MONTREAL—Leave it to Sean McIndoe—aka Down Goes Brown—to come up with this gem in Thursday’s column about NHL general managers under the most pressure ahead of this year’s trade deadline:
“P.K. Subban and the Predators are in town on Saturday. Sometimes, when you’re a GM under the gun, even the schedule-maker seems to be working against you,” McIndoe wrote about the man he made No. 1 on his list, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin.
Hammer meet nail.
You can just imagine how it might feel for Bergevin to watch Subban and his Nashville teammates come to Montreal and possibly make good on an opportunity to smash the Canadiens further into oblivion. They’ve taken points in 13 of their past 14 games and risen to fourth overall in the standings—and Subban, who played his first six seasons in Montreal, has a chance to set a career high by scoring his 16th goal of the year.
Bergevin might as well be at the other end of Subban’s patented bow and arrow celebration if that comes to pass on Saturday.
After all, it’s Subban’s trade to Nashville, straight up for defenceman Shea Weber in the summer of 2016, which stands as a clear demarcation point for when Bergevin’s handle on the Canadiens’ roster began to slip. We wouldn’t categorize the move as a catastrophe—Weber has been excellent for the Canadiens, showing virtually no sign of slowing down—but it looked like a losing proposition on Day 1 considering the Canadiens didn’t acquire any futures in the deal to offset the four-year age gap between then-27-year-old Subban and then-31-year-old Weber.
Now it looks like a trade that will haunt Bergevin until the end of his days, with Subban making a strong case for the Norris Trophy and being poised to lead the Predators deep into this year’s playoffs—perhaps to a Stanley Cup after helping them come within two wins of one last year.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens are floundering their way towards the best crack they’ve had at obtaining the first overall pick in the draft since the spring of 2012.
That was when Bergevin replaced Pierre Gauthier as Canadiens GM, turning Montreal’s future from bleak to bright with his styling suits and can-do enthusiasm.
But those days are now a distant memory given the drastic alterations Bergevin’s made to the Canadiens over the past 21 months.
It started with Subban, who was traded after the Canadiens crumbled in goaltender Carey Price’s 70-game absence in the 2015-16 season, and it’s been downhill ever since.
There were the curious acquisitions of Steve Ott, Dwight King and Andreas Martinsen, who added punch but no scoring to the floundering Canadiens offence at last year’s deadline.
Then there was the remaking of the defence over the summer.
Alexei Emelin was lost in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights, Nathan Beaulieu was traded for a pittance to the Buffalo Sabres, and Andrei Markov was released after 16 years with the Canadiens. They, along with Weber and Jordie Benn, had helped the team record the NHL’s fourth-best goals-against average last season, but were replaced by a group Bergevin laughably suggested at this year’s golf tournament would be better.
Karl Alzner, who served as the Washington Capitals’ sixth defenceman through last year’s playoffs, was signed by Bergevin on July 1 to a five-year, $23.1 million contract. Mark Streit, who couldn’t crack Pittsburgh’s injury-riddled lineup on their run to capturing the 2017 Cup, was brought in on a one-year gamble that lasted two games and ended with his contract terminated. The oft-injured David Schlemko was acquired from Vegas for a 2019 fifth-rounder. And Joe Morrow was signed to a one-year deal worth the league minimum.
The team’s best prospect, 19-year-old defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, taken ninth overall in 2016, was shipped to the Tampa Bay Lightning for promising 22-year-old forward Jonathan Drouin. The hope was that Drouin could be the type of centre the Canadiens had been longing for since the mid-1990s, but Bergevin admitted weeks ago that in an ideal world he’d be playing on the wing.
Perhaps Drouin’s first crack at centre in the NHL would’ve been a whopping success had Bergevin been able to keep Alexander Radulov to play as his winger. But he played hardball with the 31-year-old in the lead up to free agency and lost him to the Dallas Stars because he wasn’t willing to offer more than the five-year, $31.25 million deal he signed.
It would’ve been a gamble, but the Canadiens were starving for offence and Radulov had provided it for them by scoring 54 regular-season points and adding seven more in six playoff games. Now he’s got 52 points in 53 games with the Stars.
Meanwhile, Bergevin’s Hail Mary on Ales Hemsky serving as a potential Radulov replacement was spiked into the ground before he even had a chance to play seven games this season. Two hip surgeries in two years had accelerated his decline, which was evident last year in Dallas and blatantly obvious in his first action with Montreal. A concussion suffered in Anaheim has kept Hemsky out of action since Oct. 20.
Signing him was the most recent of many mistakes the Montreal GM has made since the summer of 2016—all of them sharply in focus with the Canadiens sitting in 27th place, eight points out of the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference and 19 points back of the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division. He can’t erase them, but the work he does over the next two weeks can set the team on a much better course.
In an ideal world for Bergevin, that whole process would be the talk of the town this weekend. But with Subban returning, everything he’s done since trading him is right back under the microscope.
We can’t blame the schedule-maker for that, but the timing couldn’t be worse.