All of the Montreal Canadiens are going to wear the failings of this season, but no one in particular is going to own them. That much is clear after Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin did a round of interviews in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday — on top of this exhaustive one with La Presse’s Mathias Brunet last week—and confirmed that head coach Claude Julien will be on the team’s bench at the start of next season.
Julien, who’s under contract for two more seasons after this one, isn’t taking the fall for what’s all but guaranteed to be a third consecutive playoff miss for the Canadiens this spring.
Neither is Bergevin, who’s also under contract until 2022.
That the GM is securing Julien’s position for next season at this point in time — he confirmed to our Elliotte Friedman, for an interview that will be dissected in this week’s 31 Thoughts, that this was his decision alone and that none of his core players were consulted before he made it—tells you that he has the authority and support from ownership to make major decisions for the team beyond this season.
And you know what else seems clear? That Bergevin doesn’t intend on making many (if any) drastic changes to Montreal’s core.
Even if his message was completely muddled after last Monday’s trade deadline passed, the one thing he repeated several times that afternoon was that he trusts he has the right nucleus of players to get the team to the playoffs.
On Tuesday, Bergevin doubled down on that.
“Making changes just to make changes often doesn’t work,” Bergevin said in an interview with TVA Sports’ Renaud Lavoie. “I have confidence in Claude Julien, I have confidence in our team.”
Whether or not that confidence is well-founded can certainly be argued. The Canadiens are a team that’s currently nine points out of a playoff position, a team that has scored the 17th-most goals and allowed the 15th most per game, a team that ranks 19th on the penalty kill and 20th on the power play, and a team that ranks 30th in win percentage when leading after two periods. It seems logical (if not pertinent) to ask if those problems can all be fixed internally and with a few strategical tweaks from the coaches and a better buy-in level or performance from the players in place.
Even if we know Bergevin intends to make some moves—he told Brunet he’d consider trading a forward for a defenceman if the opportunity arises this summer, and he said in his various interviews Tuesday that he will continue to try to improve his roster—it’s fair to say his biggest gamble as general manager is banking on drastic improvement without invoking fundamental change.
It has to pay off in the form of a playoff berth next spring for him and Julien to continue to have their jobs secured.
That means players like Tomas Tatar, Jeff Petry, Phillip Danault, Joel Armia and Ben Chiarot have to build on career-best seasons they’re currently enjoying.
It means franchise goaltender Carey Price has to maintain the type of play we’ve seen from him since Jan. 1 (he ranks top five in every traditional category except save percentage, where he ranks eighth) and not have drastic, month-long dips like he has over the last two Novembers. Captain Shea Weber is going to have to stay healthy, which is something (through no fault of his own) he hasn’t been able to do in his last three seasons. Jonathan Drouin is going to have to return as the player we saw at the beginning of the season, before wrist surgery and an ankle injury destroyed his campaign. Max Domi — if he isn’t used as trade bait to acquire a top-four defenceman—has to perform closer to the way he did in his first season with the Canadiens.
It also means Nick Suzuki needs to improve on an excellent rookie season, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling and Cale Fleury need to show they’re prepared to be impactful NHL players; and though expectations are smartly being tempered by Bergevin, it means Alex Romanov needs to step into the position that’s been carved out for him on Montreal’s third defence pairing and show that he can help the Canadiens balance the minutes on their blue line much more than they did this season.
Just as much (if not more) will be riding on Bergevin’s ability to unearth a player at this year’s draft who’s prepared to offer immediate help. It will be riding on his ability to make a shrewd trade (or two) and a couple of key signings on the open market — to acquire some more size, more talent, plus a backup goaltender capable of playing upwards of 25 games and winning at least half of them.
And even if the GM told Lavoie that he likes “the way (Julien) manages our young players, but also our players with more experience,” and that he finds the coach is “a very good teacher,” Bergevin must demand significant adjustments from the 59-year-old coach who could personally miss the playoffs for a sixth time in the last seven seasons if the Canadiens fail again next year.
Both Bergevin and Julien are being given a golden opportunity to continue shaping a brighter future for this team. If they can’t propel the Canadiens further down that path as early as next spring, it should be their last one.