As a fashion-forward kind of guy, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin can surely tell you about immaculately tailored vests. He is known to own several, presumably to provide an elegant backdrop for the cards he holds so tightly against them.
Bergevin is a past master at using lots of words and plenty of bonhomie to convey essentially nothing, so some reading of entrails, tea leaves and assorted other signals is required in discerning what might be coming next with his team.
Even the splash page slogan on the Habs’ official website verges on the gnomic: It reads “To be continued.”
The gist of Bergevin’s year-end remarks on Monday: Successful season, promising young core, and no, I won’t talk publicly about contracts.
Pick it apart a little and there are hints as to the directions the Habs could go this off-season. One thing that was abundantly clear from Bergevin’s remarks is he’s not about to over-value the achievement of reaching the Eastern Conference final – “We don’t start next year ahead of anyone,” he stated plainly.
Asked about the general state of his squad, he said: “We’re not a mature team yet. I’m satisfied with what were able to do this season, certainly, but there’s a lot – a lot – of work to do still.”
So personnel moves are in the offing, which is made obvious with a quick perusal of the Habs’ page on capgeek.com (Montreal has 16 players signed and $26.5-million (U.S.) of cap space to play with).
The mystery is in divining how Bergevin will set about the task.
He talked about wanting to build through the draft and by developing prospects, and said of the team’s young players “what they learned during the last 17 playoff games is something you cannot buy.”
While he wouldn’t outright say the blueline will be turned over to youngsters such as Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn (60 games of NHL experience combined), he’s inviting them to force his hand.
“It will be the players who ultimately make the decisions for me,” he said.
That also goes for 20-year-old forward Alex Galchenyuk, drafted in 2012 as the Habs’ top centre of the future, but who has almost exclusively played left wing in his first two seasons.
“To our eyes, he’s going in the right direction,” said Bergevin, who added that it’s too early to say whether the American will play in the middle next season – a move that would have considerable ramifications.
Another clear inference: Bergevin feels the team is “slowly but surely” transitioning from one run by its older veterans to a room that belongs to its core of 26-and-under players.
Asked whether that could have an impact on whether he’ll retain some of the team’s veterans, he said “It’s a possibility, yes.”
Montreal has decisions to make on several key free agents – 35-year-old captain Brian Gionta and 35-year-old defenceman Andrei Markov chief among them(the Habs will have seven unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents if no one signs before July 1).
When Bergevin, 48, was asked to describe the importance of Gionta’s leadership, he said “Gio is a big part of this team … we’ll see what we can do.”
Then he added: “I’d like to mention we have a lot of leaders who are quiet leaders who everyday people might not notice,” citing Tomas Plekanec and Josh Gorges. “I think Carey [Price] is taking that role, P.K. [Subban] is taking that role, Patch [forward Max Pacioretty] is taking that role. So I think we have a lot of young leaders in our team. That’s going to help going forward,” he said.
That Bergevin would include Subban in a discussion of the team’s emerging leaders is a minor departure. He has generally spoken about his emerging superstar defenceman in fatherly terms – we like him, but he’s got a lot to learn and needs guidance – and appears to be shifting the rhetoric a little.
“By age he’s still a young defenceman, but since I’ve been here he’s taken a huge step forward. So everything with P.K. has matured – his game, the way he handles himself … again, he’s a big part of this team moving forward,” said the nominee for NHL executive of the year.
Bergevin did provide one notable bit of hard information: Winger Dale Weise suffered a concussion in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final. Though Weise returned to the game, Bergevin said the league’s medical protocol was followed “to the letter” and that the Winnipegger didn’t exhibit symptoms until the next day.
“If the player says he’s okay, and the test says he’s okay, then he’s okay,” he said.
Weise is slated to become an RFA, and Bergevin allowed he already has ideas on who should stay and who should go even if he hasn’t sounded out his subordinates yet.
So on Thomas Vanek, free-agent-to-be, he said “overall, I’m happy with him;” on Markov, free-agent-to-be, “overall, I’m happy.”
On Subban, who is a restricted free agent and due a massive payday, he said “both parties have ideas about where they want to go,” but emphasized that negotiations involve strategy, and that he’s not about to unveil his.
On coach Michel Therrien, he said: “I can confirm he’ll be back next season.”
Chortles all around – Therrien is signed through next year. Bergevin suggested before the Habs’ series against the New York Rangers that he had made his mind up on extending his coach. On Monday he said: “When there’s an announcement, you’ll be the first to know.”
Somehow, that seems unlikely.