Marc Bergevin has been general manager of your Montreal Canadiens for almost five years. And yet the team is now farther away from winning a Stanley Cup than in 2012 when he assumed his post. That alone should be sufficient cause for his dismissal, but to make his incompetence plain, let’s examine his record in greater detail.
He took a promising young team and turned it into a mediocre aging one.
When you hired Bergevin, it seemed like the right move. The team had a stud in goal about to come into his prime in Carey Price; it had a flashy, highly skilled young defenceman on the back end in P.K. Subban; it had an emerging power forward as a star up front in Max Pacioretty; and the Canadiens owned a high draft pick, which Bergevin used to select Alex Galchenyuk, a player who seemed likely to be the bona fide number one centre the team had lacked since Saku Koivu injured his knee in 1999; it also had some other promising young players, notably a superpest with a scoring touch named Brendan Gallagher, in the system. Bergevin seemed like the right man to take this promising foundation and build a championship upon it. He had apprenticed in Chicago where management had taken a similarly young team full of promise and moulded it into a perennial winner and two-time champion. Bergevin, it was thought, would be patient with the young kids, add complementary pieces at the right time as Chicago had done, and lead them to the promised land within the next 2-3 years. Well, that did not happen. Bergevin never made the moves needed to put his team over the top. He never addressed the group’s weaknesses, notably a lack of scoring. And he never embraced the club’s star position player and eventually ran him out of town. So now, five years on, where once there was promise there is now a team that still relies far too much on Pacioretty and Price, with a 32-year-old Shea Weber as its best blueliner and a 39-year-old Andrei Markov as its uncontested number two. Price’s contract expires next summer and if he chooses to leave, or if Montreal trades him in advance of his contract running out, the window on what was once a promising young core will have closed definitively. In fact, I think it is clear it already has.
So where did Bergevin go so badly wrong?
He hired Michel Therrien.
I distinctly remember the sinking feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when I heard Bergevin had chosen Michel Therrien as coach in his first summer on the job. First, of course, Therrien had been the head coach in Montreal before, guiding them from 2000 to 2003, and he had been found wanting. Indeed, of the four young coaches Montreal hired in succession in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries -Alain Vigneault, Therrien, Claude Julien, and Guy Carbonneau – Therrien had been my least favourite. He seemed too hard on his players and his teams lacked offensive flair, adhering too strictly to a defense-first scheme. Second, and more importantly, while he is a competent coach in some respects, his failings were ill-suited to Montreal’s needs. In 2012, Montreal had a young, fast, hockey club. Success would lie in developing that young talent and in playing what the emerging cadre of statisticians loved – a puck possession game, using the players’ speed and skill to keep control of the puck and press the attack. Therrien was a coach, on the other hand, who had a reputation of being hard on young talent, and whose teams’ possession statistics left much to be desired. His career coaching statistics show a coach whose teams consistently play without the puck more than they do with it, and someone whose clubs similarly are outshot and outchanced night after night. He is a coach who prefers an older style of play of dumping the puck in and grinding it out along the boards, a style of play that Bergevin too values, having been that kind of journeyman player himself as a defensive defenceman. But this style was ill-suited to the Canadiens’ personnel.
The results were predictably mediocre to disastrous. They were mediocre in the wins and losses columns – Montreal had a regular season record of 164 wins and 158 losses under Therrien in his second tour of duty and a playoff record of 17 wins and 17 losses. Therrien was, essentially, a .500 coach on a team that considered itself a contender. They won two playoff series out of five played under his tutelage, with the high-water mark coming in 2013-14 when they made it to the semi-finals. If the team’s record was mediocre under Therrien, his and Bergevin’s handling of the team’s young talent was calamitous. Galchenyuk, for example, was touted as a future centreman who might one day be a franchise player. He was (and is) that talented. But immediately, Therrien and Bergevin mishandled him. In his first year, he simply wasn’t good enough to be playing in the NHL. But they kept him around, using him in spot duty on the third and fourth lines, and hindering his development in the process. Whereas he could have returned to Major Junior hockey and learned what it meant to be the focal point of his team, he instead toiled for ten to twelve minutes a night playing with a revolving cast of journeyman line mates. Further, Therrien refused to play Galchenyuk at centre, the position he was supposedly being groomed for. It’s difficult to become a franchise centre when you’re playing wing in the bottom six.
But Therrien is known as a defence-first coach, so surely he at least taught Galchenyuk the defensive side of the game? Alas no. Galchenyuk is almost as hopeless in his own end today as he was when he was 19. Some of that, of course, is his fault. But the coach and the organization surely share the blame. Galchenyuk’s is the most celebrated case but Therrien’s handling of other young players has been no more successful. Nathan Beaulieu has struggled to adapt to the NHL as Therrien yanked him from the line-up or sat him on the bench every time he made a mistake, despite the fact that the statistics showed he was and is more effective than many of those who played ahead of him. Jared Tinordi never became an NHL regular. Charles Hudon remained buried in the AHL. Greg Pateryn was misused as the seventh defenceman – a role better filled by a journeyman veteran than a prospect. Sven Andrighetto’s career stalled and he, like Tinordi and Pateryn, was eventually shipped out of town. Daniel Carr looked very promising for a time and then disappeared into the minor leagues. The only partial exception to this rule was Gallagher, who became a good second-liner on Therrien’s watch. Otherwise, the failure to develop talent from within has been a damning indictment of both Therrien and Bergevin’s tenures.
He stuck by Therrien for far too long.
Remember Bergevin’s five-year plan? What happened to that? Unfortunately, Bergevin has been undone in part by his own refusal to admit some of his mistakes. Thus, when Therrien guided his team to a disastrous 38-44 record in 2015-16, Bergevin stuck by his man when it was plain that if Therrien had ever had a shelf life with the Habs, it had expired. In spring 2016 Bergevin insisted that Therrien was not responsible for the team’s failings, blaming the failure to make the playoffs instead on Carey Price’s lost season. The idea that the season came unraveled by Price’s injury had some merit, but it overlooked the fact the tailspin began in December when backup Mike Condon was playing very well. Only in January did goaltending become part of the problem. By the time the dust settled in the aftermath of 2015-16, Bergevin had traded his team’s marquee position player, Subban, for a good but aging defenceman, dramatically changing the team’s long-term prospects for the worse. In his diagnosis that a lack of character was the issue in the locker room, he fingered Subban as the key culprit and also shipped out mediocre point producer but possession stats wunderkind Lars Eller to make way for his signing of Andrew Shaw, an inferior possession player. He made the team worse in so doing.
His handling of P.K. Subban was a case study in mismanagement.
P.K. Subban is an exciting player with jaw-dropping skill. He is a high-risk high-reward kind of player who, the statistics say rather definitively, is one of the top defencemen in the league in a variety of ways. When he is on the ice his team usually has the puck and they usually score more than the other team. The reasons for this are clear: Subban is one of the top puck battlers in the NHL, meaning that he wins far more fights in the corners for puck possession than he loses, and he is also second only to Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators as a rushing, puck moving defenceman. His passes are crisp and on target and if there is no one to pass to he can and often does simply carry the puck out himself. If his hockey skill set isn’t enough of a reason to like having Subban on your team, he is also colourful and charismatic on and off the ice. And he is one heck of an ambassador for the game to boot, donating his time, money, and energy to charitable causes, most often those related to sick children. He is, in short, the kind of player that franchises dream of building their teams around on the ice and their brand around off it.
And yet it was clear right from the get-go that Bergevin, as well as his coach Therrien, were not admirers of Subban’s. First, when he had already established himself as a top-shelf blueliner Bergevin nickeled and dimed him on his contract renewal in 2012-13. When that predictably backfired and Subban won the Norris Trophy that same year after nearly scoring a point a game in the lockout shortened season, proving himself a truly elite player, Bergevin had little choice but to sign him to the massive contract he had earned, thus costing you, Geoff Molson, millions of dollars through his misreading of Subban’s potential and himself the related cap space with which to work to improve the team. It was a case study in the mismanagement of the salary cap.
Bergevin also made several public missteps with Subban. He allowed Therrien to throw him under the bus repeatedly, scapegoating him for losses. He and Therrien both repeatedly mused about how Subban had to improve his game after Subban had already won a Norris Trophy as the best defenceman in the league. And in 2013, the coach and GM inexplicably banned Subban’s “low-five” celebrations with goaltender and friend Price. These comments and measures were even more ill-considered when compared to the way the organization protected the team’s other star players, sheltering Pacioretty from criticism for underperforming in the playoffs or, most glaringly, rallying around Galchenyuk when the police were called to his home in the middle of the night in January 2016. It was and remains difficult to understand what exactly the team brass didn’t like about Subban. But as Bergevin himself stated to the press, “P.K. is different.” He was certainly treated differently than the team’s other stars.
Then there was the captaincy issue. Subban wanted to be captain and made no secret of it; but the braintrust, after a players’ vote, chose Pacioretty instead. But leadership isn’t a popularity contest. To any observer of the team who had sat through Pacioretty’s many slumps and watched him go through the motions during them the decision made no sense. Subban played with passion; Subban showed up and played hard night after night no matter how the team was doing; that is what leadership looks like, whether the player is beloved by his teammates or not. It is not a put-down of Pacioretty whose key problem is clearly that he gets down on himself, to say that Subban was and is the more natural leader. Smart teams make their best players the captain – this sends a clear signal to the role players that they either get on board with having that player as the focal point or they can go play somewhere else. For whatever reason, Montreal did not go this route.
And finally, of course, Bergevin made Subban the scapegoat for the losing season in 2015-16 and traded him in June for Shea Weber. The evidence is clear that this was a bad trade at every level with Subban being a superior player to Weber in nearly every measurable category with the notable exception that Weber scores more goals. But when you factor in the fact that Weber had a bigger cap hit, a longer contract, and was three and a half years older than Subban then the trade looks even worse.
Some of Bergevin’s supposed beef with Subban began to bubble to the surface in the Montreal media before and after the trade. First, the GM was apparently miffed that Subban did not include the team in his plan to announce his pledge to raise $10 million for the Montreal Children’s Hospital. While Subban could no doubt have done more to keep Canadiens’ brass in the loop it is difficult to imagine a more petulant response to one of your players announcing such a bold and generous commitment than to complain that you didn’t get to promote your brand at the announcement. Second, he certainly adhered to the belief that Subban was “too risky” and turned the puck over too often. That claim – oft-repeated by Subban’s critics – reveals a misunderstanding of the game. Subban, like Drew Doughty, Karlsson, Sidney Crosby, Conor McDavid, and other elite possession players, turns the puck over relatively often because he controls and handles the puck so much more than average players. Moreover, his gaudy goal differential stats put the lie to the idea that he is “too risky”. If he’s taking risks they are paying off far more often than they are backfiring. Third, some teammates and members of the organization thought that Subban was too upbeat after losses. If that supposedly insouciant attitude had been evident on the ice, it might be legitimate cause for criticism. However, the reverse was true: in the disaster that was 2015-16, there was exactly one player who continued to play like he cared until his season ended with an injury: P.K. Subban. If you’re the only guy playing that way you have earned the right to smile if you want to after losses. Fourth, Subban was allegedly more generally unpopular with some of his teammates. And indeed, there are some signs that that was the case as the players chose Pacioretty as their captain, and there was a fight at practice between Subban and the well-liked Brandon Prust. If I am the GM of a hockey club and a borderline NHLer like Prust is fighting with my Norris Trophy winning defenceman I don’t side with Prust. In fact, I consider trading him for a bag of pucks to send a signal to others that you don’t risk injuring the team’s stars by trading punches with them at practice. That said, Subban certainly has an outsized personality and enjoys attention and no doubt that rubs some people the wrong way. But even if some players didn’t like Subban, this is a terrible reason to trade away your best position player. If you take any player in any locker room in the NHL there will be someone else in that room who doesn’t like him: it’s human nature. These guys are professionals and they should be able to work together for a common goal whether they’re best friends or not. If someone in Montreal’s dressing room couldn’t handle that fact, then they are the person who should have been traded, not Subban. And that includes Pacioretty; no one who watches Pacioretty’s vs. Subban’s career playoff performances can seriously suggest that they would rather have the former on their team than the latter. When the going gets tough, Subban gets going. Pacioretty? As Canadiens’ fans were reminded this spring: not so much.
In sum, Bergevin did everything in his power to alienate Subban, he allowed Therrien to scapegoat him for the atrocious 2015-16 season despite the fact that he was the only player playing with passion while the team floundered, and then he made, in hockey and public relations terms, a disastrous trade with Nashville to get rid of him.
He has not been able to improve the team’s scoring.
In 2012, Montreal was a promising hockey club with a glaring weakness: a lack of scoring. In 2017, Montreal is a much less promising hockey club with a glaring weakness: a lack of scoring. Every year Bergevin suggests to the Canadiens’ fans that his club is a contender, and every year that they have been a playoff position he has failed to back that up by adding the scorer the team has desperately needed, with the partial exception of the acquisition of Tomas Vanek in 2014, notably the only year of his tenure that the team went on a playoff run. Instead, he acquires third and fourth liners to give his team depth. In some years, these moves have improved the team – the acquisition of Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn paid off somewhat for example – but often their effect has been negligible. This past year’s deadline work was the most farcical yet. Montreal desperately needed a goal scorer. So Bergevin shipped out two small but skilled forwards in David Desharnais and Andrighetto as well as Pateryn and acquired three defensive defensemen in Jordie Benn, Brandon Davidson, and Nikita Nesterov. Up front, he added no fewer than three fourth-line slow-footed behemoths in Dwight King, Steve Ott, and Andreas Martinsen. While the defensive depth was no doubt welcome, that it cost the skilled puck mover Beaulieu his job was a negative. And up front, the Canadiens were almost certainly worse with the new guys in the lineup than they were without them. Ott was a case in point: while he draws praise from hockey commentators for his “grit” and face-off skills, the possession stats show Ott to be one of the worst players in the NHL, period. And right there beside him in the bottom five? Martinsen with King not much better. It was hardly a shock to me when the Canadiens made an early exit in the playoffs, bowing out to the Rangers 6 games and scoring exactly 11 goals in the process. Bergevin’s 2017 Habs were arguably worse than the 2012-13 club and were certainly further from winning a Stanley Cup. His outdated thinking is taking the team in the wrong direction.
His draft record is atrocious.
If you’re going to give the franchise defenceman the boot and get swindled in the process, and if you’re going to repeatedly show that you are unable to bring in the scoring needed for the team to be successful, you’d better be drafting well. Good organizations have a steady supply of young talent coming up that is ready to contribute at the NHL level. Until this year, the Detroit Red Wings were the poster boys for this. Through shrewd drafting, they had managed to make the playoffs for 25 consecutive years. When the Yzerman, Fedorov, Lidstrom era was ending the Wings had Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Kronwall ready to step in. With those guys aging along came Tatar, Nyquist, and Brendan Smith (whom they mistakenly traded to the Rangers).
In Montreal, on the other hand, with 34-year-old Tomas Plekanec clearly nearing the end of the line and now best suited to a third-line role, he is still Montreal’s best all-around centreman. The bottom six are populated by journeymen and aging veterans, representing terrible cap management – well-run organizations fill those roles from within because young players are cheaper and often more effective; Montreal has no one on the farm to do this for them. Montreal’s farm team has missed the playoffs four out of five of Bergevin’s seasons at the helm and this year won one game in the first round before bowing out.
Suffice it to say that in an era when drafting and developing good prospects is more crucial than ever, Montreal’s roster boasted precisely three players drafted in the Bergevin era who played somewhat significant roles with the club this season: the befuddling Galchenyuk who seems destined to be traded this summer, the admittedly promising Arturi Lekhonen, and Michael McCarron, the fourth-line giant Bergevin had so much confidence in that he went out and got Ott to replace him. That is simply not good enough.
In sum, Mr. Molson, your hockey club is going nowhere fast. Its core, once so promising, is aging and will never win a Stanley Cup. It is time to admit failure and rebuild, to shed most of the veterans in return for younger players, prospects, and draft picks. But given his atrocious track record, it is clear that Marc Bergevin is not the right man to oversee this process. He hired the wrong person to coach what was once an encouraging team; he has a poor record of identifying and developing talent; he and Therrien have quite possibly ruined the careers of Galchenyuk and Beaulieu, and he first failed to embrace the most exciting player the franchise has had since Guy Lafleur, and then gifted him to the Nashville Predators in a lopsided trade that, in truth, likely ruined any realistic hope the team could win a championship in the near future. He appears wedded to a style of play that emphasizes toughness and “character”, which may have been a formula for success in the mid-1990s in the dead puck era, but is certainly a recipe for disaster in 2017. His trades show he does not understand the value of possession statistics or so-called analytics more generally. He has mismanaged the cap, spending his money on marginal contributors such as Shaw and handcuffing the team’s ability to win in the process. Please, for the good of the franchise, fire Marc Bergevin.