Canadiens’ off-season to be dominated by speculation about Bergevin’s future

Eric Engels and Sean Reynolds look at the Canadiens' end-of-season media conferences, and what fans learned about the futures of Marc Bergevin, Dominique Ducharme, and key players like Phillip Danault.

MONTREAL — They are the 13 words certain to generate more conversation around Montreal than anything else over this coming off-season.

“I have one more year on my contract, and I will honour that,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin on Friday.

What he didn’t say will also fuel endless speculation.

Bergevin was asked about whether he’d like to continue in his role as GM beyond next season, but he declined to comment.

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There was no point asking if Canadiens owner Geoff Molson had offered a contract extension. The two have an exceptionally close relationship, one forged by all the trials, tribulations and successes they’ve enjoyed since partnering back in 2012, and Molson’s faith in Bergevin was certainly bolstered over the last eight months.

He gave Bergevin over $100 million to solidify the Canadiens’ roster last off-season—at a time the business was suffering considerably and without any guarantee it would recover in the near future—and he sat back and watched the resulting moves Bergevin made turn into a playoff berth and a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Months later, he saw Bergevin receive more first-place votes than any other candidate for the Jim Gregory Award for GM of the Year and probably felt vindicated for placing as much faith as he had in the 55-year-old.

Just before that, Elliotte Friedman reported conversations about a new contract between Molson and Bergevin had begun, and we followed that up by reporting a well-placed source was suggesting Bergevin had a three-year extension on offer.

Neither reports were confirmed by either men, but we stand by them.

One thing not discussed with either party but made clear to us by several sources in the lead up to that moment was that no one was quite sure Bergevin wanted to continue in his role beyond his 10th and final season under contract. The sense that the job had taken a lot out of him throughout the years gained traction with people close to him, and it was heightened over the last 16 months.

When we asked Bergevin—two days after his Canadiens lost Game 5 and watched the Tampa Bay Lightning hoist the Stanley Cup they had worked so hard to capture—how the events of this year had affected him, he made it clear they had in a profound way.

“It’s been hard on me,” he said after first deflecting the attention towards his players and the sacrifices they made to see this season through. “It was hard this year. It was mentally very difficult.”

It’s clear nothing’s been easy from the start, when Bergevin came over from the Chicago Blackhawks equipped with years of experience in management—and with enough comedic material banked to headline a Just For Laughs Gala.

He flashed his well-renowned sense of humour a lot back then but has done so less and less with every passing season, and it’s understandable given the ever-increasing stress of doing this job. Bergevin’s only joke on Friday ironically came as a reaction to another question about his future, which was couched with an acknowledgement that being a GM in Montreal is particularly difficult.

“Oh,” interjected Bergevin as a grin washed over his face, “I didn’t realize.”

But he went back to serious mode as the question was being completed.

“Did making it to the Final fuel the fire for you, and would you like to obtain a contract extension?” the reporter asked.

“Honestly, again, this ended two days ago and I haven’t had time to think about anything,” Bergevin said, “and for the moment, there are more pressing issues to take care of.”

Bergevin was unequivocal about removing the interim tag coach Dominique Ducharme has been wearing since he took over from Claude Julien on Feb. 24.

Though the two don’t have a contract extension worked out quite yet, he said it’s a top priority to get hammered out over the coming days, and that will be to the delight of many players who sung Ducharme’s praises in their end-of-season Zoom conferences.

“He’s a head coach,” said 36-year-old Corey Perry. “He’s to the point, he gets his point across, and he’s definitely detailed and structured. That’s everything you want from a head coach. He’ll talk to you, let you know where you stand, and I can’t say enough about him. He did a tremendous job for us.”

Nick Suzuki, 21, echoed the sentiment.

“(Ducharme) came in at a tough time,” he said. “We weren’t playing that great, but he implemented his system and what he believed in, and I think as a team we really embraced that. He did a great job with our whole group, listening to the players and really trying to get the most out of us.

“And the conversations that I’ve had all season with him, just trying to help me out as much as possible, trying to give me little bits here and there of how to take my game to a higher level. So, he really did a great job.”

As did Bergevin, though his detractors would argue the Canadiens were still the last team to qualify for the playoffs and the lowest-ranked one to compete in them.

But the Canadiens started off the year in a playoff spot and remained in one until the season ended in April. And they rode to the Stanley Cup Final playing better hockey than every team but one, and they did it in large part because of the moves Bergevin made.

He traded for and signed Jake Allen as the backup to Carey Price to help the Canadiens get through the regular season. He added Joel Edmundson to help complete what might be considered the NHL’s nastiest defence corps. He brought in Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Corey Perry up front before the season started, and went against the grain to add Eric Staal, Erik Gustafsson and Jon Merrill at the trade deadline—moves that proved valuable as the Canadiens advanced through the playoffs.

And as almost every player who spoke on Friday referenced how bonded the group was, it became more and more evident how they felt about Bergevin applying the glue.

“He built this team,” said defenceman Ben Chiarot. “It’s his team. He gets all the credit for bringing this group together and seeing not only how important good players are but how important having the right people in the room is—bringing in winners, guys who have won Stanley Cups, all that experience, bringing in character. I think that’s what pushed us through the playoffs was the character in the room and just how we gelled together.

“He was up for GM of the year for a reason. He did an unbelievable job and all the credit goes to him.”

Whatever success the Canadiens enjoy over the coming few years will also have Bergevin’s fingerprints all over it.

Whether his hands remain on the rudder beyond next season is, however, in doubt.

Not that any of that uncertainty is getting in the way of the tasks Bergevin must undertake right now.

He’ll settle with Ducharme, prepare the Canadiens for the expansion draft, the entry draft and do what he can to retain unrestricted free agents Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia before scouring the market for others.

To Phillip Danault, the shutdown centre Bergevin confirmed he offered a long-term extension to back in September of 2020, the GM reaffirmed his commitment.

“We love Phil Danault,” Bergevin said in French. “He’s still in our plans and we hope he remains with our team.”

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Artturi Lehkonen are most likely not going anywhere, either.

Bergevin will have to get both restricted free agents under contract prior to the start of next season, and he’ll have to deal with a handful of others currently on his American Hockey League roster.

Regarding the Laval Rocket, they’re in need of two new coaches after it was announced on Friday that Joel Bouchard had taken a position at the helm of the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks farm team) bringing assistant Daniel Jacob with him.

“There were several options on the table for Joel Bouchard, including returning to Laval or becoming an assistant to Dominique Ducharme,” said Bergevin, “but he made the decision, and we wish him the best of luck.”

As for his own future, Bergevin just said, “I still have another year, so nothing’s pressing on my end.”

“The future will bring whatever it will bring,” he added, “and I have no idea what it will bring.”

That won’t stop anyone from discussing it, until more clarity emerges.

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