BROSSARD, Que. — Focus on the right thing as you contemplate how it came to be that Montreal Canadiens goaltending coach Stephane Waite was told he was out of a job between the second and third period of Tuesday night’s 3-1 win for the Canadiens over the Ottawa Senators.
Because the sequence of events — Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin firing Waite and appointing Sean Burke director of goaltending in the middle of a game, and six days after swapping out the head and associate coaches for one assistant coach on Montreal’s bench and one on the AHL affiliate’s bench — and how bizarre it seems is hardly as relevant as the decision itself and why it was made.
“It’s fair to say that I have high expectations,” Bergevin said on Wednesday, and he could’ve stopped right there.
That has ruled everything since Bergevin built the team we see on the ice today — the scratching and waiving of veteran players, Claude Julien and Kirk Muller being fired and replaced by Dominique Ducharme and Alexandre Burrows, and Waite being replaced by Burke — and it will rule whatever happens next.
This past off-season, over $100 million of owner Geoff Molson’s money was spent on Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and contract extensions for Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher, and the stakes were raised higher than a Tokyo skyscraper.
“I said it from Day 1: I expect this team to make the playoffs,” said Bergevin. “I have expectations that we have a good team, that we can beat anybody if we’re on top of our game, and that’s why I felt it was important to make those changes... You don’t make changes just to make changes. But my job is if I see things that I don’t like and I could help, that’s what I have to do. That’s my responsibility.”
It will not continue to be Bergevin’s responsibility if he sits on the sidelines and just hopes the power play, the penalty kill and the defensive coverage issues somehow magically get fixed. So he makes a coaching change.
If the GM stands idle while Carey Price continues to struggle through the same pattern we’ve seen from him in three consecutive seasons — the one where he is average for the first month and terrible for the second — he’s doing the team and himself a disservice. So he makes the change he made on Tuesday, days after Price has a brutal loss to the Winnipeg Jets and says he’s overthinking things.
After all, Bergevin’s not the only one with high expectations for this Canadiens season.
“We have a team that should make the playoffs, I can tell you that,” Molson told Sportsnet in this exclusive interview two months prior to Bergevin adding Corey Perry as the final depth piece to this well-balanced roster. “And I think the team and the organization and the fans would be extremely disappointed if we didn’t. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we can. So, with that in mind, it would be disappointing if we didn’t.”
That’s why Tuesday’s change was made.
Never mind that it came in the middle of a game, that it was made after Price made 26 saves on 27 shots and that he spoke to the media and we were uncertain as to whether or not he knew about the change while he was talking until Bergevin clarified on Wednesday he did not. And forget that this move could’ve been made at the same time Julien and Muller were let go.
Bergevin explained he wasn’t 100 per cent sure about firing Waite then and didn’t act on it until consulting with the man who’s taking over. He clarified that there was no bad blood or eruption between Price and Waite that forced him to act out of the blue, but simply that he had spoken with Burke, who pointed out a few technical flaws in Price’s game only a goaltending expert would recognize.
Bergevin felt a new voice was needed for Price. He pounced to bring in Burke, who was already a member of the team’s scouting staff and had gone through his own ups and downs through an 858-game NHL career between the pipes. He also felt reassured by Burke’s previous experience as a goaltending coach with the Phoenix-turned-Arizona Coyotes, and finalized his decision just prior to Tuesday’s game at the Bell Centre after he said he was 100 per cent sure this could help Price shallow the valleys he has traversed over the last three seasons.
“I’ve seen ups and downs,” Bergevin said. “You guys saw it. Again, everybody goes through it.
“It was a gut feeling that I had, and sometimes you have to trust your instinct. You run a business, whatever you do, and you have some instincts you trust. You have to go by what you believe, and I felt that my instincts told me that a change was needed."
I’s not a change Price asked for — as Bergevin confirmed — but it’s clearly one the goaltender’s welcoming after posting an unfathomably bad .888 save percentage through his first 12 starts of the season.
“Sometimes change is good,” Price said. “Sometimes it’s just good to hear a new voice. It’s not to say I didn’t appreciate what Steph was doing, it’s just sometimes a necessity in pro hockey.”
It became one after Price admitted both technical and mental elements of his game had slipped after “an evolution of small things” piled up and fractured the synergy he had with Waite, a coach he said he has deep admiration for.
“I’m grateful for the time I’ve spent with Steph,” Price said. “He’s a hard-working, dedicated goalie coach, and I really appreciate all that work that he’s done with us.”
It helped Price sweep the 2015 NHL Awards. It helped him win Olympic and World Cup gold. It helped him dominate the playoffs in August.
But now Price is looking forward to whatever fresh ideas Burke will bring — first through Zoom meetings, while the latter serves a mandatory two-week quarantine, and then on the ice come Mar. 19 (provided there’s no technical snafus in Burke’s travel to Montreal and his serving of said quarantine).
Everyone knows what’s at stake. Price especially.
“I had a talk with Carey recently, and he knows that he’s not on top of his game,” Bergevin said. “He knows. It might not come across when he talks to you guys that he cares, but he knows. He knows that his game is not where it should be. He knows more than anybody else, even me.”
But Bergevin knows Price’s game has to get there if the Canadiens are going to do what he expects them to do.
“Sincerely, and I’m going to be frank,” Bergevin said, “I still believe Carey Price is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.”
The GM couldn’t continue to watch Price be one of the worst. Not with what’s at stake this season.
“I made the change to give Carey the tools and the message to help him, and I’m confident Sean Burke will help him,” Bergevin said.
If he’s right, that decision will play huge both now and in the future, with the 33-year-old Price making $10.5 million this season and slated to earn the most money of any goaltender through 2026.