Canadiens' roster not yet set in stone, despite Bergevin's public stance

Montreal Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme looks on from the bench during an NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks in Montreal, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — Forget a grain of salt, take most of what Marc Bergevin said on Saturday with a rock of it.

Because when the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens stated, just one sleep after acquiring Eric Staal at half-price and for a couple of mid-range draft picks from the Buffalo Sabres, that he’s “not at all” eyeing other deals ahead of the April 12 trade deadline, it was at least in part because, as he put it, “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the Montreal Canadiens to sit in front of the camera and lay out everything I’m trying to do.”

Of course, it is absolutely true the Canadiens are up against the cap, which makes doing more extremely challenging.

But when Bergevin was asked about trying to move out roster players to create some much-needed cap space in order to continue adding to the team, he was visibly trying to suppress a wry smile in responding “no.” And the GM was flat out laughing when he said, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you in a couple of days,” in response to a question about getting highly-touted prospect Cole Caufield signed to an entry-level deal.

We laughed, too, because we didn't believe for even a millisecond that Bergevin was going to sit on his hands instead of doing everything possible to take advantage of the opportunity he has to continue making the Canadiens better over the next three weeks. And before the end of Saturday night, Caufield had put pen to paper, agreeing to a three-year deal.

But about that opportunity… it remains a huge one, with the Canadiens owning 12 picks in the 2021 Draft, a huge pool of prospects that won’t suffer much damage by being dipped into and players who can easily move off the margins of the roster to clear space.

Bergevin repeated for a third time in two weeks he wasn’t looking to do that and, as we noted, it’s probably best he say that while they’re still here.

But Bergevin also said this on Saturday: “I know there’s teams who do have cap space that are willing to take on cap space. So, if you want to buy cap space, that’s available. But there’s a price to pay for that. And depending on the amount you’re trying to buy, the price becomes steeper. Like a three-way deal where a team takes on a player and then retains money and then ships him to the other place — that’s out there, but I’m not going to go into detail what are the teams that are doing that or trying to do that. But that’s also a possibility.”

Yeah, we’d call it the most intriguing possibility imaginable for a team “maxed out on the cap,” as Bergevin put it. A team playing exclusively in an up-for-grabs North Division up until the Stanley Cup semifinals and one that realistically has to create some room just to fit Caufield’s deal in, let alone those of other players the GM might want to acquire.

And Bergevin should have his eye on at least a few, because he’s already done so much that there’s no point in stopping now. Bringing in Staal for 2021 third- and fifth-round picks was just the latest in a long line of moves to turn the Canadiens into contenders — with Cup winners Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Corey Perry and Michael Frolik added in the off-season and coaching changes made midstream just to keep the Canadiens moving towards their intended destination — and it’s a strong one, regardless of Staal’s bad half-season in Buffalo.

“A position that was a bit vulnerable, in terms of experience, was centre,” Bergevin said. “To be able to get (36-year-old) Eric Staal… he’s not the same player he was when he was 25, but he has lots of experience.

“It was difficult for everyone in Buffalo but, if you look just to last year, he still had over 40 points in 66 games with the Wild in Minnesota. He brings a lot, he’s excited to come to Montreal. And he’s also a Stanley Cup winner, and it’s not by accident that we’re bringing Stanley Cup winners to Montreal.”

No, it certainly isn’t. Because the only thing the GM has repeated more of late than having his hands tied by the salary cap is how much he believes in his team, and that’s the part we shouldn’t take with any salt.

Bergevin, who played close to 20 years in the NHL, knows what it feels like to be on a deep team and have a player of Staal’s pedigree — a Triple Gold Club member and participant in over 1,300 NHL games (regular season and playoffs combined) — added to the room prior to trade deadline.

“As a player, you feel like your management believes in the team and they want the team to have success,” Bergevin said. “Players don’t feel like, ‘Oh my god, now he’s going to (take my job).’ It’s not like that. It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re getting some help that’s going to help us, and we feel like management is trying to make us better.’

“That’s how I felt, anyway.”

The Canadiens, who are 14-8-9 through 31 games, must feel the same. If anything they’ve underachieved so far, but they’re also sitting comfortably in a playoff spot—two points up on the Vancouver Canucks (37 games) and four points up on the Calgary Flames (35 games)—so they have to be feeling like Staal will only help them reach their potential.

“Games in hand are only good if you win them,” Bergevin reminded. “So, it’s nice to have them but we have to win those games.

"Our schedule will be a little tougher because of the week off (due to being shut down after two players were placed on the NHL’s COVID-19 Protocol list last Monday), so we have to control our destiny and we have to win our games and not go in (to the playoffs) backdoor. So, I expect our team to be ready to play when we start again.”

Bergevin also expects his team to be bolstered by the return of leading scorer Toffoli, who will be unavailable for what should be Montreal’s first game back from this unscheduled break on Tuesday but will be back in short order. He said, while knocking on wood, that defenceman Ben Chiarot, who fractured his right hand in a fight on March 10 and had surgery to repair it March 15, is ahead of the six-to-eight week recovery timeline.

And, obviously, some banged up Canadiens got some extra healing time ahead of having to play the remaining games over roughly 40 days.

Staal arrives later on Saturday and will serve his mandatory quarantine for a week before lacing up his skates and pulling a bleu, blanc et rouge jersey over his head for the first time.

We don’t believe for a second he’ll be the last player to enjoy that experience this season. Caufield, who scored 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games before his Wisconsin Badgers were eliminated from the NCAA Frozen Four tournament Friday, will probably do it at least once between now and May 10. And we’d bet that, over the coming weeks, at least one player will wear that Canadiens jersey for the last time this season before someone else — probably a defenceman — is given one.

“Anything’s possible,” Bergevin said.

Even if 55-year-old started by saying he’s done, we’re just waiting to see what he’ll do next.

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