BUFFALO, N.Y. — You have to think Marc Bergevin is at the crossroads of his tenure as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.
Bergevin may not be staring down the other end of a loaded gun barrel—he has a five-year contract extension that kicks in this season—but he’s reached the proverbial fork in the road. It’s time to find out if the model he’s invested in will bring the team closer to the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
You could argue it’s a model to which none of Bergevin’s counterparts across the league prescribe. We can’t think of another team that will depend as heavily on its goaltender as the Canadiens will on Carey Price, and we certainly can’t think of one that will do so by design.
We also look at the dramatic overhaul of the Montreal blue line and see a shift away from agile and/or creative puck-movers in Andrei Markov, Nathan Beaulieu and Mikhail Sergachev, who were swapped out this past summer for slower, simpler players in David Schlemko, Mark Streit and Karl Alzner. And we can’t help but feel that’s a significant departure from the strategy we see successful teams implement nowadays.
There’s no question Bergevin has stepped outside the box and taken his biggest gamble yet with the assembly of this roster, and it had better pay dividends for him because the pressure to deliver is ramping up.
The Canadiens have earned three division titles and compiled a winning percentage that’s up there with the very best teams in hockey over his time as GM. But they’ve also had progressively worse results from year-to-year in the Stanley Cup playoffs over that same period. They were conference finalists in 2014, conference semi-finalists in 2015, and they were a first-round out in 2017. Failing to qualify for the post-season in 2018 would almost certainly signify the beginning of the end for Bergevin.
There’s a way for it to all go right, though. Price will have to be at the height of his abilities on a nightly basis, the defence will have to move the puck as quickly as it can to account for its lack of mobility, and the offence will have to provide balanced scoring.
A total buy-in to Claude Julien’s system can—and has to—make the difference.
“We want to be hard to play against,” the coach said on Thursday, ahead of the team’s first regular-season game in Buffalo. “It certainly doesn’t entail running guys over. A hard team to play against is by minimizing a team’s scoring chances, by taking away time and space, being on top of the puck all the time, and we want to be as good of a puck possession team as we can by getting it back quickly and by also managing it well when we have it. We feel we can accomplish it with the guys we have.”
It will help if 22-year-old Charles Hudon can take advantage of his opportunity to be an offensive X-factor on this team. If he can be a catalyst for linemate Tomas Plekanec, who’s coming off a disappointing 28-point output in 2016-17, it will make a difference.
It will also be crucial for forwards Phillip Danault and Paul Byron to build on their breakout campaigns from last season. The former set a career high with 40 points, and the latter beat his previous best of 11 goals in a season by scoring 22.
Sophomore Artturi Lehkonen also has to build on what he established in scoring 18 goals as a rookie.
Brendan Gallagher’s ability to bounce back from a 10-goal 2016-17 is going to be a huge factor. If he can get back into the 20s, it will help Julien continue to balance out his lines.
Alex Galchenyuk has to prove he can be consistently productive without having to play with the best forwards on the team. He’s starting off with Danault and Andrew Shaw, and he’s under the gun to get closer to the 30 goals he scored in 2015-16 and not repeat a forgettable 17-goal season from 2016-17.
Victor Mete, who’s only 19, can play a huge hand in changing the complexion of the defence with his speed and creativity with the puck.
And there is so much riding on Jonathan Drouin’s ability to successfully transition from wing to centre. It’s a lot to ask of a hometown kid, who will be subjected to a level of pressure he’s never dealt with before in this league.
“I don’t think Jo is the type of guy that lets pressure get to him—just knowing him and his personality,” said Sabres alternate captain Jack Eichel. “He’s very relaxed, he just worries about what he has to worry about.
“I got to spend a pretty good amount of time with him at the  World Cup and got to know him well, and he’s got a good confidence about him. He’s a really talented player, he makes plays, and he’s not going to let the outside noise get to him, and I think that’s the best thing for him. He’s a great player, so he doesn’t have to worry about what other people think. He knows he’s a great player, the people around him know he’s a great player. All he has to do is focus on making plays, dangling players like he does, and he’s going to do very well.”
Considering what Bergevin gave up to acquire Drouin—Sergachev, who’s slated to play as a top-four defenceman for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season—the kid from St. Agathe, Que., has no choice but to be up to the task.
Neither does anyone else on the Canadiens, really.
“If everyone does their job, we have enough talent in here and a good enough group to make the playoffs,” said Gallagher.
And if Bergevin wisely spends the $7.7 million he has in salary cap space, the team can do more damage in the post-season than it has in previous years under his watch.
That outcome would give Bergevin the security he could use as he progresses through his new contract. Anything short will put his future with the team in doubt.