MONTREAL — It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest the 10 most important days of Marc Bergevin’s eight-year tenure are upon us.
He’s the general manager of a Montreal Canadiens team that’s technically missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs three straight times and in four of the last five seasons, and he’s staring at the best chance he’s ever had to improve the roster and help turn it toward becoming a perennial playoff contender.
With the global pandemic strangling hockey-related revenue, keeping the upper limit of the salary cap locked at $81.5 million for (at least) the next two seasons, teams are going to be scrambling to be compliant. That Bergevin has just north of $71 million committed to 19 players and space for 10 more professional contracts should allow him to take advantage of those teams. That he has 11 picks in the upcoming draft — including five in the first three rounds and three in the fourth — only helps his hand. And having a good roster player or two to package, should he choose to, is another weapon at his disposal.
But the clincher is that the Canadiens have built up one of the most talented and deepest prospect pools in the game over the last three years. The flexibility that offers Bergevin is what all teams covet. In that, he doesn't have to address a specific need at the draft table and can pick the best player available, or he's able to move a young asset or the 16th overall pick without obstructing the bright long-term future of the organization.
It makes the lead up to the first round of the draft next Tuesday a pins-and-needles situation. And then free agency opens Oct. 9.
1st, 2nd, 2nd (CHI), 2nd (STL), 3rd, 4th, 4th (ANA), 4th (WPG), 5th (FLA), 6th, 7th (OTT)
Potential targets in Round 1:
Dawson Mercer, Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL): Provided he’s still available at 16, Mercer is a six-foot, 180-pound righty who plays a skilled, versatile game — the kind that should prove attractive to the Canadiens. He can play centre, he can play right-wing, and one Western Conference scout we touched base with over the weekend said “he’s a passionate player who has really good hands and a knack for coming away with the puck in one-on-one battles.” That most prognosticators label him more than capable on the defensive end is a bonus.
Kaiden Guhle, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL): Here’s a six-foot-three, 187-pound defenceman known for his skating. An Eastern Conference executive told us Monday that he’s a simple, smart player on the offensive end, but a particularly impressive one on the defensive side of the puck. A player who “has a good gap and is very effective in killing plays and getting his stick in the pass lanes.” The scout also said Guhle can play physical, he’s willing to put his body on the line to block shots and that “he looks like he’ll become a legitimate NHL player.”
Mavrik Bourque, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL): “He has potential to be an elite playmaker,” said our Western Conference scout about the five-foot-11, 185-pound centre whose hockey IQ appears to be his most vaunted quality by most of the draft analysts. Bourque can score goals, too. He’s accumulated 54 of them in 113 games in the Q.
Last year’s first pick: Cole Caufield (15th overall)
After finishing as the highest-scoring forward in the United States Development Program’s history, Caufield put up 19 goals and 36 points in 36 games as a true freshman at the University of Wisconsin. He was named Freshman of the Year in the Big 10 Division and was narrowly edged out for the NCAA’s award by Boston College’s Alex Newhook (a Colorado Avalanche prospect).
Granted, Caufield’s performance at the world juniors was underwhelming. But the way he was used there — sparingly — was utterly perplexing.
The Canadiens have recommended the five-foot-seven, 162-pound winger stay at Wisconsin for at least one more season, but there’s hope he could turn pro by the end of it, if not at the beginning of the following one.
High-end skill, because you can never have enough of it in the pipeline.
Though the Canadiens have to be pleased with what they do have.
Alex Romanov’s likely to make his NHL debut whenever the 2020-21 season kicks off. Cale Fleury has already arrived, Noah Juulsen is revived and Josh Brook is knocking on the door. With Mattias Norlinder turning heads in Sweden, and Jordan Harris and Jayden Struble doing the same at Northeastern University, the future of Montreal’s defence looks extremely promising.
Up front, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are in the process of establishing themselves as dynamic NHL players. Ryan Poehling is a bit more of a project, but all signs point to him becoming a reliable player, and Jake Evans has already graduated as one.
The Canadiens have a couple more in Jesse Ylonen and Cam Hillis, who are both expected to start their careers with the AHL’s Laval Rocket this upcoming season.