With over 30 games played this season, Habs fans now have a material sample size to fairly assess the squad, including and especially the material changes that GM Marc Bergevin made in the offseason. Out of the gate, the Canadiens were projected as a middling team that could contend for a playoff spot. The 2017-18 Habs may not even be that. After last season’s first-place finish in the Atlantic Division and this season’s 13-14-4 start, the summer of 2017 can now safely be declared an utter failure.
The loss of Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov (two core players lost for nothing in return) have materially weakened what was already a pop-gun offence and a weak group of puck movers on the back end. The decimation of the left side of the defence corps – which could easily have been avoided – has left such a gaping hole that the Canadiens were forced to adopt the Ballard-era Maple Leafs’ tactic of icing a junior player (the estimable Victor Mete) who would have benefited from another year of development at the OHL level.
The moves that Bergevin made this summer have not worked out. In fairness, some problems could not have been foreseen. Karl Alzner was a sought-after free agent and his play has made him a poster boy for under-achievement in this group, his own goal this past Saturday night serving as a metaphor for his disappointing play to date. David Schlemko’s injury was untimely and Jakub Jerabek needed time in the AHL to transition to the smaller NHL ice surface.
However, Bergevin could have avoided many of this team’s shortcomings. After a long protracted negotiation, Andrei Markov was prepared to settle for a one-year contract that reports suggest was in the neighbourhood of $6M. While the cost may have been somewhat high for a 38-year old defenceman, the cap space was there and it is now clear that the Canadiens GM had no Plan B when Markov called his bluff. The loss of Markov has not only impacted the Canadiens in their own end but #79’s breakout passes have been sorely missed by a team that has some speed to play the transition game, if only their defencemen could crisply and consistently headman the puck.
Bergevin’s inexplicable trade of Nathan Beaulieu for a third-round pick (Scott Walford) just before the expansion draft, along with the loss of Alexei Emelin to the Vegas Golden Knights, completed his puzzling moves with respect to the left side of his defence corps. This writer is no fan of Beaulieu and it is true that he likely did not have a long-term future as a Hab. However, his junior coach was Gerard Gallant, who won a Memorial Cup with Beaulieu as one of his key defencemen. If one could only get a third-round pick, why not leave Beaulieu unprotected and keep Emelin in the fold, especially when Markov’s status was undetermined at the time? If Emelin was selected, you could then decide whether to give up on Beaulieu, knowing that the left side was that much more vulnerable.
Of course, the Canadiens’ highest-profile move impacted the left side of the defence, and this move could have repercussions for many years. Markov’s long-term replacement and the Canadiens No. 1 prospect, Mikhail Sergachev, was dealt for Jonathan Drouin, who the Canadiens hope will develop into the number one centreman they have been missing and have coveted for more than a generation. Drouin has been adequate (5G, 12A, 17P, -10) but Sergachev has been outstanding (7G, 13A, 20P, +9) in his rookie season for Tampa Bay. Sergachev is 19 and Drouin is 22 so it is unfair to evoke the ghosts of Scott Gomez – he who was paid $4M per goal scored in a calendar year – and Ryan McDonagh but the deal addressed one problem by simply creating another, a problem that was exacerbated after Bergevin lost his poker game with Markov.
While Bergevin was active this summer, there was little evidence of a plan or any clear vision on how the Canadiens would be transformed from the middling team that they were in 2016-17 to a contender in 2017-18. At best, most prognosticators viewed the team as treading water this past offseason. Even this tepid endorsement has proven optimistic to date. After a start like this season with an aging group of core players, the Canadiens should now be considering whether this group is capable of contending for a championship. If not, who should be leading the team going forward? The time for asking some hard questions about the team’s core and their GM’s future has either arrived or is imminent.