MONTREAL — It feels like years ago, but it’s only been eight months.
Surely you remember when Marc Bergevin held court with reporters in December, just two weeks after the Montreal Canadiens dropped eight consecutive games, when he repeated for what seemed like the 1000th time over the last three years that he wouldn’t mortgage the future for a quick fix. Boy, was he ever right at the time, as his team was bulldozing its way towards the bottom of the NHL standings.
But if Bergevin is still thinking that way after what he just saw from this team in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Canadiens are never getting out of neutral under his watch.
To witness young centres Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki take massive leaps in their development in just over three weeks, to see Carey Price and Shea Weber play as well as they ever have over their illustrious careers, and to be right there to feel the Canadiens gelling together in a way that allows for the future-is-bright narrative to actually ring true, is to know the time to strike is right now.
Because for as good as the Canadiens were—and they were full value in knocking off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round and giving the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers all they could handle and then some in the first round—it still took everything they had to go as far as they did, which was nowhere near as far as they’d like to go.
They need more, and they need it immediately while the mojo is as positive as it is. Because the fact is, the Canadiens aren’t the only young team on the rise in National Parity League.
If they want an edge on some of the other ones, Bergevin is going to have to do the best work of his eight-year tenure before the puck drops next season.
The good news is he’ll never be in a better position to do it than the one he finds himself in right now.
General managers dream of having the kind of leverage Bergevin currently possesses. He has a desperate need for elite-level scoring — and some depth on defence and in net — and he has 14 picks in the upcoming draft, a loaded prospect pool, good non-core roster players he could part with, and an abundance of cap space to make the necessary acquisitions to fill those needs.
“As far as assets, yes, we have I believe 10 picks in the top three rounds in the next couple of years, [and] we have 25 overall. So we’re set that way,” Bergevin said during his 30-minute, season-ending press conference Saturday. “We’ve put ourselves in a good position to look around. If anything becomes available, we should be looking into that… If we can make our team better by moving a pick or players that we feel can make us better for a long period of time, we’ll do that.”
If not now, then when?
Here’s what else is in Bergevin’s favour: the NHL’s salary cap is going to be stagnant at $81.5 million for at least one more season and several of his competitors will have to shed salary (and some pretty good players) to comply with it.
And Bergevin can downplay it as much as wants — and he did in saying several times during Saturday’s availability that he has to be cautious and careful about how he spends Canadiens owner Geoff Molson’s money — but he’s got just over $63 million committed to a near-complete roster for next season and roughly $18 million to play with to make the team better.
This is the part where you retort with: Bergevin has had loads of cap space over the last two seasons and done little with it from that advantageous position.
But you know what the GM hasn’t had over that time? The evidence he needed to see in order to believe just a couple of sacrifices made to improve the Canadiens in the short run would go a long way towards cementing their place as perennial playoff participants moving forward.
“Today we see a team going in the right direction, a team fans should be proud of,” Bergevin said before exalting the virtues of his fresh-faced and talented Suzuki-Kotkaniemi punch up the middle.
Bergevin also talked about his unwavering faith in Price and Weber, saying both players, aged 33 and 35, respectively, proved they’re still on top of their game.
So how can he not look to bridge the gap between those four parts as quickly as possible?
A lot has changed here in a short span. So much so that what was best for the Canadiens in March is no longer what’s best for them now, which is a reality Bergevin acknowledged when he said he wouldn’t trade the experience his players just gained for a top-10 pick in this year’s draft.
“The experience of our young players and the way they showed their progression has no price,” Bergevin said. “So to move back seven picks (from ninth to 16th), that’s a very small price to pay. What we experienced the last month will really help the organization to move forward … The trade-off was worth it, to have lived this experience with our kids, how they showed their character and also the evolution of our organization.”
It won’t be worth as much if Bergevin doesn’t cash in on the opportunity at his feet.