Year One of the Marc Bergevin-Michel Therrien era was a success by most standards, but not by the standard used to judge hockey teams in Montreal.
This is a city that measures success by Stanley Cup victories and Bergevin and Therrien will both tell you this team is a work in progress.
Bergevin set the tone in September when the Canadiens gathered for their annual charity golf tournament. He acknowledged the team had made progress in his first season as general manager, but cautioned: “We’re not there yet.”
And coach Therrien injected a dose of reality this month after the Canadiens were crushed 6-0 by the Los Angeles Kings to end a 9-0-1 run. Therrien said his team fell short of the standard set by the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins.
While it is difficult to preach patience to a demanding fan base that hasn’t seen a Stanley Cup winner since 1993, there are signs of progress. After finishing last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, the Canadiens surprised everyone by finishing first in the Northeast Division in last season’s lockout-shortened campaign.
But the Canadiens’ shortcomings were exposed in the first round of the playoffs when they were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators. The Canadiens’ lack of size and physical presence was a factor in the defeat and Bergevin noted there were players who could get you to the playoffs, but the team needed players who could get them through the playoffs.
This season, the Canadiens have proven they fall into that first category. They have erased any doubt that last season’s finish was a fluke by establishing themselves as a contender in the Eastern Conference. They have wins over Pittsburgh and Boston and are on pace for a 102-point season.
When Bergevin arrived, he said he wanted to keep the core of the team intact and the current roster contains 15 players from the 2011-12 disaster. He used compliance buyouts to shed Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle and didn’t re-sign Chris Campoli and the popular Mathieu Darche. When Erik Cole had trouble dealing with the lockout, Bergevin traded him to Dallas.
This past summer, Bergevin allowed Colby Armstrong, Yannick Weber, Jeff Halpern and Michael Ryder to leave through free agency.
The new management team has given an increasingly larger role to youngsters Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. They defied a long-standing team tradition of bringing youngsters along slowly when Galchenyuk became the club’s first 18-year-old since Petr Svoboda in 1984.
After years of denial, the Canadiens have conceded that a lack of size might be a problem, particularly in the playoffs. Bergevin signed Brandon Prust before the lockout and added heavyweights George Parros and Douglas Murray in the off-season. The team’s first-round draft pick this year was Michael McCarron, a 6-foot-5 power forward currently with the junior London Knights. Defencemen Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu have all experienced a taste of the NHL and will add some size in the future.
Bergevin’s most important off-season move was the decision to hire Stéphane Waite as goaltending coach. The two had an association going back to their days with the Chicago Blackhawks, where Waite played a key role in the development of two Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders, Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford.
Waite has brought structure back to Carey Price’s game. The goaltender appeared lost at the end of the lockout season, but has regained his spot among the game’s elite. Waite’s coaching is a factor, but so is Price’s willingness to work with the new coach.
There have been a few miscues along the way. Bergevin’s first shot at free agency yielded Prust and dependable veteran defenceman Francis Bouillon, but physical problems dogged Armstrong in his bid to jump-start his NHL career.
This past summer, Bergevin added Parros through a trade and Murray and Daniel Brière through free agency, and the returns have been mixed. Murray has emerged as the best addition, a hard-hitting defenceman whose experience allows him to overcome a lack of mobility. He’s an integral part of one of the NHL’s best penalty-killing units and can deliver devastating checks. In the win over Phoenix Tuesday, Murray delivered a jarring hit to Mike Ribeiro and the Coyotes’ leading scorer became a non-factor.
Parros has shown a willingness to drop his gloves, but he is currently sidelined with his second concussion in less than three months.
Brière has five goals and five assists in 26 games, but he has gone seven games without a point and Therrien, who demands accountability, has lost confidence in him.
Brière played only 4:27 against Phoenix and was a healthy scratch Thursday night in St. Louis. When asked after the Phoenix game about the veteran’s diminished ice time, Therrien said his job was to use the players who gave the team the best chance to win.
The 36-year-old Brière has another year remaining on his contract and is being paid a hefty $4 million a season.
Here’s a look at the moves Marc Bergevin has made since taking over as general manager of the Canadiens before last season:
Brandon Prust: Signed as free agent.
Colby Armstrong: Signed as free agent.
Francis Bouillon: Signed as free agent.
Michael Ryder: Acquired from Dallas in trade for Erik Cole.
Alex Galchenyuk: First-round draft pick in 2012.
Davis Drewiske: Acquired from Los Angeles for fifth-round draft pick.
Daniel Brière: Signed as free agent.
George Parros: Acquired from Florida in trade for Philippe Lefebvre and second-round draft pick.
Scott Gomez: Compliance buyout. Currently with Florida Panthers.
Tomas Kaberle: Compliance buyout. Currently with Kladno in the Czech league.
Mathieu Darche: Not offered contract. Retired.
Erik Cole: Traded to Dallas for Michael Ryder.
Colby Armstrong: Not offered contract. Currently with Vaxjo in the Swedish league.
Chris Campoli: Not offered contract. Currently with HV71 Jonkoping in Swedish league.
Michael Ryder: Not offered contract. Currently with New Jersey Devils.
Jeff Halpern: Not offered contract: Currently with Phoenix Coyotes.
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