MONTREAL — It was confirmation day with Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, who cleared up a lot of ambiguity regarding several of his key players when he met with the media via Zoom two hours before the NHL’s trade freeze was lifted on Thursday.
Let’s get it all on the table now, because what was left uncertain is just as relevant and must be dissected.
First, on Carey Price, the franchise goaltender who was left exposed and was ultimately not selected by the Kraken in Wednesday’s expansion draft: Bergevin confirmed it was Price who had approached him with the plan to waive his no-movement clause after discussing things with Jake Allen and concluding this would be the best way to keep both goaltenders in Montreal.
“Once the conversation happened with Carey,” Bergevin said, “we looked at that closely and took a calculated risk that paid off for the organization.”
The calculation was that the Kraken valued cap space more than anything else in the expansion draft—something covered in depth here by our Chris Johnston—and that they wouldn’t be willing to tie up close to 13 per cent of their cap in Price’s $10.5-million hit for what’s likely to be four of his five years left under contract due to the upper limit stagnating at $81.5 million. Bergevin said, “the risk for us was really minimal,” and his confidence in that had to be bolstered by Seattle not knowing the extent of Price’s injuries before having to make their pick.
Bergevin confirmed Price is in New York meeting with a specialist and gave this update on the severity of his injuries: “It’s nothing alarming at the moment that we’re speaking. Like we all know, Carey played all the minutes in the playoffs and performed very well. For sure, like all other players, he had bumps and bruises over the two months of the playoffs, but he’s going to meet with doctors this week and we’re not expecting anything major. But he won’t be out long—maybe just six-to-eight weeks. But there’s a small percentage it could be longer, but we’re not sure at the moment.”
Bergevin also confirmed Elliotte Friedman’s report that Shea Weber won’t play next season and added it’s likely his remarkable career ends due to the injuries he’s sustained in his time with the Canadiens.
“We know over the last number of years, he had his ankle, his thumb—there were a lot pains,” said Bergevin, who omitted a meniscus tear that cost Weber and additional six months on the sidelines after surgery in July of 2018. “It took a lot of time for him just to get ready for a practice in the morning and, as you know, Shea’s not a guy who complains. Even missing a practice was not an option for him. He’s got a lot of mileage and really pushed his body to the limit. So, it’s really not possible for him to come back next season. And that’s probably the case for his career.”
Bergevin said this development with Weber surprised everyone in the organization.
“I think we were all aware of the pain and what he was going through every day,” the GM said. “But to that degree? We didn’t know. Shea, as we all know, is a man of few words, and sharing and complaining about his body is not one thing that he does. So, I was very surprised.”
As for Jonathan Drouin, the 26-year-old winger who was placed on long-term injury reserve after taking personal leave 44 games into the 2021 season, Bergevin revealed the most surprising news of the day.
“We met with Jo,” Bergevin said. “We had a really good conversation. Jo feels great, he’s focused and he’s ready to go. So, I expect Jo to be in Montreal first day of camp.”
The buzz around Montreal over the last two weeks overwhelmingly centred on Drouin not only walking away from the Canadiens but also stepping away from the game, so this was a very encouraging development.
“It’s huge,” said Bergevin. “Jo, I think when (coach Dominique Ducharme) Dom took over, we saw the best hockey Jo ever played in a Montreal uniform. So, that’s very exciting. And then after that, as we all saw, his game dropped. And knowing now why that happened, and it’s been taken care of, we’re pretty excited to see Jo back and playing at the top of his game like he was under Dom… That’s a positive for us.”
Bergevin confirmed Joel Armia and Corey Perry are free agents he’d like to have return with the Canadiens, and he said the door hasn’t been closed to Phillip Danault, even if sources informed Sportsnet earlier this week that Danault’s highly unlikely to agree to a deal with them.
“Until an agreement is signed with us or with somebody else, there’s hope that he’s back,” said Bergevin. “But it’s too early to tell at this point.”
And that brings us to everything else we don’t know as the draft approaches and free agency looms with Bergevin sitting on just over $14 million in cap space and having a few holes to fill.
The most pertinent piece is on Weber, and whether or not the captain’s $7.8-million cap hit will be permitted by the NHL to be designated to LTIR over his five years remaining under contract.
“To a degree, we’re pretty confident that’s it’s going to be the case,” said Bergevin.
But the GM won’t know for sure until Weber reports for training camp and is properly assessed by medical authorities.
Still, Bergevin pointed out he can exceed the cap by up to 10 per cent of the upper limit during the off-season, which is something he’s willing to do if a player (or players) qualifies as worth spending on.
Bergevin said he’ll look towards trade and free agency to try to supplant what Weber brought, but acknowledged those skates are too big to fill.
“I have a lot of respect for Shea, for what he’s done for the Montreal Canadiens throughout his career, and it will be impossible to replace Shea Weber,” he said. “I mean, what he brings to our team on and off the ice—we’ll try our best, but I know deep down you can never replace Shea Weber.”
Replacing Danault will also be a difficult task, but it seems the onus will be on doing so internally.
Will Bergevin explore the market for help at centre?
“We’ll look,” he said. “(Jesperi Kotkaniemi) KK, for me… when he takes control and becomes consistent, I really believe he can help us. So, if we lose Phil, he can take another step to fill in. And we have Jake (Evans) also, who we really like and who played big hockey for us. And we can always look to the outside, but it’s still about early to lean towards that.”
There are also no guarantees it can be found on the open market, where the Canadiens aren’t necessarily on level ground.
While it’s true they proved they have a bright present and future with their run to the Stanley Cup Final, that might not be enough to balance against some hesitance from free agents to choose a Canadian city as a playing destination. The contrast in COVID restrictions in Canada and the United States was extreme during the back half of the 2021 season and, as fears over a possible fourth wave of the pandemic propagate, there are concerns from certain players it’ll remain stark.
“That’s a fact,” Bergevin said. “That’s reality. Still, today, we have restrictions, and it’s hard to tell how players feel about coming to Canada to do all this. So, we’ll know in the next week or so, but that’s a pretty good question.”
Others will loom, with the biggest one being what Price’s trip to New York reveals.
The expectation is the soon-to-be 34-year-old will need a cleanup operation and a six-to-eight-week recovery.
“It’s not something that should be alarming,” Bergevin said, “but I guess until you go in, you’re really not sure.”
The draft will bring uncertainty as well, with junior leagues having paused or canceled their 2021 seasons and the Canadiens picking so late in every round.
What is guaranteed is how busy Bergevin will be assembling the 2021-22 version of the Canadiens.
“I didn’t have a chance to take a break, but that’s the price you play to go all the way to the final,” he said, “and that’s a pretty good price for me.”