The Canadiens’ disastrous 2017 offseason has been well-documented. Some of the 2017 moves had short-term implications but at least one trade will impact the team for close to a generation. Despite the fanbase’s calls for Marc Bergevin to be fired, Bergevin did have a fairly productive offseason in 2018. Here are five reasons why it was much-improved:
5. John Tavares signed elsewhere. Despite Bergevin’s friendship with Tavares’ agent, Pat Brisson, the Canadiens did not even make his short list of teams to submit offers. Tavares’ decision was appropriate. Why would the Habs make the cut? The taxes, weather, media, not to mention the team’s marginal supporting cast. Tavares had just spent nine years being the marquee player with ordinary teammates. Each year, the Islanders struggled to make the playoffs and were part of the no man’s land of contention known as the middling middle. That alone more than supports Tavares’ decision.
A better question is why the Canadiens wanted to sign him. The “reset/ rebuild” Canadiens already have over $18 million tied up in two players over 30 years old. There would have been no hometown discount if Tavares was to sign with the Habs. Oakville boy Tavares declined San Jose’s $13M AAV for the Leafs’ $11M AAV offer. The Canadiens would have had to dedicate at least $13M to sign him. The result would have been over $31M in cap space dedicated to three players, two of which are over 30 years old and the other in his late 20s who would be 30 plus by the time his supporting cast would materially improve. For Bergevin and the Habs, if this deal had been consummated, the team would have had a better 2018/19 season but the franchise would have been marginalized for a decade. Credit cannot be given to Bergevin on this one but at least it did not happen.
4. The Domi-Galchenyuk Deal. On paper, this deal makes little sense. A team that struggles to score goals trades away one of its elite talents and best goal scorers. And the return did not address the team’s urgent needs for a number one centre and a left-handed puck-moving defenceman. However, after six seasons in Montreal, Alex Galchenyuk (and his father) were not going to change. Galchenyuk simply could not or would not play a 200-foot game and the result was a plus-minus that was among the worst in the league. Max Domi is not as skilled as Galchenyuk and he will not score as many goals. But he is a good playmaker, he plays defence, he loves the spotlight in Montreal and he plays with passion. Domi may also be able to play centre if the first few games of this season are any indication. Domi has a heart the size of a bus and Galchenyuk is this decade’s Murray Wilson.
There have been whispers about Galchenyuk and his off-ice problems for some time. Further, his father, a frustrated ex-minor leaguer hell-bent on living his dreams through his son, was reportedly his son’s primary coach in Montreal. Leaving aside the issue of the Habs’ failure to resolve this dysfunctional dynamic proactively, this situation would understandably be detrimental to any athlete. And the soap opera that ensued made the trade imperative.
Understandably, many pundits wondered why Bergevin gave up one of his primary trade chips without addressing the team’s need for a left-handed puck-moving defenseman or a centre (Domi may be able to fill the latter role but he was billed as a winger at the time of the trade). However, Galchenyuk and the Canadiens needed to part ways. Domi is a solid player who brings to the table a work ethic and intangibles that Galchenyuk could never deliver.
3. No Short Term Fixes. The Canadiens’ abysmal 2017-18 season earned them the third overall pick for the 2018 NHL Draft. It is also assumed that Bergevin’s job is on the line this season. So there was no shortage of rival NHL GMs making like vultures at the Draft and trying to separate Bergevin from his first-round pick. Ryan O’Reilly, a very capable NHL centre, was reportedly offered as part of a deal for the Canadiens’ third overall pick. There were no doubt other tire kickers circling the Habs’ management team looking for bargains before, during and after the Draft. Fortunately, Bergevin resisted the urge to sacrifice the future to save his job and made the team younger this offseason. He also used the third overall pick to draft Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a centre that, at the time, did not project to be as NHL-ready as some other available players, such as Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina. Bergevin’s work this summer will improve the Canadiens in the long-term. That aligns well with the interests of the organization and may not have been in his own personal best interests if he is nearing the end of his tenure as GM. Although this pundit has been a Bergevin detractor for some time, this approach is admirable and will improve his legacy as Habs’ GM well after he is done.
2. A Good Return for Pacioretty. Like Galchenyuk, the Canadiens and Max Pacioretty needed a divorce, albeit for different reasons. The Pacioretty soap opera was dysfunctional, destructive, and unwarranted. Pacioretty is no Mark Messier but he is a good person who did not deserve to be poorly treated by the Canadiens’ organization. Pacioretty was one of the league’s premier goal scorers on a team that had a chronic inability to score and had no elite centreman on its roster. There was much innuendo out of Montreal about Captain Max’s leadership skills and Bergevin played a starring role in the drama. It was clear that the Canadiens had no intention to sign him long-term.
However, after seemingly driving down Pacioretty’s value (an unbecoming Hab-it in the Bergevin era), the Canadiens’ GM made an impressive trade with the Golden Knights days before training camp began. Tomas Tatar was a salary dump for Vegas but his resume includes a number of 20-goal seasons and he is 27, about three years younger than Pacioretty. Most importantly, London, Ontario-born Nick Suzuki, while a prospect, plays centre and is an elite OHL player that was selected 13th overall in the 2017 Draft. Suzuki is an A-level prospect by any measure and should develop into a key part of the team for years. The second round pick is also a material asset. The Canadiens will not improve in 2018-19 as a result of this deal but this is most likely a lost season anyway (they are at best a bubble playoff team this year). The future is rightly the focus for this deal and the Canadiens’ future is clearly improved as a result of this trade.
The trade likely works for Vegas as well. The best player in the deal is Pacioretty and they are in “win now” mode while Tatar did not fit into their plans. By dumping Tatar’s salary and acquiring Pacioretty, their objectives are addressed. However, the loss of Suzuki may come back to haunt them.
1. The 2018 offseason could not be any worse than 2017. After the offseason fiasco in 2017, the Canadiens could not help but have a better summer this year. Bergevin’s failure to sign or trade Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov and the loss of the entire left side of the defence corps (Markov, Alexei Emelin and Nathan Beaulieu) really hurt the Canadiens last summer. However, the Mikhail Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade is probably the most damaging and most consequential. This was not the first trade that was driven by the Canadiens’ desperate search for a number one centre. Although it occurred about a decade ago, the Scott Gomez – Ryan McDonagh deal continues to haunt the Canadiens’ fanbase. Drouin is unlikely to be as much of a disaster as Gomez. However, it is now clear that Bergevin created a gaping hole on the left side of the blue line (Sergachev was Markov’s heir apparent) and only received a winger, the only position where the Canadiens have any depth. The Drouin experiment at centre is likely and mercifully dead. Meanwhile, with Sergachev’s emergence as a left-handed, talented young puck-moving defenceman, it was a very expensive experiment indeed.
Let’s hope the Canadiens keep their focus on the long game and continue to develop their prospects. That is the only path back to contention for this historic franchise. More offseasons like 2018 should go a long way to accomplishing just that.