Every NHL season constitutes a referendum on the Montreal Canadiens players, coaches, and front office. A willingness to be judged harshly comes with the territory.
With 24 games to go until the playoffs and a new coach in place, it’s a good time to assess the areas where the heat is building most intensely on the Habs.
Players, as is their wont in these circumstances, are expressing guilt at costing a good man his job (that would be former coach Michel Therrien).
The guy who runs the front office, and who said of a badly listing ship last year that “it’s on me,” insists the buck continues to stop with him.
But only one of the aforementioned branches of the team has guaranteed contracts (players), and given Claude Julien has a shiny new five-year deal that only begins next fall, the microscope must focus on general manager Marc Bergevin.
However, there is an argument to be made the pressure on Bergevin isn’t so much to hang on to his job – no one likes to get fired, but he has a long-term pact and is getting paid either way.
It is to do it right.
In a sense, the coming weeks and months represent a consequential test of Habs majority owner Geoff Molson’s commitment to continuity.
Molson is fond of saying his business hinges on the team’s ability to win. The stakes for Bergevin have always been high.
Yet this is a team that still hasn’t reached the level of perennial contender in his first five seasons and, if it hopes to get there, the next short while will be crucial.
First there’s the trade deadline, where Bergevin said he won’t be active “unless prices come down.”
Next there are the playoffs, which is a financial as well as sporting imperative. There is a strong chance they will qualify and 24 points out of their remaining games should do it.
More than that, they need to create forward organizational momentum.
This summer will be a busy one for Bergevin. The team wants to re-sign goalie Carey Price, who will be in the final year of his contract in 2017-18; it must reach terms with restricted free agent centre Alex Galchenyuk; it must make decisions on defenceman Andrei Markov and top-line winger Alex Radulov (Bergevin alluded to discussions being under way with the latter on Wednesday).
Bergevin said he acted this week because he felt “something is missing” and that “with 24 games to go [Julien] is the man for the job, and also for the long-term vision. It’s like a home run that way.”
The first factor Bergevin cited was credibility (the others: experience, knowledge of the market, proved winner).
The other thing that drew Bergevin to Julien – they became friendly at last fall’s World Cup, when both were involved in Team Canada – is that he is “strict, fair, and firm.”
Those sound similar to the qualities Bergevin admired in Therrien, but he didn’t have the magic dust that comes with a Stanley Cup ring.
Credibility matters in terms of the immediate of course, but it will also come in handy as the organization goes about retaining core pieces (captain Max Pacioretty can be extended in 2018).
The honeymoon can’t last of course, but both Bergevin and Julien are talking as though they’re in it for the long haul.
Julien, who was vacationing in Barnard, Vt., with his wife when Bergevin contacted him about the job, isn’t in any rush to make drastic changes or improvements.
“I’m here to fix and tweak and do things that put this team back on track, and that’s what I intend to do,” he told a conference call.
After being fired by Boston last week, Julien was offered other opportunities in non-traditional markets (read: Las Vegas), but resolved to wait and see. Then Bergevin called.
“This is a team I’ve loved since childhood,” he said.
Though he acted swiftly in getting his man, Bergevin similarly refuses to be in too great a hurry.
This is not a GM who believes strongly in championship windows – he’s more of a get-to-the-playoffs-and-we’ll-see guy – and shoving all his chips to the middle of the table.
“The way you improve, you have to do it within, that’s the best way ... there’s barely any trades in the NHL, there’s a reason why. You make your team in July, you try to stay healthy and maybe add a piece at the deadline,” he said.
Regarding persistent rumours he is trying to acquire help down the middle, Bergevin said “elite centremen are not available, so it’s not going to happen.”
Particularly if the ask is a prospect such as defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, in which case “it’s a short conversation, maybe 20 seconds.”
Urgency is necessarily associated with major decisions like coaching changes.
But if Bergevin feels the pressure – and just looking at him, you can see he does – his instinctive reaction appears to be greater deliberation, not less.
Trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber was bold. Firing Therrien and bringing in Julien wasn’t.
It was the obvious move for a GM planning the future.Report Typo/Error