We now know that when Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin stood up at his July 1 press conference and talked about icing a competitive, young and fast team that should be able to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he wasn’t selling hope; he was selling a fantasy.
You have to wonder what good could possibly come from that.
Perhaps people would’ve seen it as fantasy regardless — looking at a team that hadn’t done much to improve on paper between April and July after finishing in 28th place in the NHL standings this past season. But in the wake of news breaking Wednesday that top defenceman Shea Weber underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus, how will anyone see it any other way? The operation, which was done on June 19, will keep Weber out of action until December, and that’s the kind of roster problem that can’t be solved immediately.
Bergevin was obviously aware of that when he fielded questions from the Canadiens’ south-shore practice facility just a few days ago, but he opted to conceal the Weber news and push the hope of a quick turnaround anyway.
Continuing to do so now seems like a fruitless endeavour. Montreal’s top prospects are at least a year away from becoming impactful NHL players, the team has a gaping hole up the middle of the ice and several of them on defence, and a soon-to-be 33-year-old Weber is stuck recovering from two major surgeries (he’s barely three months into his six-month rehab from an operation to repair torn tendons in his left foot).
By the time he steps back on the ice for a game, he’ll have gone an entire calendar year without playing. There’s no hope to find in any of that.
“We were very disappointed to learn that this knee injury will extend Shea’s recovery period,” said Bergevin via press release. “Unfortunately, this is out of our control and we have to fully trust the medical group in these situations. We are confident that his recovery will go as scheduled and that Shea will return to action as soon as possible.”
Per Dr. Mulder, Shea Weber was due for a minor arthroscopic procedure June 19, once the surgeon got in there he noticed the damage was more extensive, so he immediately operated on Weber's knee. The original procedure would have had him out three weeks. Instead it's 5-6 months.
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) July 5, 2018
So to be clear, when Weber went under on June 19 he was expecting to have that minor arthroscopic procedure, a clean up. He woke up to find that his knee had been repaired and he was out 5-6 months.
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) July 5, 2018
But there’s no telling how this will affect Weber’s ability to be the player Bergevin traded for when he sent P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators two summers ago. At his best, Weber is a force to be reckoned with: a six-foot-four, 230-pound menace; a 25-minute-per-night-skater; a contributor at both ends of the ice; an elite player in every category.
But it would be too much to ask him to be those things in December — coming off the type of rehab he needs to go through and wading into the season two months after everyone else gets a head start. And the only thing worse than pretending everything will be fine and continuing to sell false hope for the season would be overtaxing Weber when he returns in order to help the Canadiens claw their way into a playoff spot with a sub-par roster.
Doing that could have a devastating impact on the long-term plan, and that would be far more unforgiveable than continuing to pedal in fantasy.
If Bergevin is right in his belief that both Weber and soon-to-be 31-year-old franchise goaltender Carey Price will always be able to perform as expected — even in the later stages of the eight years they’re under contract — now is the time for him to face reality and proceed with caution. That’s something he can do while still giving fans something to be excited for.
He’d be wise to shift the focus to the young core of players emerging on the current edition of the team. They will face adversity next season, but they will have ample opportunity to grow. He should sell the willingness to live with their mistakes and the acceleration of their development that will come with that approach.
Young defencemen like Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen, who took great strides in 2017-18, will have to play bigger roles in Weber’s absence. Bergevin should sell the value in that and give Weber every last second he needs to take in order to return to full health.
Bergevin should also lean on backup Antti Niemi and third stringer Charlie Lindgren to lighten Price’s load. He should sell the value in developing Lindgren and keeping Price fresh for the future.
And there’s no reason for Bergevin to be shy about continuing to sell the value in building up the team patiently and methodically — even if it means sitting on unused salary cap space.
It’s not an easy road to go down, but it’s the only one for the Canadiens to take right now. Pretending it isn’t shouldn’t be an option they continue to exercise.