BROSSARD, Que.,– Marc Bergevin thought about it for a few seconds and then his eyes lit up and a smile washed over his face as the answer came to him.
We asked the Montreal Canadiens’ general manager to address what he feels is the biggest misconception about him.
“It’s that I’m arrogant,” Bergevin responded. “I’m not. I’m confident, but I’m not arrogant. It’s the last thing I am. I’m funny, I like to have fun, and I like to laugh. I’m confident, but if someone confuses that for arrogance they should see how open I am to being challenged in our war room. I don’t need to be surrounded by yes men, I like to be challenged.”
As we sat and talked for close to 40 minutes on Monday following his press conference to announce Shea Weber had been named the 30th captain in Canadiens history, we challenged Bergevin to explain some of the moves he made that have forced him to embark on retooling his team six years into his tenure, to pick out the ones he liked and disliked, to give us a stronger sense of what his plan for the present and the future is, and to look inward on how losing seasons in two of the last three years have affected him.
We can’t say for sure if Bergevin enjoyed it, but he obliged. Here is a transcript of that conversation:
SPORTSNET: How has this job affected you?
MARC BERGEVIN: It’s affected me. Job-wise it hasn’t, because I have to do what’s best for the team no matter what. But I’m a sensitive person. I do have feelings and I care. Yeah, I’m sensitive. Sometimes, even if you don’t listen to it, you get wind of some of the criticism, and as much as you don’t try to, when you get attacked you kind of close yourself off more. I realize at times I closed myself. It’s not really my personality but it’s become a way of protecting myself.
SN: When things particularly weren’t going well—be it in 2016, when you had a bad season and Carey Price was lost for 70 games to injury, or when you finished 28th place last season—how difficult was it interacting with the public?
BERGEVIN: I would say 99.9 per cent of the people have always been nice, but people have their opinions. It’s Montreal, it’s a passionate market, and I get it. You have to realize that when you’re a public figure, there’s no such thing as privacy. I get that.
But there’s times where you go for dinner or go get a coffee and you just want to be left alone and want some quiet time. When people come to me nicely, I’m always nice.
SN: How do you deal with the pressure?
BERGEVIN: There’s pressure from the outside and there’s reality. I try to deal with the pressure of my reality—where this team has been, where it’s going and how long it’s going to take to get there. Sometimes the expectations from the fans and the media are different at times from what my reality is. I focus on my reality.
SN: What are your expectations?
BERGEVIN: Let’s just start with what happened last year. It was unacceptable. Not only the losses, but it’s the way we competed as a team, the distraction that we had as a team that I could see by the way we were playing. That will change, as it already has in training camp.
So my expectation is to see a team that will stick together, play hard together and compete every night and get better moving forward. We’re going to add some young players and compete for a playoff spot.
SN: You put a lot of emphasis on the attitude of your team being the problem last year. Is it fair to say that the attitude of the players may have been a reaction to how your team was constructed? That maybe that attitude started to take shape as the team was trending towards a 103-point season and a division title in 2016-17 and it was in desperate need of some scoring help and didn’t get it at the trade deadline?
BERGEVIN: If you look back, I’m trying to remember which players were available as scorers then. I don’t know that a lot of guys went at the deadline, I don’t recall. But what I know is that the guys on our team who were supposed to score didn’t score. If they want to blame it on me not getting something, that says a lot about them. At some point your top guys in the playoffs have to step up. That playoffs, I thought they worked hard but they didn’t step up and didn’t score enough goals.
SN: Jonathan Drouin was a player who appeared to be available at the 2017 deadline. You were adamant about not trading Mikhail Sergachev at the time. Do you regret not making the move then as opposed to later on in the summer when you did?
BERGEVIN: I know Jonathan Drouin was on the trade block prior to that deadline, but he was back with the [Tampa Bay] Lightning and was kept for that playoff run, so I think [then-Lightning GM] Stevie [Yzerman] was wanting to wait until the summer to make that move.
SN: What about going into last season? Do you think your players got to camp and saw Mark Streit and Ales Hemsky replacing Andrei Markov and Alex Radulov and thought, these guys aren’t going to get it done for us? It seemed like your players doubted the team had what it took and it seemed obvious when they got off to a disastrous start.
BERGEVIN: Obviously Mark Streit was not able to help us, and I made that decision [to terminate his contract] really quick and you saw that. To blame a player that was here for training camp—and that affects the way you’re going to play? Again, I think that says a lot about those players.
Hemsky, same thing. I took a low risk and, honestly, it didn’t work out. Even if he didn’t get hurt, he couldn’t get it done.
But again, if those players really look at this—you can’t judge somebody’s decision without knowing what the options are. Players play, coaches coach, and managers manage. Unless you know the options, you can’t judge.
I can look back and say I could have signed Radulov, but the price it would have taken to get him compared to market value—I just wasn’t going to do that. It didn’t make sense unless the NHL said for whatever reason that the Montreal Canadiens’ cap could be four million dollars more than anyone else. Then I would say it makes sense. But that’s not the case.
SN: But how do you explain that you weren’t willing to overpay Alexander Radulov in free agency but you were willing to overpay to get Karl Alzner? Can you see why people would have trouble understanding that? Even some of your players might have had trouble understanding it.
BERGEVIN: I can see that. But when you go to July 1 you overpay. That’s a fact. It’s a question of how much you have to overpay. The difference I have to pay for getting a defenceman and getting Radulov was not the same. Hindsight is always easier and maybe time will tell what I should have done. Maybe time will tell that three years from now the wheels are falling off and [the Dallas Stars] are stuck paying millions to [Radulov].
Looking back, when I brought Radulov here, nobody wanted him. No one. I was the only one. So we stepped up. The Montreal Canadiens stepped up and gave him a contract. To have him say we have to overpay him over what the market was willing to pay him just so he would stay? I didn’t think it was right.
You have to be careful. I understand there’s no loyalty in this game, I get that. But when nobody wanted to sign him and we stepped up and made an agreement… I told his agent that if everything goes according to plan, we’ll sit down and negotiate in January and that’s a promise. I kept my promise and they came back in January insisting on eight [years]. Eight, eight, eight. I wasn’t going to do that, and nobody else was going to do it, either. I held up my end of the deal. When you look back, why did he leave [the Nashville Predators in 2008 to play in the KHL]? Money. History repeated itself.
SN: Markov wanted a two-year deal and was insisting on it until he was finally ready to accept a one-year deal. When he was willing to do that, you offered him a contract that could get him to the same salary he had made over 10 seasons ($5.75 million) but only through performance bonuses.
BERGEVIN: They were very easy bonuses [to hit]. His cap hit was $5.750 million on his last contract but it was a back-diving contract that paid him a base salary of $4.2 million in his final year. I was offering $4.2 million and easy bonuses. When I say easy, I mean if he had kept the same path of his career he was going to make his money.
SN: But why not just give him the salary he was looking for on a one-year deal? He made it clear he felt disrespected and he was insulted.
BERGEVIN: He should have hired an agent. I talked to some agents who asked me why he didn’t take the deal, they couldn’t understand it. And after the fact, he wished he would’ve taken the deal and it was too late because he signed in Russia. So I don’t regret the offer I made.
SN: In 2016 you lost Price for most the season, which was out of your control, and you still stood up and said the failings of the team were all on you. But, last year you overhauled the entire defence for one that ended up being significantly worse and lost key players in free agency and…
BERGEVIN: Should I have done things the other way around?
SN: We’re wondering.
BERGEVIN: In 2016 I could feel it was tense in our room and our players were getting bombarded so I tried to take pressure off of them by taking the heat. But in my meetings with them, I was telling them they all needed to be better. What I said publicly and what I said to them was different. I wanted to take the pressure off of them so they could just go out and play.
SN: Looking forward, how has the attitude changed?
BERGEVIN: I don’t want to start pointing fingers at the guys who are now gone. I think it’s more about what our team went through last year and what they learned and how much they suffered with the losing last season that they’re a group that’s ready to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
SN: Why are you convinced Carey Price will rebound this season?
BERGEVIN: He’s got pride. He knows he wasn’t up to par last season, but I’m also going to go to his defence; we need to play a lot better as a team in front of him, there’s only so much a goalie can do. I think the 19 guys in front of him all have to play better.
SN: Price had a .900 save percentage last season and just went through exhibition at .875. Are you concerned?
BERGEVIN: No, because I saw what happened last year and it wasn’t good and I’ve watched this year and the goals he’s allowed haven’t really been his fault.
You look at Toronto’s power play last week and it’s tic-tac-toe. I don’t care who’s in net, you have to be lucky to make those stops. The game against Ottawa over the weekend, maybe the first goal he should’ve grabbed it quicker. But our defenceman lost his man behind the net.
I expect him to be back to where he should be.
SN: Do you think real tests in the regular season are what Price needs to face before he can fully get his confidence back to where we’re used to seeing it?
BERGEVIN: It would be normal if that were the case. He’s human. But again, everyone in front of him needs to pick up their game and that’s what I want to see. If we don’t play a better team game, eventually any goaltender is going to get exposed.
SN: You’ve said you’re not rebuilding, but you’re retooling on the fly. Can you think of an example of a team that’s done that in sports and managed to win a championship? Not necessarily in Year 1, but a team that’s gone with that type of model and turned it into a championship?
BERGEVIN: Boston picked Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton top-10 two years in a row, and after that they retooled on the fly.
They kept [Zdeno] Chara and kept [Patrice] Bergeron and kept Tuuka Rask. They haven’t won, but I think they’ve been really good. Their top guys—Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak was probably the best line in hockey last year. At the end of the day, your top guys have to be your top guys to have success.
The year before they played Ottawa in the first round and they were banged up and didn’t last. But I thought last year they were outstanding. Rask was really good last year, but the year before he was not so good.
It’s like Carey Price. To me, it’s the position itself. If that position is not solid, you’re going to have a hard time having success.
SN: Changing gears, you’ve made some big trades. What was your worst one?
BERGEVIN: I don’t have an answer for that. We’ve done a lot of good things here. We picked up Paul Byron on waivers. Nicolas Deslauriers, and everyone loves him here—and rightly so—we got him for Zach Redmond, who’s playing on an AHL deal right now.
There’s trades that don’t turn out the way you hope. I traded for Thomas Vanek [at the 2014 deadline] hoping we could keep him long-term. That didn’t happen. But looking back, was it a bad trade? You could argue that, but I think he gave us a chance to make the playoffs that year.
SN: What was your best move?
BERGEVIN: We picked up Paul Byron on waivers. You give nothing for a 20-goal scorer who’s a pretty good leader, a pretty good penalty killer, and he’s used on shootouts. He’s fast, even for today’s game, and we didn’t even have to give up a pick for him. Nothing.
And we were lucky to get him. We were the second-to-last team to get to pick him. I think the [New York] Rangers were last. We had to hope 28 teams didn’t claim him, so we were lucky. You get a guy who scores 20 goals back-to-back and is now wearing an ‘A’ for a million bucks? Now we extended him—I think anyone would’ve given him the new [four-year, $14.6 million] contract he has.
SN: Jesperi Kotkaniemi has made the team to start. If he stays here but after nine games, or 20 games, or 38 games isn’t ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL, how can you not take the opportunity to put him in Laval to develop under Joel Bouchard who you hired for the exact purpose of developing your future players?
BERGEVIN: What’s the best place for him? I’ll have to tell you if it happens that it’s not Montreal. Maybe he’ll be in Finland, maybe he’ll be in Laval. If I feel Laval is the best place for him, I’ll have a discussion with his agent and see if we can work it out. If I think he’s better off in Finland, he’ll go to Finland. And if I think he should stay here, he’ll stay here with us. It’s too early to tell you that, but I’ll leave my options open.
SN: So where’s best for Kotkaniemi if it doesn’t end up being Montreal?
BERGEVIN: It depends where he’s at with his development. If he’s really close, than maybe it’s better for him to be in Laval. If he’s homesick, or if he’s weak and you can tell it’s just too much for him, maybe it’s better to go back to Finland.
SN: Do you believe this team will make the playoffs this year?
BERGEVIN: I believe if we stay healthy, if everybody plays the way they should play and they way we know they can, then yes, I believe we can make the playoffs.
SN: You can’t replace Weber, who could be out until well into December. You might not even be able to adequately replace David Schlemko on your third pair, considering how he played in camp and the versatility he offers versus some of your other depth options. Are you not concerned about the defence?
BERGEVIN: Yes, I am.
SN: What can the defencemen who are healthy do to alleviate your concerns?
BERGEVIN: I think we need to play as a team. We need to play fast, we need to get out of our end fast. We all need to be a lot better. There’s not one guy who can replace Shea Weber, so we need everybody to pick it up a step with the way we play offensively and defensively. Every guy, and Price, and Antti Niemi has to pick up the slack together. We don’t have a choice.
SN: Thanks for your time. Good luck this season.
BERGEVIN: Thank you.