San Jose, CALIFORNIA—This season has gone in the complete opposite direction to the one Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was hoping it would take.
Goaltender Carey Price, the league’s MVP in 2014–15, has appeared in only 12 games. With him, the Canadiens got off to their best start in franchise history. Without him, they’ve managed to win only 40 percent of their games.
That’s why when the buzzer sounded on the NHL’s trade deadline, the most pertinent question to ask Bergevin was: Which direction are the Canadiens heading in from this point forward?
“The right one,” answered Bergevin.
Bergevin had completed one trade on the day, sending beleaguered forward Devante Smith-Pelly to the New Jersey Devils for a former first-round pick who has far from fulfilled on his promise.
“Stefan Matteau hasn’t developed to his capacity; there’s a reason he was available,” said Bergevin in French. “He’ll have an opportunity here in Montreal and it’ll be up to him to make his impact.”
Three days prior, the GM had sent pending unrestricted free agents Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks for a second-round pick in 2018 and 23-year-old Phillip Danault—another former first-round pick—this one hand-picked by Bergevin as a member of Chicago’s front office in 2011.
“We couldn’t hold Weise, and Fleischmann was a player we signed on the last day of training camp as a tryout who made $750,000,” said Bergevin. “We got a second-round pick and a player [Danault] who can definitely play.”
There were no blockbusters to be had on a day Bergevin described as quieter than the three he had previously worked at the helm of the Canadiens. He placed several calls, and inquiries were made on his players with term on their contracts, but deals proved elusive.
“Personally, I think the potential for a shrinking salary cap had something to do with that,” said Bergevin. “We looked at all the options. We always do in trading season.
“Of course it’s easier in the summer to obtain top-six players, but looking at those kinds of players—in order to get one you have to give one. The ideal situation is that you have a youngster rise to fill a hole. If not, you remove a piece to replace it and I’m not sure that you move forward that way.”
The plan was for Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal’s first-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft (third overall), to fill a gaping hole at centre. After three years spent mostly at left wing, the Canadiens made a commitment over the summer to finally give the kid a chance at the position.
In 44 games at centre this season, Galchenyuk had produced the 17th-most points per 60 minutes of any pivot in the NHL. He had done so with Lars Eller, who was admittedly out of his element at left wing, and a rotation of Alexander Semin—whose contract was terminated in December—and rookie right-wingers Sven Andrighetto and Daniel Carr.
But Canadiens coach Michel Therrien tried to spark the lifeless Canadiens of January (the team won just three of 11 games in the month) by moving Galchenyuk back to wing. He hasn’t put him back at centre since.
The plan moving forward?
“To me it’s a tool in his bag that he can play both positions,” said Bergevin. But right now, the way things are going, the way he’s been playing very well at the wing—I think [Therrien] is going to stick with him there. But I don’t rule out that [he’ll] be back playing centre.”
There are other things that remain unresolved.
Therrien had his job secured through the end of the season when Bergevin addressed the media on Jan. 21 to take the blame for Montreal’s spiral from first place in November to out of a playoff position. But beyond this season, the coach’s future has to be considered questionable.
Most coaches don’t survive the type of losing the Canadiens have done this season.
Also, will the deals Bergevin couldn’t make before the deadline materialize in the summer months—when the salary cap has been established? Will the team take some swings at big-name unrestricted free agents in July? Will the Canadiens add prospects at the draft that can turn into NHL players by the fall of 2016?
“We have some young players, a young core, and yes we’ve had some major hiccups, but I know we’re going in the right direction,” said Bergevin.
The proof will have to follow.