Canadiens' Bergevin has strong case for lucrative contract extension

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — Like every negotiation, this one is about leverage, and Marc Bergevin has quite a bit of it.

The general manager of the Montreal Canadiens is entering his 10th season at the helm of the team. He finished with the most first-place votes for the Jim Gregory Award last year after making several moves to help the Canadiens get to the Stanley Cup Final, and if he were to get to market when his contract expires at the end of this season, there would be plenty of interest in his services from other teams.

The ultimate leverage he holds is a willingness to walk away and, if Bergevin’s price isn’t met, there’s a sense he’s willing to exercise it.

From what we’ve been able to piece together, talks with owner Geoff Molson date back to early 2021, when word started circulating Bergevin wasn’t quite certain he wanted to continue in the job beyond the terms of his current contract. Touching base with executives across the league, there was plenty of buzz the trials and tribulations of running the club through COVID — isolated for much of the time and away from his kids, who are in school in the United States — had worn on him tremendously.

When we asked Bergevin about it following the Canadiens’ loss to the Lightning in five games last July, he didn’t exactly deflect.

“It's been hard on me,” the GM said. “It was hard this year; it was mentally very difficult.”

When Bergevin was asked directly if going to the Final fueled his fire and had him coveting a contract extension, he said, “This ended two days ago, and I haven’t had time to think about anything.”

Bergevin said he would honour his final year under contract, and what became clear over the weeks that followed was that he’d sign a new one, provided it offered the value he deems fair.

What exactly that is isn’t a complete mystery. We reported a three-year extension was floated his way, but we believe he’s angling for four or five years. And after Julien Brisebois was extended this week for five years at what we were told was “about $3.5 million” it’s not out of the question that Bergevin’s seeking north of $3 million.

We know, he’s not coming off consecutive Stanley Cup wins.

But he has a strong case to get what he’s after. You can pull apart Montreal’s record over the last three seasons all you like, but he was given the green light to reset the roster on the fly in the summer of 2018 and has brought the team further than most would’ve anticipated since that time.

Much of what happened over the disastrous year-and-a-half leading to that surprising vote of confidence from Molson — the failure to bring some offensive talent to one of the best defensive teams in the league at the 2017 trade deadline, the contentious negotiations that led to Alex Radulov and Andrei Markov walking away, the curious signings of Karl Alzner, Ales Hemsky, Mark Streit among others contributing to a pitiful 2017-18 season — was on Bergevin. There’s no denying it.

But the Canadiens bounced back with a 96-point season while Bergevin banked draft picks and started filling the pipeline. He appeared to be picking up where he left off after his first five years on the job, over which the Canadiens made the playoffs four times and he was twice named a finalist for GM of the year.

The foibles of 2020 were muted by triumphs in the bubble playoffs and, clearly, Molson’s confidence was unwavering coming out of those. He authorized Bergevin to spend over $100 million in the off-season that followed—at a time the business was hemorrhaging, with revenues projected to be down for the foreseeable future—and he fully endorsed how the money was spent.

“Marc filled every hole that he said he was going to fill, so I think that’s really exciting,” Molson told us in an interview in October of 2020.

“I believe strongly that I have a very good general manager, so I’m not too concerned about (an extension),” he continued. “I know that he’s relentless and will be in relentless pursuit of giving our fans the best team we can possibly get, so I stand behind him.”

Molson stood behind Bergevin as he fired Claude Julien, Kirk Muller and Stephane Waite to promote Dominique Ducharme, Alex Burrows and Sean Burke a month into last season. He supported him as the Canadiens struggled to perform to expectation, with the COVID pause brought on by Joel Armia’s positive test forcing them into a hellish schedule and nearly every key player falling to injury before a playoff spot was finally secured. And no matter what perception was as the Canadiens fell down 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs, sources informed us a firing was never being considered by the owner.

A run to the Final only reinforced confidence, though drafting Logan Mailloux and losing Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet signed with the Carolina Hurricanes might have dulled some of it.

Now Molson needs to consider everything and decide if he’s willing to meet Bergevin’s price.

The GM has set it high knowing there aren’t too many candidates, internally or externally, who can meet the excessive demands of the job in this market. Few hold the unique requirements — no matter how you feel about it, the organization is committed to having someone fully bilingual fill the position — and fewer have cultivated the type of relationships across the league that Bergevin has over his 30-plus years (first as a player, then as an executive) in the NHL.

Surely, Molson knows all of that, and there’s a sense we won’t have to wait much longer to see what his bet is. For both parties, it would be best if this was resolved — one way or the other — before the regular season begins in Toronto on Oct. 13.

If they can’t come to an agreement by then, the chances Bergevin remains in place beyond this season diminish significantly.

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