Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is a brave leader.
Canadiens fans, who have watched their team slip from near the top of the NHL standings to the bubble of the Eastern Conference playoff picture over the last seven weeks, have been waiting impatiently to see what Bergevin would do to initiate change.
On Thursday, Bergevin called a press conference to declare what he will not do.
He will not panic.
He will not fire head coach Michel Therrien, no matter what happens to his team between now and the end of the season.
“If you’re ever in a foxhole and you want [someone] next to you, that’s what Michel Therrien is,” said Bergevin. “He’s a good human being, he’s an excellent coach, he communicates with the players very well — he knows he has to make them better and he works at it every single day. And that’s what I love about Michel Therrien.”
Bergevin was adamant that he will not mortgage the team’s future to acquire rental players on the trade market, no matter how much pressure he’s under to put a bandage on this wound.
“It’s very hard today to make a trade — you can ask the other 29 general managers,” said Bergevin. “Great players are rarely available. There’s also a salary cap to respect that’s changing every year, and you have to be responsible.”
It’s courageous of the GM, who’s facing the prospect of his team missing the playoffs when it was supposed to be further along the path towards competing for a Stanley Cup, to resist temptation.
It’s a pragmatic strategy for Bergevin to adopt considering the bombshell he dropped in his debrief Thursday — that reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy-winner Carey Price won’t return from a lower-body injury suffered Nov. 25 before mid-to-late-February at the earliest. But it’s very dissatisfying to the fans who don’t believe the Canadiens have what it takes to initiate change from within after the team has dropped 17 of its last 21 games.
Bergevin placed himself directly in the line of fire Thursday, answering difficult questions for nearly 30 minutes.
“I think our fans have questions throughout this period that’s been very hard for all of us,” said Bergevin. “All the critique should be directed at me. I’m the guy who provides the players, I’m the guy who put this team together and it’s on me and me only.”
It was a noble statement to make; it showed leadership in the face of adversity.
But Bergevin can’t step on the ice and convert the numerous scoring chances the players are missing night after night — accumulating the fewest goals in the NHL since Dec.1. And he won’t interfere with Therrien’s management of the roster.
The GM addressed his team for 20 minutes before throwing himself to the proverbial wolves at his press conference. His vision was clear: “Don’t play not to lose, play to win.”
But the Canadiens can’t conjure confidence out of thin air.
It took time for the losses to tear away at the confidence their historic 9-0-0 start to the season had built and it will take time to build it back up again.
Time is a luxury the Canadiens do not possess.
It took 98 points to clinch a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference last season and if the Canadiens are to hit that mark this year, they’ll have to win 24 of their remaining 35 games. Even if they find their confidence, that challenge might be too much to overcome without having Price at their disposal for another three-to-four weeks.
Canadiens rookie goaltender Mike Condon has done his best in Price’s absence, but his .907 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average haven’t been enough to stop the losing. Goaltender Ben Scrivens has gone 0-3 with an .882 save percentage and a 3.77 goals-against since he was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers Dec. 28.
Bergevin insisted the burden is not on his goaltenders, nor is it on his defencemen, nor is it on his forwards.
“I want to win,” said Bergevin. “The responsibilities are on my shoulders, nobody else’s. It’s not on [Canadiens owner] Geoff Molson, it’s not on Michel Therrien; it’s on Marc Bergevin. That’s clear. If it doesn’t work, it’s my fault.”
If it does work, it won’t be credited to Bergevin, who stood up and stepped in front of a bullet for everyone else in the Canadiens organization Thursday.