BROSSARD, Que.— The players spoke on Monday, and not a single one of them was willing to admit what had been clear since Day 1 of what has to be considered one of the most catastrophic seasons in the 109-year history of the Montreal Canadiens: That they did not for one second believe they had a chance to compete for a championship.
It wasn’t as clear to owner Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin at the beginning of October, but it became an undeniable reality with every week that passed. One they acknowledged over and over again over the course of their 75-minute joint press conference on Monday.
“With a better attitude, a different attitude, we don’t have 40 [regulation-time] losses,” said Bergevin. “This problem was there right out of training camp, let’s be honest. We didn’t fight for the playoffs, not from Day 1. It started at [a] 1-6 (record to start the season); we put ourselves behind the eight-ball and were never able to get back in front of it.
“If you fight and fight and miss, that’s a letdown. But what’s disappointing is we didn’t fight. It’s unacceptable.”
But it’s understandable.
It’s understandable that 30-year-old franchise goaltender Carey Price and 29-year-old captain Max Pacioretty looked at the key off-season losses of players like Alex Radulov and Andrei Markov — and the fact they weren’t adequately replaced — and began to feel concerned about the team’s prospects for the year. It’s understandable that they, among other players, looked at the near $9 million in cap space the Canadiens waded into the season with and scratched their heads. It’s understandable that when they stepped on the ice and saw what free agent signings Mark Streit, Karl Alzner, Joe Morrow and Ales Hemsky had to offer, they were highly skeptical it would be enough.
The players might never cop to any of that, but their attitudes being repeatedly called into question by those in charge all but confirms it. And if you needed a smoking gun, just look at their performances from an individual standpoint.
Price played his worst in what was his 10th season with the organization, posting a .900 save percentage and a 3.11 goals-against average. And Pacioretty, who had scored at least 30 goals in each of the last five full regular seasons (he scored 15 in the lockout-abridged 48-game season of 2012-13), finished off with 17.
“All but roughly five players didn’t perform to expectations,” said Bergevin.
You’d think the money is enough of a motivation; that these players are making millions of dollars to give it everything they’ve got, every night; that it’s all it takes to get the best out of them. But winning is only motivation, and when it’s abundantly clear it won’t be possible, pushing yourself to the limit on a consistent basis becomes a near-impossible exercise.
“We got here as a team not ready to put the work in from the start,” said Canadiens centre Phillip Danault. “Your identity is very important, it slowly creates a culture and everyone buys in. When everyone buys in, everything works.”
If Bergevin can’t understand why that didn’t happen this season, he needs a bigger mirror.
It was his decision to remake the defence of a team that finished with 103 points and with the fourth-best goals-against average in the NHL. It was his decision to play hardball with Radulov and Markov without a gun to hold in negotiations. It was his decision to sign Streit, who couldn’t get into games for a decimated Pittsburgh Penguins team in last year’s playoffs. It was his decision to sign Hemsky after two hip surgeries in three years had rendered him incapable of continuing to perform at this level. And it was his decision to give Alzner—who was relegated to being a sixth defenceman with the Washington Capitals—a five-year, $23.1 million contract.
“At the end of the day, I make the final call,” Bergevin said.
As for the cap space, which never ended up getting used, Bergevin admitted that wasn’t the plan. But where was the contingency plan? Not having one certainly compounded the issue.
That Bergevin expected things would turn out drastically different—and that his team should’ve been in the mix for a playoff spot all along—should be the biggest concern of all as he moves forward as the director of hockey operations.
“I was too optimistic,” he said. “I for sure overestimated some things, but I didn’t have the signs saying, ‘You know what, Marc, we’re going in the wrong direction.’”
The fans knew. From 2009-16, they had turned out in crowds so large to training camps held at the team’s south shore practice facility that you couldn’t park anywhere near the building. But this year? They were nowhere to be found. Their lack of excitement was evidenced by their absence, and their disconnection from the organization inevitably grew to a concerning level as the team shot out to its worst start to a season in 76 years.
In an attempt to bridge that gap on Monday, Molson pledged not to raise ticket prices next season and admitted the status quo would not suffice.
“We are the NHL’s most storied franchise and we owe it to our fans to achieve a standard of excellence that they expect,” he said. “We need to bring back the winning culture that we did not see this season. If I could leave our fans with one message today it is that we will get better on and off the ice.
“On the ice, changes will be required and we intend to look at all areas with a view to improve. Off the ice, we’ll be improving our communications for the fans across all areas of the organization. And also, when you come to the Bell Centre next season, your fan experience will be different and improved in several key areas.”
Bergevin also said that the hockey ops department is currently being evaluated, which is a process that will continue over the coming weeks.
There will be bridges to build with the players who remain, too.
It’s hard to fathom Pacioretty will be one of them. The winger, who was the subject of unrelenting trade speculation this season, is eligible to sign a new contract as of July 1. To think he’ll be a priority when the comments Molson and Bergevin made on Monday were such an indictment of his leadership is a little farfetched.
“It’s been a privilege to play for the Montreal Canadiens and I hope that keeps going,” Pacioretty said earlier.
“But if they have other plans then I’m just going to keep living my life,” he added.
Price isn’t going anywhere. He’s set to become the richest goaltender in hockey with an eight-year, $84 million contract kicking in next fall.
“On the attitude side and on the performance side, he had a tough season,” said Bergevin.
Most of the Canadiens did, and they owned it on Monday.
Now it’s time for Bergevin to give them something to be hopeful for because they didn’t have much of anything to go on before this dreadful season got underway.