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Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens, Bob Murray of the Anaheim Ducks and Ray Shero of the Pittsburgh Penguins were named Monday as finalists for the general manager of the year award. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens, Bob Murray of the Anaheim Ducks and Ray Shero of the Pittsburgh Penguins were named Monday as finalists for the general manager of the year award. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NHL

Habs GM Bergevin stands by building plan Add to ...

In a business that’s all about toughness and resolve, his main weapons are intelligence and candour.

And humour, of course, mustn’t forget that.

Ask the man about his star goalie, who lives under so much scrutiny going to the supermarket has become virtually impossible, and he’ll reply, “Maybe I could do his groceries for him.”

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Throw a question at him about whether former first-round draft pick Louis Leblanc took a step backward this season in the minors, and he may well say, “Yeah.”

Refer to his nomination for NHL executive of the year after just one season on the job, and he’s liable to lob something like this back: “Guess I had to be a GM to win an award, I never got one as a player.”

He is Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens, principal architect of a remarkable reversal of fortune that saw his team climb from last in the Eastern Conference to second in just a year.

If Bergevin is pleased at the progress his team has made, he isn’t about to be distracted – not by the regular-season highs or the lows of a first-round playoff exit – from his mission: building a team that will contend for years to come.

Simply put, that means Bergevin isn’t about to open his chequebook in free agency. (“You don’t build a championship team through free agency, it’s never happened and never will.”) Nor is he in any hurry to trade away prospects to secure the present.

“I’m here to build for the future, and the future is draft choices and player development,” he said Monday.

It should be mentioned Bergevin also possesses ample supplies of guile, so if he’s mulling a few moves – a likelihood – he wasn’t about to tip his hand in a year-end postmortem.

Although if a rival general manager were interested in securing the services of lightly-used defenceman Tomas Kaberle, he would surely assent to having his arm twisted.

A trade seems distinctly unlikely – unprompted, Bergevin raised the possibility of a compliance buyout for the Czech rearguard, it almost seems a foregone conclusion.

If you remove Kaberle’s $4.25-million (U.S.) cap hit for next season and assume the Habs don’t re-sign any of their pending free agents (a safe assumption as far as Michael Ryder and his $3.5-million ticket goes), Bergevin will have somewhere around $10-million to work with this summer.

It’s not a huge amount when you consider the Habs needs – a top-six forward and an experienced defenceman – but nor is he as badly hamstrung as many of his NHL colleagues are.

Still, Bergevin said he is committed to looking within the organization to fill roster spots before entertaining free-agent signings or trades.

“The most important thing for me, and you see it in the playoffs: depth. That’s what gets you through the playoffs. And you don’t bring depth at the [trade] deadline. You have to bring it at the draft and your prospects coming through. The mindset, the game plan, stays the same. I’m staying pat.”

Bergevin had predictable things to day about his coaching staff (“It’s hard not to be satisfied”), the progress of rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, an eventual extension for magnificent young defenceman P.K. Subban (“I don’t negotiate in public”), and his team’s supposed problem with size and how to address it (“Everybody is looking for the same type of players …they don’t grow on trees”).

He was also disarmingly frank in his assessment of goalie Carey Price.

“He knows he’s got to take his game to the next level,” said Bergevin, who was at pains to say he has “150-per-cent faith” in his 25-year-old starter, and isn’t worried in the least about an iffy playoff performance.

Ditto for diminutive centre David Desharnais, whose game went into a tailspin after he signed a four-year, $14-million contract extension.

Bergevin said he didn’t regret the decision, given the player would have had arbitration rights in the summer.

“Davey is a young player, and I believe he will be fine, he will bounce back and he will be better,” he said.

Bergevin also opined that the compressed schedule took its toll on 34-year-old defenceman Andrei Markov, who in the end was the victim of “a lot of hockey, and not much rest.”

When it was put to him that Markov slowed perceptibly after an injury to blueline partner Alexei Emelin, Bergevin couldn’t resist uncorking another one-liner: “I don’t know. When I was in St. Louis, playing with [Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman] Al MacInnis, I went out [injured]. He still played well.”

It may be Markov springs back to top form next year, but Emelin has yet to undergo knee surgery.

With three-quarters of the impending free agents among his forward group and a hole or two to fill on the blueline, Bergevin has his work cut out this summer.

But as he embarks on preparing for scouting trips to the Memorial Cup, the upcoming draft and free agency (“People say, ‘Oh, now you’re on holidays.’ Holidays? There are no holidays”), Bergevin tossed a nugget to his prospects.

“The Montreal Canadiens aren’t scared to give a chance to a young player who earns one,” he said. “I always tell them, don’t worry about the depth chart, force me to make a decision, and I’ll make room.”

For a man with a well-earned reputation as a joker, he seemed awfully serious in saying it.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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