Canadiens take patient, cautious approach to start of free agency

Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec celebrates after scoring. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

BROSSARD, Que.– “I’m leaning towards patience,” Marc Bergevin said as he was heading into the NHL’s draft weekend with an opportunity to choose third overall and to add a total of 10 new prospects to the Montreal Canadiens’ coffers.

When you think about it, there really wasn’t another logical direction for Bergevin to go in. That’s why nothing he’s done since making that comment in Dallas should come as a surprise.

The Canadiens, with holes up the middle and on defence, finished 28th in the NHL standings last season. No amount of money to spend in free agency–they had a pinch over $17 million available in cap space heading into Sunday’s opening of the market—-was going to enable them to establish themselves as Stanley Cup contenders by next fall.

So patience was the wise path.

Had they been a player in the John Tavares sweepstakes, things might have turned out differently. But being shut out of the bidding process by the game-changing, free-agent centre, who chose to sign a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, only served to justify Bergevin’s stance.

Sure, Bergevin made some additions to the Canadiens on Sunday. But none of them should be expected to move the needle.

Bergevin spent $2.25 million to repatriate veteran centre Tomas Plekanec for one year. It’s a deal that could cost as much as $3.5 million if performance bonuses are attained, but it’s hardly a back-breaker. Bergevin then inked recently bought-out defenceman Xavier Ouellet to a one-year, two-way contract worth $700,000. Matthew Peca, the 25-year-old, two-way centre who has 20 games of NHL experience, came to Montreal shortly after on a two-year, one-way, $2.6 million deal. And forwards Michael Chaput and Kenny Agostino were signed to two-way deals to add veteran depth to Montreal’s farm team.

You want star power? You’ll have to wait for it to develop.

“It happens faster than you think,” Bergevin said shortly after 3 p.m. ET Sunday.

He’s not wrong. Teams are graduating more 18 and 19-year-old prospects to the NHL than ever before, and the Canadiens believe they’ll have the opportunity to do the same with some of their youngsters in the near future. But they’re not forcing the issue. That’s why it won’t come as a shock if Jesperi Kotkaniemi spends another year developing in Finland before joining the Canadiens on a full-time basis.

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Yes, Kotkaniemi, who was Montreal’s first of what turned out to be 11 picks in the 2018 draft, was signed to a three-year, entry-level contract on Sunday. Bergevin said he’ll be given every opportunity to prove he’s ready to play. But there’s no urgency on that front. The same way there’s no urgency for Bergevin to make considerable sacrifices to acquire players who might currently be available through free agency or trade.

“My phone is on 24/7,” Bergevin said before cautioning that he wouldn’t spend money just for the sake of spending money.

He did admit he’d like to find some help on defence, saying former New York Islanders defenceman Calvin de Haan was a free agent he had inquired about. But when he was asked about centres on the market, he said signing any of them for five or six years and potentially blocking the future graduation of one or two of the seven centres they drafted in Dallas was something he wasn’t willing to do.

As Bergevin was walking out of his press conference, he told one reporter that the price to acquire Buffalo Sabres centre Ryan O’Reilly via trade was too exorbitant for him to pay.

“If the price changes, [Sabres GM Jason Botterill] can call me,” Bergevin said.

Barring that–and maybe a tweak or two—-the Canadiens GM seems at ease with venturing into the 2018-19 season with the players already has under contract.

It’s a group that now includes Max Domi, the 23-year-old Bergevin acquired from the Arizona Coyotes on June 15 for Alex Galchenyuk, and 25-year-old Joel Armia, who arrived in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. It is a group that features several young players who still have some untapped potential; one that should be motivated after performing well below expectations last season.

“I’m expecting those players to come back and play much better,” Bergevin said. “I want a team that can compete, one that is young and fast.”

But don’t expect to see one that can match up on paper with the likes of the Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning or Boston Bruins. Never mind some of the teams that play outside of Montreal’s division.

Maybe that’s a hard pill to swallow for Canadiens fans who hopes the team would be in a much stronger position heading into Bergevin’s seventh summer at the helm. But it’s reality they must now accept.

“I think our fans want to win, but they’re also fans that appreciate when effort is given every night,” Bergevin said. “That’s what they’re going to get this year, that’s for sure. And that usually brings good results.”

As for the great results, those will likely only come with patience.

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