Q&A with Canadiens GM Bergevin: We still ‘intend to play’ fast

Eric Engels sits down with Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin to discuss the upcoming season including the progress of the rebuild, development of Nick Suzuki & Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the plan for Corey Perry & more.

MONTREAL — Looks like we made it, and not a moment too soon.

A season that promises to be the most unique one in NHL history gets underway in mere hours, and for as excited as we are about that, we’re not sure we can compare our excitement to that of Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.

Think about all the time he’s spent waiting to see the team he’s built finally hit the ice for meaningful play. Bergevin added seven players, filled holes at every position, spent over the salary cap to give the Canadiens the type of depth they haven’t had in years, and he’s now in possession of what could easily be considered the most balanced roster of the nine he’s commandeered as GM. The anticipation must be killing him.

It sure seemed that way throughout our 20-minute conversation Monday.

“I can’t wait to start. I really can’t,” Bergevin said at one point.

We talked with the 55-year-old about COVID-19—its implications on his personal life and on the team and the league this season. We talked about the reset he embarked on in 2018 and how quickly things have moved along, about his confidence in the group he has now, about specific players he feels will be key to Montreal’s success, about playing in the all-Canadian North Division, and much more.

Some of the questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet.ca: This pandemic has been very stressful for a lot of people around the world, and certainly here in Quebec. I’m wondering first, off the bat, how it’s been for you personally. You’ve got kids abroad, you’re here in Montreal, how have things been for you?

Marc Bergevin: For me, it’s like everybody else, it’s not easy. We have restrictions due to the pandemic. I believe the government put some safety in place to respect and I think people are doing it. I know there’s no guarantees that you’re not going to get COVID, and I understand that. But I think, overall, with the curfew now, Quebecers are (under) a lot of stress, but I think we’re getting towards the end of this pandemic—and hopefully sooner or later it will all be behind us and it will be a thing of the past.

But I’m sure for you guys (the media), too, it hasn’t been easy. (Sunday) night, driving home after the scrimmage, seeing the streets empty, no cars on the road, it’s a weird feeling. But it’s for the best and, hopefully, we’ll get it behind us sooner than later.

SN: Yeah. And one of the good things for me, for sure, has been throwing myself into my work. It seems as though you’ve done the same; you had a very busy off-season. I’m wondering what it meant to you to a) to have the cap space to make the moves you made, but b) to have ownership be willing to spend the money at a time where a lot of franchises are in a very difficult position because of this pandemic and the Montreal Canadiens are no exception.

MB: Yeah, Eric, I’m glad you bring this up. What we did in the off-season wouldn’t have been possible without the support of (Canadiens owner) Geoff Molson. So, I think our fans, the city of Montreal, the province of Quebec should first… thank you should go to Geoff to be willing to do that for us. And after that I start my work.

But, like you mentioned, there’s teams who have situations that are difficult—as much as the Canadiens—and they have internal budgets. But with Geoff, I was able to spend to the cap like I am every year. But this year, with the pandemic, it was a little bit more of a challenge. But again, for us, the opportunity to bring those players… due to some restrictions on the cap… we were able to accomplish that.

SN: When you go back to 2018 when you embarked on this reset, Marc, did you have a sense that, potentially by this time, you could be looking at the type of roster you have in front of you right now?

MB: No, not at all. I knew the direction we had to go and I was willing to do that, and there was a price to pay (losing).

We got lucky.

Did I think that I was able to get Nick Suzuki? No.

That Romanov will become the player I believe he will be today? No.

A lot of things happened and, sometimes, you need to be lucky. Some of it is luck.

Hopefully we’re going to start on a short season and—again, we haven’t played a game yet—I know our fans our excited. We are excited, our players are, but we still have to do the work and that’s going to start in Toronto on Wednesday.

SN: I look at the pieces that are here now and look at the blue line and the size of it and pieces like Josh Anderson and Corey Perry, and I see a lot of similarities with the Boston Bruins in the way you guys reset (while still retaining key veterans) and constructed your roster. Were the Bruins a bit of a model for the way you guys wanted to move forward?

MB: I didn’t look at one team in particular, but I knew that you can’t go with all youth, and you can’t go with all older players; you need a match, and when you have the match, you need the good leadership to go along with it. And that starts with Shea Weber.

This roster wouldn’t be possible without Shea, and I think the way he played in the bubble, the way (Carey Price) played in the bubble, and Jeff Petry was amazing—those are our solid vets. And plus, our young kids coming around that give us the sign that, ‘You know what? Let’s start to be more aggressive.’

And again, like I mentioned earlier, Josh Anderson’s a player we were looking at years ago. But lots of times, you talk to a team about a player you like and either they don’t want to move him or they’ll simply tell you, ‘Marc, you don’t have a match for what I’m looking for in return,’ and that player will go somewhere else. Columbus needed a centreman, and we felt we were able to move one to get size on the wing in Josh, and we were able to get the deal done. And I know for a fact there was other teams after Josh, but they didn’t have the match that Columbus was looking for. So, in a way, it’s a little bit of luck, too.

SN: We’re nearing the end of training camp and you’ve finally had a chance to watch these guys for a week—guys like Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson, Alexander Romanov, who’s certainly garnering a lot of attention, and deservedly so—what have been your impressions so far of watching this team come together? And also, behind the scenes, what have been your impressions of the interactions between these guys and the positive mindset that we’ve heard about throughout this camp?

MB: It’s scrimmages and practices, but I like what I’ve seen.

I brought Eddy here—I call him Eddy because that’s his nickname, but Joel Edmundson — I like his size, his range, he’s got dimension, he’s got some personality to his game.

Ty — smart, crafty, hockey sense.

Josh — you say Josh skates well for a big guy, (but) forget for a big guy; he just skates well. He’s a big man with power. And what I like about Josh’s skating is he can track people, it’s not only in straight lines. He’s still pretty mobile as he skates forward and he attacks the net.

Jake (Allen) — Jake was outstanding in net (Sunday), so I think, with him and Pricer in net, we have a good one-two punch.

Romy—I went to Moscow twice to watch him play the last few years, and what I did like back then… he’s got it here. He’s engaged, he’s always aware, he’s got a great gap, he’s got a good stick, and he plays with a lot of confidence and he loves the game. So, the kid I saw in Russia the last two years? That’s what we have here today.

So, I’m excited. It’s not pressure for us; it’s fun, excitement.

As far as the players are concerned, I don’t hang around a lot because—especially with COVID, everybody’s trying to keep their distance—but I could tell our players our excited and they can’t wait to start on Wednesday.

SN: When we spoke to you last, you expressed—and I thought it was really genuine in saying it—‘We’re here to win, we mean business and we can play any way you want to play.’ What gives you the confidence now, having watched camp unfold, that that’s what’s going to happen when this season gets started?

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

MB: The thing I noticed the most in those (10) days of training camp is the pace hasn’t changed, and what made us a fast team in the past is still available to our team.

We do play fast. You guys saw the scrimmages, the practices… guys are high-paced. Even though we got bigger and got more skill, we still play fast. And that’s how we intend to play.

And we could face any type of game you want to throw at us, and I think we’ll be able to handle it.

SN: How does Corey Perry factor into that?

MB: Corey’s a winner. He’s won every level he’s played. Even up to last year in the bubble, he was very good in Dallas.

He’s got character. Again, you saw (Sunday) night, in front of the net—there’s not many guys as good as him.

So, we got him here for a lot intangibility that he has and we count on him to be part of our team.

SN: How do you manage that cap situation? I know we talked a little bit about the fact that it’s going to be a day-to-day thing and John Sedgwick (dir. of legal affairs) is going to be very busy with that stuff, but how do you make the decisions to ensure you’re the least exposed as possible to not losing certain players?

MB: There’s a price to pay when you go to the cap, and that’s the price you pay is you might have make moves and you might have to trade or lose players. That’s just the reality. You can’t be close to the cap without any management or running into some issues sometimes.

Right now, knock on wood, we don’t have any injuries. But if that happens, you have to manage it. It’s always easier when you have more cap space, and that’s why teams usually don’t go to the cap. But sometimes, like I said, we have an opportunity (like) this (past off-season) to be able to get some players. And I knew we were going to be tight, but that’s a price we were willing to pay and hopefully we’ll make it work.

SN: What’s your biggest concern?

MB: Things you can’t control. Injuries is always a concern. Having COVID around your team is also a concern because of the pandemic. But other than those things we can’t control, I think we’re going to be in good shape with that.

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SN: In speaking of exercising a certain measure of control over things you can’t control, we had Brian Burke on one of our shows recently, talking about the fact that if he was a GM of a team right now—as much as it would embarrass him to do it—he’d be doing bed checks on curfew. And he said, ‘That’s something I’ve never done in my career,’ but it’s something that, this year, could be necessary. Have you and the other general managers—because you’re depending on some of the other teams in Canada, as well, to stay healthy—have you guys come up with some protocols that you’d like to enact here to ensure you’re being as safe as possible?

MB: The NHL has done that. I thought they did a really good job in the bubble.

I know it’s going to be different now with a moving bubble, but you trust your players, and I trust Toronto players… And I don’t have a choice; I can only control what I can control.

I’m not going to do bed checks. I think our leadership group here—they know the task at hand and the risks.

(COVID outbreaks/scares) happened in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Vancouver. Who knows? It could be something very simple, somebody else brought it in the rink.

Who knows what happened?

But it could happen. I hope it doesn’t, and I know what Burkie’s saying. But even here in Montreal, even if they want to go somewhere, there’s nowhere to go (past 8pm curfew)…unless you rent a dog.

SN: Does it inspire some confidence that you guys have made it through camp with everybody healthy? That you guys are being tested daily and nothing’s come up that’s really made this an issue for you so far?

MB: So far, it’s been good.

Every morning, between 7:30-10, we get the swab in our nose, we’re getting tested, and I guess it’s going to be like that for sure for the next six weeks. And who knows after that? Might be the whole season.

If that’s the price we have to pay, we’ll get it done, we’ll do it. It’s not fun, but that’s what it takes and we want everyone to be safe.

SN: Marc, I know you recently echoed (Pittsburgh Penguins GM) Jim Rutherford’s thoughts on trade—that there might not be any. Based on everything we’re talking about, how crucial was it for you to get all the players in here before the season started, and are there certain windows that you can see in the schedule where it might be a possibility to pull off a move or two if you need to make one?

MB: In our schedule, there’s a gap where we don’t have games. But it doesn’t mean the team you’re dealing with doesn’t have the same gap.

So, if you get a player, most likely you don’t have him for seven days, and if you play every other night, that could be four games. In a 56-game schedule, it’s pretty big.

That’s why Jimmy said it’s going to be pretty hard to make trades, and I believe that.

SN: We talked a bit about your roster construction, and one of the things that’s very different about it from other teams is how much money you have invested in nets. I know you think it’s probably a very important investment—especially this year with the schedule you have—but can you explain why that is essential to the structure of your team?

MB: We knew the schedule was going to be tight. Bringing Jake in—we had the cap space, so that was a luxury we had—and as you saw, we extended him at a different (lower) number, so moving forward he’s going to help us in that regard.

But he’s going to be a very good…I hate to say the word ‘backup,’ because he’s going to get his fair share of games this year and we’re going to need him.

SN: I think you would agree a lot of your success depends on Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi taking the steps that you guys believe they can take. What do you make of their camps, and how do you feel they’re prepared to take those steps?

MB: I’ve watched, just like you guys did, KK’s game is—again, it’s just based on those nine days (with) no games—but his strength, his shot, his engagement, his speed took another level from where it even was in the bubble. I see he’s got fire in his eyes and he’s ready to go.

And Nick—he’s a more cerebral player, but you can see his hockey sense. I watch him on the power play, how he handles the puck, how he finds the open man.

I don’t see why they would take a step backwards.

We don’t have a choice; those (players) are our backbone going forward and we have to go with those kids.

SN: Another couple of players who will be very important to your success this year are Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar. They enter the year without contracts for next season. How do you feel that will affect the way they operate? You’ve been a player before, you’ve been in that situation. How important is it to make sure they’re on task and not distracted by that?

MB: What you forget is also Joel Armia. And those guys do have contracts this season. It’s beyond that…

I don’t see any issues whatsoever. They’re good pros, they want the team’s success and they will put the team ahead of themselves. And, like I said, they do have contracts, and the better we do, the better they do, (so that) everybody’s going to be rewarded at the end of the day.

SN: Specific to Danault, how crucial is his role as the elder statesman among your centremen? You’ve got three pretty young guys up the middle and a guy in Phillip who handles various responsibilities. How important is he to your team this year?

MB: Phil is very important to our team. I think his role is important—and for what he does against other teams’ best lines and for the penalty killing. He’s also good on faceoffs.

And then we have Nick, who’s taking a step. I saw him in the bubble, how good he was on the penalty killing. And Jake (Evans)—I think (Canadiens coach) Claude (Julien) mentioned a couple of days ago—he took another step with his pace.

I think we’re good down the middle for years to come.

SN: In your experience as a defenceman, what was the thing you hated most about playing other teams’ defences, and do you see those elements on your blue line now?

MB: Yeah, I think we have… even though we’re bigger, I think we have… Like Joel Edmundson, if you watch him, he can skate. He’s not a slow guy.

So, we’re big.

We’ve got Romanov, who’s also very mobile.

So, even though we’re bigger, we didn’t get slower. We brought some size and some quickness to our team. And then (Brett Kulak’s) a very good skater, (Victor Mete’s) a really good skater.

So, we have a good skating defence and we’re big, so it’s not going to be fun (to play against). You saw in the bubble, our big guys, our big three (Chiarot, Weber and Petry)…

I’m excited. I can’t want to start, I really can’t.

SN: You’re going to face a serious quality of competition in this Canadian division. How do you view this division and the teams that you’ve got to play on a nightly basis here?

MB: You look at the schedule, as you guys saw, there’s not going to be an easy game. From start in Toronto opening night, and then we go out West—Edmonton, Vancouver… Calgary’s not easy, Winnipeg… Ottawa’s gotten better; there’s not going to be an easy game. That’s for sure.

SN: We can’t thank you enough for your time. We wish you good health, and success for this season.

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