BROSSARD, Que. — You’d think locking up your best player with an eight-year contract extension would be cause for jubilation, but Marc Bergevin didn’t exactly appear to be jumping for joy during his 28 minutes in front of the media on Sunday.
"We identified him as the franchise player," Bergevin said in French. "He’s exceptional."
But the bittersweet reality is that Bergevin’s ability to ice a winning team in front of Price, while the goaltender still carries a digestible $6.5 million salary through next season, has been seriously hampered by contract demands made by forward Alexander Radulov and defenceman Andrei Markov.
The distinct possibility both players have played their final games in Montreal is a dark cloud threatening to ruin a sunny day.
"If I bend to their demands, there’s no way I can bring them both back," Bergevin said.
So he waits, having tendered his final offers to Radulov—who scored 18 goals and 54 points last season before adding seven points in six playoff games—and to the 38-year-old Markov, who had 36 points in his 16th season with the team.
If neither of them return, Bergevin said there are no suitable replacements available on the open market.
How did it come to this?
"If I had told you what Radulov’s agent asked for in January, you’d fall off your chair," said Bergevin.
Markov’s two-year demand at a reported average of $6 million per season also turned heads last week.
If the gap had narrowed considerably in either case, Sunday’s press conference might have had a different tone to it. Instead Bergevin’s concern was palpable, even as he brought up Jonathan Drouin—the prolific 22-year-old forward acquired in a June trade with Tampa Bay—as a viable solution to potentially losing Radulov. And even as he suggested his five-year signing of defenceman Karl Alzner on Saturday could be a remedy to Markov’s potential departure.
"We have to do it by committee I guess," Bergevin said.
But once again it appears as though the team’s ability to compete for a Stanley Cup rests almost exclusively in Price’s hands—as it has since the goaltender stepped into the starter’s net in 2011. It’s a dynamic that only becomes more likely to continue once his gargantuan contract kicks in.
These are uncharted waters the Canadiens have ventured into. No team in the salary cap era (2005-current) has won the Cup with a goaltender making more than Price’s current salary or with one taking up more than 10 per cent of a team’s cap. But those facts didn’t give Bergevin pause about making Price the highest paid player in Canadiens history and the highest paid goaltender in the NHL with this deal.
"Nobody has a goaltender like Carey Price in the league," Bergevin said. "There’s a saying we use, goalies are not important until you don’t have one. You see what’s going on around the league with teams who are looking for goaltenders, and it’s really hard to do. So it’s a position that’s hard to find and we have, in our opinion, one of the best in the business—if not the best—so we’re going to keep him and make sure he’s here for the rest of his career."
Even if it means making the challenge of plugging other holes on the roster that much more difficult to overcome.
The Canadiens, who scored just 11 goals in their first-round playoff loss to the New York Rangers this past spring, have gone 20 years without a top-flight centre. They’re best current option at the position is Tomas Plekanec, who’s coming off a career-low 28-point output.
There are issues on the blue line, too.
Markov, who has served as the team’s best puck-mover throughout his career, would be the fourth defenceman the Canadiens have lost this offseason after Mikhail Sergachev and Nathan Beaulieu were traded and Alexei Emelin was claimed by Las Vegas in the expansion draft.
There’s no viable replacement in the system for a prospect like Sergachev, who was drafted ninth overall in 2016. Jakub Jerabek, who was signed out of the KHL after scoring 34 points in 59 games with Chekhov Vityaz last season, could compete with Brandon Davidson to complete the team’s third pairing with Jordie Benn—where Beaulieu would’ve slotted in. David Schlemko was acquired in a trade with Vegas to potentially replace Emelin. But Alzner, who’s never scored more than 21 points in a season, can’t adequately take Markov’s place.
"He’s a shutdown defenceman, he’s a great penalty killer," said Bergevin before adding that, "he’ll never run numbers."
If Price was overly concerned, he might not have signed.
"I have a lot of confidence in Marc," Price said during his conference call Sunday. "He’s a very savvy GM, and I know he’s going to find ways to constantly improve our team and to put a competitive team on the ice."
Bergevin will have cause to celebrate if he can deliver.