MONTREAL — It was Marc Bergevin like we’ve seen him before, but not as he’s appeared for much of the last five years.
In truth, he hadn’t looked as at ease as he was during his 45-minute media session Thursday since he first appeared behind a Canadiens podium eight years ago. He wavered from serious to jovial, and emotions spilled out in between.
At one point, Bergevin even apologized for his level of French, saying he holds himself to a higher standard than he’s delivered at times. He joked he’s no maven in either official language, and he drew laughs comparing his operation to a 7-Eleven station.
“We’re always open,” he said.
The 55-year-old Pointe-Saint-Charles native, ever-gruff and physically built to intimidate, let his guard down, and it was refreshing.
The mere mention of Brendan Gallagher brought tears to Bergevin’s eyes — a visceral and totally genuine response to questions about what it means to have the heart-and-soul winger locked in to the six-year contract extension that was ironed out Wednesday evening.
“Gally, for me,” Bergevin said before pausing and knocking on the table in front of him, “he’s a special person.”
He was choking back those tears and doing his best to keep it together, but he couldn’t. Not once, not twice, not thrice.
Bergevin said the expedience with which he dealt with Gallagher had nothing to do with clearing up outside perception in the aftermath of Gallagher’s agent, Gerry Johannson, going public on Tuesday with the news contract talks between them had “broken off.”
But it was abundantly clear it had something to do with clearing up Gallagher’s perception.
The five-foot-nine winger said he had begun to think, for the first time in 10 years since joining the Canadiens organization, that his time in Montreal might be through after next season, and that it didn’t sit well with him.
So Bergevin got back to work with Johannson — first clearing up what both sides later admitted was a misunderstanding rather than a break in negotiations, and then, through a series of phone calls, hammering out the six-year, $39-million pact that made Gallagher the highest-paid forward on the team.
And then Bergevin picked up the phone and dialled up the 604 to deliver an important message to Gallagher.
“The first thing he said when he called me yesterday was, ‘Now this is over with, let’s go win,’” said Gallagher.
It’s been a long time — a miserable one, too, with three consecutive playoff whiffs and four in five years — but both the GM and the player believe it’s truly possible now.
“I wouldn’t have extended the contract if I didn’t,” said Gallagher.
And Bergevin, who’s spent much of his time as GM managing the sky-high expectations of the Montreal fan base, finally raised the bar.
“We’re not just a fast team like we were in the past,” he said. “We added assets that allow us to win in different ways.
“We have a very good goaltending tandem. We have a defence that’s big enough, one that has a lot of personality. And we have a balanced attack. I find we have a good team, and a team that can surprise. I think it’s a team the fans we’ll be proud of.”
Bergevin added the proof will have to come, but his general demeanor on Thursday mirrored what he was saying — that his sense of optimism is as high as it's been at any point over the last eight years.
“I’m excited,” he said more than once.
So are his players. They had a miserable 2019-20 season, but emerged transformed from their brief but overwhelmingly positive Stanley Cup Playoffs experience in August. And they watched Bergevin take momentum and run with it over the last six weeks, using designated space he had saved to bring Jake Allen in as a back up, Joel Edmundson in as a minute-munching, physical presence on the back end and Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli to change the dynamic of the offence.
“It’s honestly unbelievable to see the additions we’ve been able to make,” said Gallagher, who added that Bergevin “feels like we’re in a position to compete now.”
And so, the GM will rest.
“I’m going to take a vacation,” Bergevin said.
He’s earned it.
On Phillip Danault:
It’s hard to say where negotiations will lead both Danault and the Canadiens from now to the start of next season, but this is an extremely complicated dossier to solve.
It is because Danault, a Selke-worthy centreman, has earned a substantial raise on the $3.03-million annual salary he’s earning on the contract that expires in 2021, and also because Bergevin might not be able to meet his justifiable demands for a new, long-term deal.
When Bergevin was asked about securing the balance he’s given the Canadiens up the middle — with Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi emerging as potential stars and Danault playing a Swiss-Army-knife role over the last few seasons — he said the following:
“It’s certain that Phillip’s an important player for us and it’s also certain that we’ll see what happens next season. But we also have some depth. We have Ryan Poehling, who’s a centre, and Jake Evans, who’s a centre. At the end of the day, on that side of things, I think we’ll be in good position. But again, we’re happy, we’re proud, but we’ll see what the year brings. There’s decisions to make on every level.”
The decision to make on Danault isn’t just about the money that’s available to Bergevin for the 2021-22 season — he’s currently got only $16.3 million of space under the $81.5-million ceiling to complete his forward group, which is only seven players deep at the moment — it’s also about ensuring the Canadiens don’t paint themselves into a situation where they become prone to losing young, core players.
“At a certain point, the players are going to have to understand that we want to make a fair deal, but we’re going to have to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘We have players like KK and Nick Suzuki and [defenceman Alex] Romanov that we’re going to have to remunerate,’ and we have to be on top of that because we aren’t losing them under my watch.”
But if anyone thinks Bergevin is just fine with losing Danault in a year’s time, that’s a misread of the situation.
He talked about being personally responsible for the Chicago Blackhawks drafting Danault 26th overall in 2011, about how the head amateur scout wanted to use the 18th-overall pick on centre Mark McNeill but Bergevin tried to convince him Danault was the better player.
Bergevin, who was an assistant GM dabbling in both pro and amateur scouting, had made several trips to watch Danault play with the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigers and come away convinced after an impressive playoff performance against Acadie-Bathurst.
Bergevin was overruled on picking Danault at 18, but the Hawks landed the player at 26.
“Tampa picked Namestnikov right after,” he said. “The GM told me they were going to pick Phil if we didn’t pick him.”
Five years later, as GM of the Canadiens, Bergevin traded Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise to Chicago for Danault and a 2018 second-round pick.
The deal was made on Feb. 26, 2016, and three days later we were in San Jose for trade deadline day. For the first time in Bergevin’s tenure, he had just completed the process of selling off assets in preparation to wind down a season that was going to end with the Canadiens well out of the playoffs, and he was extremely disappointed to be in that position.
Bergevin was also completely exhausted, with the weeks of buildup culminating and with his media obligations for the day nearly through.
We did a one-on-one for Sportsnet and, after the cameras stopped rolling, he said something to me I’ll never forget:
“We got a hell of a player, you’re going to see. He’s going to be in our core for years to come.”
And no, Bergevin wasn’t talking about Mike Brown, who the Canadiens had claimed on waivers earlier in the day.
“My history with Phil goes back a long way,” said Bergevin on Thursday, “so if you don’t think I do like Phil Danault...”
Then you’re way off.
But this isn’t about like or dislike, it’s about business; the tricky business all GMs are navigating in a system that’s been highly-impacted by the ongoing global pandemic.
Even Gallagher — who loves Danault and credits him with helping him earn the deal he just signed — understands.
“I just went through it myself,” he said. “These things don’t happen quickly. The work that my agents put in, along with Berge and [Canadiens capologist John Sedgwick] Sedgy, to get this thing done — it takes time, and it’s hard work, and they worked tirelessly on this thing. So, obviously I’m aware Phil’s going through the same thing, and Berge has had a very busy summer. I don’t think anyone’s ever denied Phil’s importance to our team, I don’t think anyone’s ever denied what he does for our group. In terms of putting that into a team, I’m going to stay out of that. I’ve just been through it and I know how tough that is.”
On Allen’s extension
When Allen signed a two-year extension worth $5.75 million Wednesday, prior to even dressing for a single game with the Canadiens, my first thought was that there was no urgency to get this done.
A quick glance at next year’s goaltending market — a barren wasteland of sorts — changed my mind on that a bit, and a second thought popped into my head immediately thereafter: assuming Allen is in Montreal for the entirety of the time he’s under contract (three seasons), the deal is going to affect Cayden Primeau.
But not in the way most think it will.
I take it most people saw Allen being locked in for that long as an impediment to Primeau’s rise, but I see it as buying Primeau the exact amount of time he needs to become a starting goaltender in the NHL.
Ask yourself what the better path is to that job. Is it dressing for 20-25 games behind Carey Price at 22 and 23 years old? Or is it starting 120 games at the AHL level and developing on a Laval Rocket team that’s getting a massive influx of talent come 2021-22?
“Cayden’s a very good, young, promising prospect, and the best for him we see now is to play some games,” Bergevin said.
“Goalies are the ones that probably take the most time to be ready to play, so there’s no rush with Cayden,” he added. “And extending Jake doesn’t mean we don’t see Cayden. We’re just protecting him.”
Perhaps Allen will prove attractive to Seattle in the upcoming expansion draft — his contract doesn’t have any trade protection worked into it — and all of this will be moot.
But we suspect the Kraken will have more interest in one of the young defenceman likely to be left unprotected on Montreal’s list, and Allen’s stay behind Carey Price, though costly, will likely be beneficial for other reasons, too.
Just knowing how reliable Allen was in his first season as a backup for Jordan Binnington in St. Louis — he posted the best numbers of his career over his 24 games — is the type of insurance the Canadiens haven’t had at the position since Price became the starter over a decade ago. To finally get it and then risk losing it for nothing a year later was probably worth the investment Bergevin made in his services on Wednesday.
You need two goaltenders — and not just for this coming season, which promises to be more condensed than a metro car at rush hour — but for all of them. Especially when your starter is already 33 years old.
And it’s just as important that your second goaltender be able moonlight as a starter. Anton Khudobin provided proof of that in helping the Dallas Stars come within a couple wins of the 2020 Stanley Cup in starter, and Vezina candidate, Ben Bishop’s absence.
Khudobin’s deal — a three-year, $10-million pact the 34-year-old inked last week — set the market. Knowing that, the Canadiens did well on this one.
Allen will be 33 by the time his new deal, worth less money per season, expires.