Jack Todd: It's over for the Habs, and possibly Bergevin, too
The record will show the 2017-2018 season for the Montreal Canadiens ended in a 37-second stretch of the second period of a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 18.
One-time Hab Ron “Hollywood” Hainsey scored Toronto’s first goal at 12:07 and Nasty Nazem Kadri followed that with one at the 12:44 mark — and the only thing left was for Toronto media darling Auston Matthews to pad his stats with a couple of garbage-time goals.
Toronto 6, Montreal 0, season over — and quite possibly the tenure of GM Marc Bergevin along with it, because in Bergevin’s sixth season at the helm, the Canadiens are on the 2018 draft lottery express.
It’s still early, but NHL wisdom has it if you aren’t in a playoff spot by American Thanksgiving, you’re in trouble. And the Canadiens aren’t even close, five points out as of this writing, with a bunch of teams between them and a playoff spot. As my mentor Stu Cowan pointed out Saturday, the simple truth is they aren’t very good.
Predictably, the lesser minds on social media were drooling over their keyboards following yet another blowout loss Saturday night, cursing departed coach Michel Therrien and the P.K. Subban trade — though neither Therrien nor The Trade has the least thing to do with this team’s struggles.
Shea Weber has been everything he’s supposed to be, a tower of power, an intimidating force, a leader. The problem is that on defence, the drop-off in talent after Weber is spectacular. The Canadiens this season could have had a Big Three of Weber, Andrei Markov and Mikhail Sergachev. Instead, it’s Weber, Kneel and Pray.
Whatever the approach was that Bergevin took to signing Markov and Alexander Radulov, it resulted in the CH losing both players: Bergevin, with $8.5 million left in the kitty, came up a day late and a dollar short. Markov went back to Russia to play for Kazan, and Radulov signed with Dallas.
Up front, that meant the Canadiens lost size, muscle and scoring ability. An undersized crew of forwards seems even smaller without the bull-like Radulov out there breathing fire and daring opposing defencemen to try to move him off the puck. The only remaining forward with any size, Max Pacioretty, plays like he’s 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds. The Canadiens lead the league with 36.6 shots per game but rank next-to-last in goals per game, because only Brendan Gallagher, Andrew Shaw and Paul Byron drive the net.
But the pain has been felt more on the blue line. Markov’s intelligence and puck-moving skills are second to none. He was the glue throughout his Canadiens career. Without him, the defence has simply fallen apart. Sergachev, the superb young talent who might have replaced Markov, was instead dealt to Tampa for Jonathan Drouin. Not a bad trade on the face of it, but when you combine the loss of Sergachev and Markov with the deal that sent Nathan Beaulieu shuffling off to Buffalo and Alexei Emelin lost in the expansion draft, you have a problem.
You can see what Bergevin was thinking. He thought Karl Alzner wouldn’t skate like he was toting a VW on his back. He thought Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn would play at a level comparable to last spring. He thought David Schlemko would actually play some hockey games.
Add all this to a lack of snipers up front and yet another mysterious soap opera of a Carey Price injury and you’re in real trouble.
The narrative that has Bergevin’s entire tenure as a series of blunders is a steaming pile of horse manure. Bergevin accomplished a great deal for the Canadiens. He quickly changed a poisonous organizational culture and led the Habs to the Eastern Conference final in 2014. He might even have won a Stanley Cup that spring, if not for the Chris Kreider Crash. And no matter what the cult members are saying, the Weber trade was at worst a push.
On balance, Bergevin has had some good moves and some bad ones — but this off-season was his undoing. He took a pretty good team and turned it into a bad team. Across the board, the stats say this is a failure. Barring a miraculous turnaround, it’s going to be all but impossible for owner and president Geoff Molson to bring his GM back.
Who replaces Bergevin if he goes? I would hire the same individual I would have hired in 2012, my Greenfield Park homie Julien BriseBois. BriseBois, who cut his teeth in the NHL in the Canadiens front office, has had six more seasons learning at Steve Yzerman’s elbow as they built the Tampa Bay Lightning into an offensive juggernaut that is now the league’s most exciting team.
BriseBois’s primary asset? He’s smart. People seem to think because he never played in the NHL, he can’t do the job — but I’ll take brains over a playing resumé any day. If you object to that approach, may I remind you neither Francis Joseph Aloysius Selke nor Samuel Patterson Smyth Pollock played a game in the NHL, yet their names are on the Stanley Cup a total of 21 times.
Brains matter. Hire BriseBois, Geoff. Before someone else beats you to the punch.