Canadiens’ solid start has GM Bergevin back to his old self

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Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin speaks to the media after the trade deadline Monday, February 26, 2018 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — There was a lightness to Marc Bergevin that shone through in sharp contrast to the all-black outfit he wore to meet the media on Monday.

We’re not exactly out on a limb suggesting it had everything to do with his Montreal Canadiens getting off to an unexpected 6-2-2 start to their season. We didn’t ask if it was because he was holding a press conference to address something positive for the first time in recent memory, though we’re comfortable asserting that might have also been a factor.

What was the precise reason Bergevin gave for his unsolicited appearance in front of cameras and microphones at the Canadiens’ south-shore practice facility to start the week?

“I miss you guys,” the general manger said before chuckling to himself.

Levity had been the trademark of his 1191-game journeyman career as an NHL player. We’re talking about a frequently-traveled guy — Bergevin played for eight different teams and did multiple stints with three of them — who regularly had an entire bag of prank equipment sent alongside his hockey gear to whatever new city he arrived in.

Though his pranks fell by the wayside, Bergevin’s fun side was front and centre as he transitioned to executive life.

He brought his jokes with him to Chicago in 2005, when he was hired by the Blackhawks as a scout, inevitably spreading his good humour throughout the organization in roles as an assistant coach and assistant general manager. And he transported them to Montreal when he was appointed general manager of the Canadiens back in 2012.

Bergevin was the source of many laughs as the years wore on, but his humorous side had all but disappeared during the cataclysmic clustercrap of a season that was 2017-18 for the bleu, blanc et rouge.

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It was understandable, really. The team got off to its worst start to a season in 76 years and things devolved rapidly—and hideously—from there. And there were several press conferences Bergevin held over that time that were no laughing matter — to update on trades he couldn’t make to solve the team’s issues, to discuss a misdiagnosed injury that would keep a player out longer than expected, to express his general confusion and disappointment about the way things were going, and, finally, to condemn the bad attitude that had become pervasive throughout the organization.

“It affected me,” he told Sportsnet in an exclusive interview prior to this season. “I’m a sensitive person. I do have feelings and I care. Yeah, I’m sensitive.”

“I realize at times I closed myself,” Bergevin added. “It’s not really my personality, but it’s become a way of protecting myself.”

He had no choice but to be cautious as the Canadiens entered this season with captain and star defenceman Shea Weber sidelined by injury until December at the earliest, with superstar goaltender Carey Price entering Year 1 of an eight-year, $84-million contract to follow up the worst season of his career, with a defence that went through virtually no change from the one that appeared for most of last season as though it couldn’t hold its own in the American Hockey League, and with two 30-goal scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk traded away from a group that had the 29th-best scoring numbers in the league from last October to April.

Bergevin wasn’t jumping for joy on Monday, either, but he was justifiably upbeat.

“What I’ve seen so far, the effort’s there,” he said with a hint of satisfaction. “There’s a recipe for success. It doesn’t mean you’ll have success, but if you don’t have that [recipe] you have nothing. We have a team that competes and plays within the system and plays fast, and with that we’re having success.”

There are no guarantees it continues, but the recipe currently in place had Bergevin saying on Monday that he’s sleeping much better than he did at this time a year ago.

A lot has changed for the Canadiens since then. Players have come and gone, assistant coaches Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson have replaced Dan Lacroix and Jean-Jacques Daigneault and brought fresh perspective to the mix, and the system of play head coach Claude Julien has instituted is much more in line with what successful NHL teams are running and much more executable for the personnel in place.

“How [the Canadiens] compete, how they play every night,” are the things Bergevin said he was impressed with. “They don’t give up, they’re hungry, they play fast, they’re having fun together, and they enjoy coming to the rink every day and that’s a big difference for me.”

Another one to be encouraged about is the way the defence has stepped up in Weber’s absence, allowing Bergevin to say they won’t rush the big man’s recovery from off-season knee surgery.

And then there’s this:

“Our record is not because of Carey Price,” Bergevin said. “Maybe in the past we did rely only on Carey, or mostly on Carey, to win games. But now we play better as a team in front of him [and] that makes his job easier.

“That’s the way it should be.”

There’s no denying that — and it has bought Price time to find his best game, which he put on display in a 33-save, 3-0 Canadiens win over the Boston Bruins this past Saturday.

If Price can remain at his peak while the Canadiens continue to perform admirably as a team, if they can all remain relatively healthy, a lot more weight will come off Bergevin’s shoulders as the weeks go by.

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