31 Thoughts: How Marc Bergevin sees Canadiens’ present, future

Kyle Bukauskas & Eric Francis discuss all the news coming out of the NHL GM Meetings including a change in the salary cap and how the league is monitoring the coronavirus situation.

• Bergevin never considered quitting
• NHL, teams “spooked” by coronavirus
• Panthers considering breaking up their core?

There was a rumour going around a few weeks ago that Marc Bergevin was thinking of stepping down as GM of the Montreal Canadiens. That he’d had enough, that it was time.

“I love my job,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Every GM has different challenges. Montreal, it is the expectations. It’s hard to fast-track a team, and as well as you can explain it, sometimes it’s frustrating because you know what (the fans) want, you want to get it done, but it’s not possible. And especially, you go through a period where there’s a lot of things — like, we got injured a lot, we start not playing well, and we couldn’t win a game, we’re losing leads and… I’m involved emotionally. I care. I take it personally. Sleepless nights, and usually I sleep pretty well. But then you take a step back and you talk to people around you and then (you’re saying), ‘All right, I’m doing it now. I’ll be okay.’

“So, quit? No, but there’s times it was tough.”

We talked for 25 minutes, his final interview on a busy afternoon of television and podcast appearances. Let’s do the quick hitters first.

As you’ve heard by now, Bergevin announced Claude Julien will return as head coach. He was surprised anyone thought otherwise.

“It’s clear to me it’s not a coaching issue,” the GM said.

Why not?

“Well, the message that Claude had last year, I know we didn’t make the playoffs, but I thought…. We had 96 points, we had a really good season. The message hasn’t changed. Where we are today, some comes on my shoulders. I’m not saying the coaches are free of anything going on their shoulders, but it also comes on the players’ shoulders. There’s plenty of — not blame — but adjustment that needs to be made for next year.”

Post-season exit meetings obviously haven’t occurred, but I did ask if he consulted the players before making this decision.

“No,” he answered. “Because I didn’t think these questions were coming. There’s times you have to make a coaching change, I get it. [But you don’t want your players to think,] ‘Okay, that was the reason (we were struggling). We’re good now.’ So, to me, we all need to be better. Starting with me, then the coaching staff, and the players.”

Did you come anywhere close to trading Jeff Petry or Tomas Tatar at the deadline?

“Not even close.”

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Bergevin said he received calls on both players, but never initiated conversations about either.

Will he try to extend Petry when the defenceman is eligible on July 1? (That suggestion’s been out there.)

“I have guys in mind I need to do that with, yes, but I can’t tell you that because they will use it against me.”

I tried to trick him by guessing jersey numbers and asking if a key player’s name rhymed with “Schmallagher,” but those didn’t work.

Does he anticipate difficulty in getting Max Domi extended?

“No.”

There was another rumour — when agent Gerry Johanssen visited Price in January — that Price was unhappy and might want out.

“Never, never, never,” the GM emphatically answered. He didn’t even wait for me to finish the question.

Do you expect to be busy in free agency?

“We’re always going to look around. There’s another GM with a lot of experience in there (Bergevin pointed to the room where the meetings were held) who says, ‘On July 1, do yourself and your organization a favour and put your phone away.’”

One of their biggest challenges is getting players to Montreal — whether it is pressure or taxes or whatever. One recent Canadien said he badly wanted to make it work there, but didn’t enjoy the experience and isn’t alone in that. When things are going great, the rewards are enormous. When they aren’t, you better have a thick skin.

“It’s not for everybody — that’s fair to say,” Bergevin. “It doesn’t mean the player isn’t strong mentally. Some players are more sensitive than others. And, as we know, it’s almost impossible to be on top of your game for 82 games in a market where there’s more pressure to perform, (especially) if you’re more sensitive and you pay attention to it.

“I can see how difficult it is. Like, I’m 54 years old. I have more tools, more experience to deal with it. But I can imagine as a 20- or 25-year-old, it could be difficult. But some guys love it. Some guys, it doesn’t bother one bit. Everybody’s different.”

How different will the Canadiens look next season?

“It’s hard to tell in March,” he replied. “And I know I’m going to sound crazy, but I like our team. When our team is playing to their optimum level and we’re healthy, I believe our team is a playoff team. We’ll look to see if we can make changes to improve. But to make a change because we’re in a market where they want to make a change… and not get better, I will not do that.”

Bergevin is excited about defenceman Alexander Romanov, who is expected to arrive from Russia. The GM said there will be an adjustment period for the 20-year-old, but told the player when they met in December that no matter what happened this season, the Canadiens believe in him. He’s very happy with Petry, Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber. As every Montreal fan knows, this is where an add could come — on the left side.

“Centre was an issue,” Bergevin continued. “Now with Nick (Suzuki), the way he has played, we feel comfortable he is a really good centre. We feel (Phillip) Danault is a really good centre. I think Domi is a good centreman. We’ve got (Jesperi) Kotkaniemi and (Ryan) Poehling. Obviously, they’re not at the top end where they will be, but they’re going in the right direction. I think that position is a strength.”

He also praised Jonathan Drouin.

“Jo had a really good start,” the GM said, adding that he felt Drouin was adding another level before injuries derailed his season. “That’s the Jo we got when we made the trade.”

Bergevin has two years remaining on his contract. We talked about GMs who, under pressure, made trades they knew were overly risky.

“If I was going to be let go tomorrow morning, of course we didn’t bring the team where we wanted to be, because everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup. But overall, I’m proud of what we’ve done. I believe that the organization is in good shape. Cap wise, prospect wise, draft-pick wise and young players. To make a move hoping to save my job, and put the Montreal Canadiens at risk — I will never do that. I have too much pride and too much respect for the Canadiens. And for (owner) Geoff Molson.

“Every deal you make is a risk. But if I feel it’s (a greater chance) that it’s not going to work, but it will buy peace? I won’t do it. I don’t believe in buying peace. I love my job, and if it costs me my job, so be it. Because I want my boss to go to bed at night knowing his organization is in good hands.”

31 THOUGHTS

1. Bergevin talked a bit about player development — that span between when someone is drafted and they join your organization. How important it is and how much (or how little) control the NHL team really has. The timing was interesting. The league’s agreement with the Canadian Hockey League expires soon, and, once again, there is a conversation about sending players to the AHL. It’s not unusual for this to be a debate. This time, however, there appears to be momentum. We’ll see where it goes.

2. Hearing that referee Tim Peel will make his return to the NHL on Thursday night in Ottawa. That is a massive comeback from a fractured fibula. He was supposed to be out for the year.

3. In case you missed it, Jim Little — fired as Ottawa CEO after just 54 days — released a statement. There is always more to these than meets the eye, but the Senators calling his conduct “inconsistent with the core values” of the team and the league, followed by Commissioner Gary Bettman saying, “It’s not what you think or what’s been suggested” left Little no choice to but state something.

4. The cap estimate being between $84 and $88.2 million is great news for the teams. They’ll have more than expected to spend, which is great news for the players. Because next season could have been a lockout/strike year, there was less cash in the system and a hope that players would use their escalator closer to its maximum five per cent. (It has been significantly lower in recent years, with escrow concerns.) The NHL and NHLPA have continued discussions on setting the ceiling for multiple seasons, likely through expansion Seattle’s first NHL year.

5. One exec used the word “spooked” to describe how teams and the league are reacting to the coronavirus, while others said they are trying not to jump to any conclusions. There is a team that cancelled a scouting trip to Russia, although another said he still planned to go because this is such a huge draft for their organization. Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday the NHL banned business travel outside of North America for employees. The Swiss League has delayed playoffs, the IIHF cancelled events and there were reports of teams in the Italian playoffs practising/taking morning skates elsewhere and just going to certain cities for the games.

6. When NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika asked Dale Tallon how the Florida GM felt leaving the BB&T Centre after Sunday’s 3–0 loss to Calgary, Tallon replied, “I was pissed,” adding the Panthers haven’t been the same since a 4–0 defeat in Montreal on Feb. 1. (They are 5-9-2 since.) If Tallon is upset, you can only imagine how owner Vinny Viola feels. Viola dropped more than $100 million — from Sergei Bobrovsky to Joel Quenneville to Anton Stralman, etc. — and while attendance figures have increased a bit, it is still under 14,000 per game. The Panthers are in danger of missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season, and the question being asked is, “What are the consequences?” There are many potential changes on and off the ice, but what has other GMs buzzing is a belief the Panthers will strongly consider breaking up their core because the mix hasn’t worked. Was the Vincent Trocheck deal just the tip of the iceberg?

7. In most situations, Tom Fitzgerald’s deadline work in New Jersey would earn him the permanent GM job. This is not “most situations.” Fitzgerald’s been told he is a legitimate contender, but the Devils will go through their search. Most interesting early development: I heard one individual was told he “doesn’t have the skillset” the organization is looking for. With that in mind, it’s not a surprise that former Vancouver GM Mike Gillis was among the first interviewees (if not the first). New Jersey is only talking to untethered candidates until those under contract are available later.

8. If Fitzgerald is not the long-term choice in Newark, he’ll be a serious candidate for other openings.

9. I think the Islanders were one team that inquired about Joe Thornton. It makes sense, considering their interest in Mikko Koivu as well.

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10. Carolina is targeting George Strait for its outdoor game. That would be a good get. Cross your heart that it happens.

11. Only Vegas has fewer home games remaining than Columbus, as the Blue Jackets begin an enormous swing through Western Canada. Fourteen of their final 15 are against teams in playoff position or legitimately still alive. But they’re gutting it out, currently in the East’s final post-season spot despite an injury list longer than your right leg. GM Jarmo Kekalainen said Cam Atkinson is the closest to return, although it won’t be on this trip. Kekalainen doesn’t feel his players get enough credit.

“We had high expectation for ourselves,” he said this week. “People forget that the last three years, we had the fourth-most wins. Only Tampa Bay, Boston and Washington had more. Our core is pretty good. At the beginning of this year, with the players we lost, we had to go through the aggravation of people calling us out. They’re worthy of more respect. I felt really strongly about the group.” Jarmo pulls no punches.

12. Kekalainen jokes that he calls head athletic trainer Mike Vogt “Dr. Death. I tell him to get away from me.” But, he adds, “Everyone has injuries. You have to deal with them.” I asked him if there was anyone who particularly raised their game when absolutely necessary, but he won’t go there. “I don’t want to lift anyone above the group. This is about everybody doing everything they can.”

13. Other than the injuries, the only negative around the team is a deteriorating relationship with Josh Anderson. The winger will not play again this season due to injury. He’s a restricted free agent, eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2021. Even though he can’t play for anyone else until September, there were rumblings another team was interested in getting a leg up on trying to acquire him now. Kekalainen would not discuss that, but did say, “We always consider all options. He’s got arbitration rights. He’s a great player, and we miss him. But we have to look at what’s best for the franchise.”

14. Like Bergevin, Los Angeles GM Rob Blake said it’s unlikely the Kings will be busy in free agency because of cap concerns. Depending on how things go, July 2021 could be a different story. I thought he did a good job of getting as many prospects/picks as he could, although Blake said it was bittersweet seeing some big parts of Stanley Cup champions move on. Blake added it was important to “stagger” the assets they received. “We didn’t want only draft picks, because they can’t help you for a few years. We needed some players who were closer than that.”

15. Asked about young players who took important steps this year, Blake said he is excited with the group at AHL Ontario, and liked the development of Matt Roy and Sean Walker on the right side behind Drew Doughty. “Blake Lizotte hit a wall because he’s never played this many games before,” but the Kings are really happy with where his game is going. Finally, Blake mentioned Gabe Vilardi. “Earlier in the year, we couldn’t know that he’d put himself in position to play NHL games this year. His development this season is very good for us.”

16. Heard this after I spoke to Blake, but I think Pittsburgh considered Trevor Lewis before going the Buffalo route.

17. I was surprised there were no changes to the emergency goalie system. Don’t think it was unanimous, but majority rules. The best argument made for keeping it as is was a good one: that these are the people who regularly face NHL shooters in practice. (The day after David Ayres and Carolina beat the Maple Leafs, he was on the ice with them.) Senior Vice-President of Hockey Operations Kris King pointed out that some teams — when on the road — will borrow the home city’s EBUG for practices if they want to give one of their regular guys a breather. Another thing we learned: the league informed the Hurricanes that, if Ayers got hurt, Rod Brind’Amour had two choices. He could put another player in goal, or he could go with six skaters.

18. The desire to changing the offside rule to “breaking the plane” is a victory for Colin Campbell. He proposed this a few years ago, but there wasn’t enough support. That’s changed as everyone realized the onion was being sliced too thin. What also helped was data. From 2017-18 until now, 45 of 71 “skate in the air” challenges would have been good goals instead of disallowed ones. And the number of overall offside challenges would have dropped from 214 to 143.

19. That drop matters. Leagues are always concerned about how long their games take. The NHL says this season’s average regulation game time is down three minutes, from 2:30 to 2:27. The two-minute minor for failed challenges is one reason. Coaches are clearly concerned with it. From 2015-16 to 2018-19, there were an average of 225 reviews per season. This year, we’re at 133. Teams had a 25 per cent success rate in those four years. This year’s rate is almost 60.

20. Jason Spezza does not view these final five weeks (plus potential playoffs) as the end of his career. He says there have been no contract talks with Toronto, but he wants to play again next season.

21. Something new I learned about J.T Miller: each morning skate is at least 30 minutes. “I need to get a good sweat going,” he said. Teammates added that you can always hear him, even if he’s not in the same room.

22. Canucks players and coaches say Miller’s been huge for Jake Virtanen. “He is on me to protect the puck,” Virtanen said. “He’s taught me a lot about doing it right.”

“It’s all about mindset,” Miller says. “He’s big and strong, but sometimes he thinks too much. I want him to be a jerk.” Only he didn’t use the word “jerk.”

23. Information is tight around Jacob Markstrom. There’s a lot at stake. The Canucks’ playoff position, the goalie’s future. The exact nature of the injury is guesswork. Lots of rumours, no confirmation.

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24. I think the NHL and NHLPA are going to look at the five-day breaks around the All-Star Game to see if there’s a better way. There’s a theory that it is contributing to injuries.

25. On-ice officials told league executives that, at the beginning of the year, coaches were making the decisions on where to have that first face-off on a power play. Now, the players themselves are doing it more often. I like that. It’s a good sign. Players should have that creativity.

26. Seeing Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid whip through the Nashville Predators brought up this question: who were the last teammates to be Hart Trophy Finalists? It was Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr — who finished second and third behind Joe Sakic in 2001. Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff were second and fourth in 2004.

Obviously, Nathan MacKinnon will have a lot to say about the Hart race. But, if the Rangers make the playoffs, there was going to be a ton of support for Artemi Panarin.

27. Last team to have back-to-back Calder Trophy winners: the Boston Bruins, in 1967 and 1968. Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes can end that streak.

28. Some of you are interested in contract minutiae. Chris Kreider’s extension had to be altered slightly because it initially violated the 50 per cent rule — the lowest-salaried year(s) of the deal can’t be less than half of the highest. Kreider’s biggest number is $10 million, originally there was one year at $4 million. Everything was adjusted later.

29. Talking with Sidney Crosby in this photo is Ben Cooper, then Team Canada’s video coach at the 2010 Olympics. He is now coaching the Herning Blue Fox in Denmark. This was taken not long after the Golden Goal. Cooper said Crosby asked to see video of his historic score when they got back to the dressing room because “he couldn’t remember how he scored it.” It was such a massive moment, and it happened so quickly that it was too difficult to process. I wish I’d known that before we interviewed Sid.

30. Mike Babcock’s message for Team Canada. Something for you to enjoy.

31. Let’s talk about Nashville. When the Predators came to life, many of us Canadian hockey snobs were like, “Seriously, WTF?” Then, as reporters began travelling there, word seeped out. “You’ve got to see this place.” “It’s one of the best road trips in sports.” I laughed at one print reporter saying the hockey writers at his paper fought over who got to go there. The music and the bars are obviously a big part of that, but it’s a fun place with a lot to do whether single or family-oriented. The 2017 Stanley Cup Final was a game-changer for the league. Everyone got exposed to how Nashville made its unique culture a big part of the Predators’ identity, and we all saw the massive crowds outside Bridgestone Arena for the open-air concerts. All the best to the people of that great city and hockey success story.

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