MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens, along with seven other NHL teams, are being offered an unprecedented chance to play for the Stanley Cup without having earned that right on their own merit.
It would be a stretch to say Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is enthralled about it and we can’t really blame him.
“We’ll deal with the cards that have been dealt to us as best we can,” said Bergevin on a 40-minute conference call Wednesday.
But those cards sure look worse than the ones the Canadiens were holding when the NHL paused its season on Mar. 11 due to a global pandemic.
Don’t get us wrong. As Bergevin mentioned on the call, a chance to play playoff hockey is what every team is in it for when they arrive at training camp, and that’s unquestionably an exciting outcome for a team that has missed out on that opportunity in each of the last two seasons and in three of the last four.
But it’s unimaginable the GM sees that as a better outcome than the one his Canadiens were trending towards in piecing together a 31-31-9 record through the first 71 games of an 82-game season.
When the NHL hit the pause button, the Canadiens, with that paltry record, were 10 points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They had taken a noble stab at proving themselves worthy, but they had completely missed the mark and their deficiencies had been laid bare on their way to facing that reality—with two separate eight-game winless streaks and four losses in four attempts against the bottom-of-the-barrel Detroit Red Wings making it undeniable.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins were sold for draft picks at the February trade deadline and the team — which was falling further and further out of contention — was focusing on its future and taking the necessary steps towards improving its draft lottery odds.
But now, in the wake of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announcing on Tuesday that the return-to-play plan the league and the NHLPA agreed upon would have 24 teams involved in a tournament for the Stanley Cup, the Canadiens’ inclusion decreased their chances of drafting in the top-10 this summer.
For what it’s worth, Bergevin said he’s looking at that outcome as glass half full rather than half empty.
“For me, we have an opportunity as a team,” he said. “If we’re able to play at some point later in the summer, [it] gives us a chance to prove something that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.”
When Bergevin was asked how he views his team’s chances in the proposed format, he said, “I think our chances are as good as any of the other eight teams that have been awarded a playoff spot, to be honest with you.”
But that was hardly a convincing statement regarding their chances in comparison to those of the 16 teams that were in playoff spots when the season was paused.
“It’s a short series, anything is possible,” Bergevin said of the three-to-five-game play-in round. “Without putting any pressure on Carey (Price), when you have a goaltender of that quality, anything is possible. So we’ll see where we are, but I feel confident that if we do get to play against Pittsburgh, we have a chance to beat them.”
But the GM was in no position to suggest the Canadiens could do much else beyond that.
It’s why he conceded that the opportunity cost of being included in the play-in can’t be ignored.
“The percentage [of winning the draft lottery] going from six to two percent is, once again, not an ideal world,” Bergevin said.
And beating the Penguins, only to be knocked out of the lottery altogether, can’t be considered ideal either. Especially if the Canadiens drop out of the playoffs shortly after that.
For a team that embarked on a reset in the summer of 2018 — a team that Bergevin insists will only reach contender status by building through the draft and by properly developing its young talent — a guaranteed spot in the top-10 this summer was an opportunity to accelerate the process.
It may not have been what management was hoping for when the Canadiens started the season, but it certainly was the desired outcome by the time they had proven themselves incapable of making up the talent gap between them and the teams firmly entrenched in the playoff race.
There’s nothing Bergevin can do about it now.
“Honestly, I control what I can control,” he said. “I had no control over the decision of the NHL, but I’m conscious Gary Bettman and (NHL deputy commissioner) Bill Daly did everything for the benefit of the future of the NHL.
“So, we’ll adapt. I’ve talked to many GMs over this period—there we things we liked less and things we liked more but, at the end of the day, what Gary said yesterday is for the best for the entirety of the NHL.”
So the Canadiens will forge ahead with what they have.
Jonathan Drouin, who sat out their last game before the pause, has recovered from the ankle injury that was hampering him. Tomas Tatar has recovered from an upper-body injury. And even if Bergevin said he couldn’t give a certain update on Victor Mete’s status because the young defenceman has been rehabbing from a broken left ankle from his home in Woodbridge, Ont., and away from Canadiens doctors, Mete told us at the end of March that he was two weeks away from removing his walking boot and just a few weeks out from a full recovery.
A prognosis on Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the team’s first-round pick in 2018, was unclear. The 19-year-old is home in Finland nursing an injured spleen that was to be treated with extensive rest.
Regarding the possibility that 2018 second-round pick Alexander Romanov can begin the entry-level contract he recently agreed to once play resumes, the rules don’t allow for it as of right now. Daly told reporters on a Tuesday conference call that it would be “unfair” to introduce new players at this stage, even if teams have been allowed to do this in every other season under the current collective bargaining agreement.
Bergevin remains hopeful that might change.
“The decision doesn’t just belong to the NHL, but also the PA,” he said. “It’s delicate. Personally, I can’t persuade anyone. It’s a rule that’s in place and there are other teams dealing with the same situation and I hope to have an answer as soon as possible for Alex Romanov.”
Whether he gets the answer he wants to hear is anything but a given. And if he gets the one he doesn’t want to hear, that’s just one more reality he’ll have to accept.
As for the play-in, Bergevin may not have been exuberant about it, but he’s still hopeful his team will make the best of it.
“For sure I was disappointed with where we had finished on Mar. 11, but we have an opportunity and I still believe in this team,” he said. “I believe in this team at the moment. I know we had difficult times, but we’ll see what happens, if a return to play is possible.”