Canadiens fail to give fans clarity after confusing trade deadline

Nikki Reyes and Eric Engels breakdown what the Canadiens accomplished following the trade deadline and whether there is a clear direction the team is going in.

BROSSARD, Que. — As fans of the Montreal Canadiens try to come to terms with their team all but certainly missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third consecutive season and for a fourth time in five years, all they want from general manager Marc Bergevin is some clarity.

But after trading Marco Scandella, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Matthew Peca for a bevy of middling picks and one AHL prospect, after hanging onto veterans Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry, who are both one season away from unrestricted free agency, and after answering questions for 39 minutes once the NHL’s 3:00 p.m. ET trade deadline had come and gone, Bergevin outright failed to offer the fans what they want.

They’ve expressed themselves in droves — on talk radio, on social media, in everyday conversation in all the places they gather both in and around Montreal, and beyond this city’s borders — that they want to know where Bergevin is taking this team and how long it will take for it to arrive at that destination. They want to know that there’s some semblance of a plan to turn this team into a contender and that the people running the show have a general idea of how long it will take to execute.

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Instead, what Canadiens fans got on Monday was total and utter confusion. And it’s not because Bergevin didn’t know what he wanted to say, or that he simply couldn’t find the right way to express himself; it’s because the one thing that’s clear is that he’s completely caught in between lanes.

He had a chance to salvage this season — which was marred by injury in November — by moving some future assets, but he refused to do that. Then he had a chance to treat the trade deadline as an opportunity to significantly bolster the near future, and all he came up with was a 2020 second-round pick for Scandella, a 2020 third-rounder for Kovalchuk, a 2020 seventh-rounder and minor-leaguer Aaron Luchuk for Peca, a 2021 fourth-rounder for Cousins and a 2021 fifth-rounder for Thompson.

And then he said, “I don’t believe in losing, winning (the day). I mean, if teams are selling at the deadline, obviously they’re not where they want to be because you want to be buyers if possible. But based on that, the assets we were able to get in return — I’m happy with what we’ve done today. I’ll put it this way.”

Earlier on Monday, Kovalchuk said a better offer from a less-desirable team had been on the table, but Bergevin insisted it was most important to take an offer that was on hand rather than to wait for one that was explored but not officially offered: one that could get worse with time; one that was contingent on the proposed team whiffing on another trade before considering making an official offer; and one that would have sent Kovalchuk somewhere he wouldn’t want to go.

“I wasn’t going to do that,” Bergevin said.

“We did what was best for Kovy, and for the organization,” he repeated several times about a player he had had on hand for just 51 days, not one who had dedicated years of service to the Canadiens.

On holding onto Tatar and Petry, he said that it was preferable to trading them for draft picks.

“They’re good players,” Bergevin said. “Just to trade them for draft picks when you know we have another year with them, it made no sense. We need to keep fighting where we are today, and next year we intend to put a good team on the ice, and these guys are good players for us.”

It was just seconds later that we asked Bergevin how his team can rise above the cluster of average teams they’ve been a part of since he took over as GM in 2012, and his answer completely contradicted what he said about keeping Tatar and Petry.

“If you look at teams now that you could say (are) elite teams – and you could pick the ones you think they are, I know the ones I know — they’re built through the draft. So that’s what we’re doing; that’s what we’ll keep doing.”

While it’s true the Canadiens have made 21 picks and built up a consensus top-five prospect pool since Bergevin hit the reset button in the summer of 2018, the current edition of the team is relying on exactly zero star-calibre players it has drafted outside of goaltender Carey Price.

Bergevin was challenged on that point by two veteran reporters, one of whom brought up the failure to draft and develop any players who have gone on to record more than 70 points in a season since the day Trevor Timmins took over Montreal’s amateur scouting department in 2002, and his conclusion was that the draft essentially boils down to luck.

“I don’t go to the casino, but if you play blackjack you play the odds,” he said. “I know it’s difficult for fans to understand, and even for you guys to understand, but when you’re sitting at the table and you see the names go by, you have to get lucky, too.”

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Bergevin referenced statistics showing that the 41st-overall player chosen has roughly the same chance of turning into an NHL player as the 25th-overall player chosen, he said that there’s a drop off in elite talent every year after the first eight players are called, and then he repeated how crucial it was to hang onto the “core” players who can still push the Canadiens towards an improbable playoff berth this season — a process all but certain to negatively impact their odds of drafting in the top-eight this summer.

If that wasn’t contradictory enough, how about this? The GM listed the team’s spotty home record this season (they rank 23rd overall with a 13-15-5 record at the Bell Centre) and its inconsistency in general as his greatest disappointments, and then he endorsed Claude Julien and his coaching staff for the job they’ve done.

“I think they’ve worked really hard and the message has been the same, and it’s what I believe in,” Bergevin said. “We need to be committed for 60 minutes and pay attention to details and be more consistent, and that’s what I believe and that’s the message that they’re telling the players.”

When asked if it falls on the leaders of the team to solve the issues, Bergevin said, “Yeah, to a degree it does, yes.

“I’m not putting anybody … I’m not going to point at anybody,” he continued. “But I’m saying as a group they need to be better, yes.”

“They,” as in the core he was unwilling to alter in any significant way ahead of Monday’s deadline.

For what it’s worth, Bergevin said he’d see how the market opens up this summer when teams have more cap flexibility and more teams are likely to consider “hockey trades.”

But he guaranteed nothing.

When Bergevin was asked about the need to lock up core pieces — Tatar, Petry, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen are up for new contracts in the summer of 2021 — he said he’d like to explore that option as of July 1.

“There’s players on our team that I feel are very hard to replace,” the GM stated. “In July, some of these players, I’ll go to them and see if an extension’s possible. And, if not, at some point it’s either I make the decision that we go one more year or I make changes. But again, it’s too early to tell you that.”

When asked if he’d be comfortable going into next season with five of those six players being pending unrestricted free agents, he said, “In a perfect world that’s not what you want, but then it might be the best option.”

Make sense of that.

Where the Canadiens go from here is anybody’s guess.

All the fans wanted on this day was some clarity, but all they got was confusion.

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