets to be top-nine forwards on tonight’s team would be Pacioretty and Plekanec.
Don’t forget that the 2012-13 season got underway around the same time as this season due to the work stoppage. Brendan Gallagher in January of 2013, after seasoning in the AHL, made the Habs on opening night. Would the 20-year-old Gallagher, with no AHL seasoning, have cracked this year’s team? One has to think he would have been starting the year either on the taxi squad or in Laval. The club wouldn’t have known that he’d score 15 goals in 44 games as an NHL rookie…given a top-nine role because of little depth up front.
He would not have started this NHL season in a top-nine forward role as a 20-year-old rookie. A recent first-round pick in Poehling, who is 22, couldn’t even find a roster spot. There were high hopes for Gallagher; but I don’t think even the most optimistic Habs fan expected him to have the career he had had thus far, and it was no different for Montreal management at the start of 2013.
At the absolute best…if you HAD to give roster spots to Desharnais and Moen/Gallagher up front and one of either Emelin or Gorges on the blueline, there would be ten players from May of 2012 on the current roster. That is less than half. It must also be noted that Subban’s spot was taken by Weber in a one-for-one trade, and that 2012 Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher would be replacing 2021 Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher.
Through the years I have read and heard the assertion that Bergevin inherited some great talent and squandered it. This was an especially popular opinion right after Subban got traded. The fact is that it was an overblown complaint. Every NHL club, when it is taken over by a new NHL GM, has some top-end talent, and Montreal was no exception.
You need to have depth to compete, however, both on the NHL club and in the prospect pool. Bergevin took over an organization with horrible depth on the big club, the farm team, and in the system. The Canadiens’ club that is facing the Leafs tonight is more than twice as good as it was in the spring of 2012.
Would the 2012 versions of Subban and Markov have been Montreal’s top pairing today? It should be remembered that Markov was coming off of two major knee surgeries when he attended training camp in 2012. Unquestionably, 23-year-old Subban was much faster than 2021 Shea Weber, or even 2013 Weber for that matter, but he wasn’t smarter, tougher or better defensively.
Subban won his Norris trophy in 2012-13, and even Markov coming off of knee surgeries was effective because of his elite hockey sense and passing skills, so the one argument that could be made in favour of the 2012 roster is that Montreal may have had a better top defence pairing.
As for Emelin, Gorges, Raphael Diaz, Yannick Weber and Chris Campoli versus Jeff Petry, Joel Edmundson, Alexander Romanov, Kulak and Victor Mete? It’s no contest. Give me today’s 3-7 defencemen. The Canadiens had Jarred Tinordi and Beaulieu in the system, but neither were close to being ready for full-time duty in 2012, even if Habs fans hoped so in Tinordi’s case.
Bergevin’s top inherited prospects going into 2012-13 training camp were Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, Brendan Gallagher and Louis Leblanc. Looking back on that prospect pool; there were three legitimate NHL prospects in the system when Bergevin signed on to guide the club. Today? That number would realistically be closer to 13 than to three.
That’s 14; with a dozen of them selected in the top three rounds of the draft. There are other prospects I like as well but those 14 today are the ones with the most legitimate shot at playing regularly in the NHL.
It took a lot of Habs’ fans 8.5 years to be truly excited about a Bergevin-built team. No “five-year-plan” to be sure but this team was badly broken in 2012. It’s no surprise that it took that long before having a roster that could legitimately be considered a contender.
The club overachieved early on in Bergevin’s tenure, and he mistakenly thought the club was closer to a Cup final than it was due to some regualr-season success and one decent playoff run, so he continued the Gainey/Gauther pattern of trading high draft picks for quick fixes.
At some point during the summer of 2016, the rebuilding switch was flipped on in Bergevin’s brain. He rightfully concluded that the group he was working with was not going to seriously contend.
One top-nine forward (Gallagher) and one top-six defenceman (Petry) remain from that club. Bergevin began collecting top 60 picks instead of trading them. He dealt players that he thought were more concerned with themselves than the team, and 4.5 years later the Montreal Canadiens are a club that even some TSN and Sportsnet pundits are picking as viable candidates to finish top two in their division.
It’s been a long time coming for a fan base that at one time anticipated annual parades down Ste. Catherine Street. This is a club that has depth at all six positions. This is a club that pundits can no longer say has much less talent than the top teams in the league. This is a team that can win.
Enjoy the season. Here’s hoping it goes beyond 56 games.