MONTREAL— Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin held court with the media for 30 minutes on Sunday afternoon, and though he handled that uncomfortable situation admirably, there wasn’t anything he could say that would satisfy most fans of the team.
It’s not hard to understand why that’s the case. The Canadiens started the night miles away from the playoff picture and gained but an inch in the race with their 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks Sunday night. They’re now 12 points out of third place in the Atlantic Division and are seven points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins who just squeezed their way into the second wild card position in the Eastern Conference, and Bergevin couldn’t deny his role in why they find themselves in such an unenviable spot.
“I think it starts with me,” the GM said.
You can’t blame a large portion of Canadiens fans for believing it ends with him, too.
They’d have plenty of ammunition to build their case. They could point to the hardline approach Bergevin took from a position of weakness in summer negotiations with free agents Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov. That had much to do with his inability to sway them from moving on from the Canadiens.
That Bergevin did nothing adequate to replace either player, leading him to wade into the season with more than $8 million of unspent money under the salary cap, is another salient point to reckon with.
But if the fans were looking for a smoking gun, Bergevin provided one when he said on Sunday, “In an ideal world, [Jonathan Drouin’s] a winger.”
He might as well have dropped a lit stick of dynamite into the room.
Bergevin’s been in place since the summer of 2012, and he has admittedly failed to address what’s been the team’s top need going on three decades. That gaping hole at the centre-ice position of the Canadiens’ lineup has only gotten wider under his watch–even if he was convinced he had done something to close it when he drafted Alex Galchenyuk third overall close to six years ago, or when he traded his best prospect in defenceman Mikhail Sergachev to acquire Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning this past summer.
It took Bergevin five years to close the door on continuing to experiment with Galchenyuk at centre. He could’ve said Drouin’s adaptation to the position — after only half a season of playing it at this level — is a work in progress. Drouin is a 22-year-old with plenty of upside, and everyone knows it takes time to become an elite centre in this league.
Even Drouin, who notched an assist on Galchenyuk’s goal on Sunday and has just one other — and zero goals — in his previous 11 games, believes he can meet the challenge.
“I embrace it, and it’s not like I expected it would be easy to be a top centre in my first year,” he said after the game.
But now that the GM has admitted he believes Drouin’s better off on the wing, one can’t help but wonder what — if anything — he can do to fix the issue that continues to plague the Canadiens.
As Bergevin said on Sunday, there are no guarantees a No. 1 centre is available in this year’s draft. Even if one was, and the Canadiens were able to get their hands on him, there’s even less of a chance they could develop that player fast enough to account for the issue in the short term.
Knowing all of that isn’t going to help the fans accept Bergevin’s wait-and-see approach to the rest of this season.
“We’re not throwing in the towel,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in a very difficult situation, but I’m going to fight and I expect the same thing from [the players].”
It’s a statement that suggests the GM believes that’s a better route to take for the Canadiens than the one that has them immediately trying to move assets from other positions to stock the cupboards with a player who may one day be able to step into the role they had designated for Drouin and another who could help them replace what they lost in the 19-year-old Sergachev, who now has eight goals, 27 points and a plus-13 rating in 42 games with the Lightning this season. It’s not going to play well, even if it underscores the reality that we’re seven weeks away from the trade deadline and there’s still (faint) hope — and tickets —
“When I took the seat as GM in Montreal, I knew that criticism came with the job,” Bergevin said. “To be in this chair you need to have thick skin. Believe me, I have thick skin.”
That’ll come in handy for him over the coming weeks, but it won’t do much of anything for fans of the Canadiens.