With under twenty games left in the season, the 2018-19 Canadiens are a very fast, determined and competitive team that is fun to watch and, as of this writing, has a tenuous hold on a playoff spot. How many people expected that this season? Not this pundit. This writer expected the Canadiens to compete in the Jack Hughes sweepstakes and was firmly in the “Fire Bergevin” camp most of last season and all summer. So how did our dapper GM turn this team around?
1. Attitude. Marc Bergevin was right. He was roundly mocked by all after last year’s end of season press conference for blaming the Canadiens’ lost season on a bad attitude. However, this team has been a cohesive group right out of camp while they work hard and are resilient when confronted with adversity. In interviews, the players seem like a close-knit group that battle for one another in a team-first environment. One can debate the reasons, whether they include improved leadership, the addition of a few catalysts or a determination to not allow last season to repeat itself. In any event, the attitude is better and the results are there.
2. Good Trades. While no one knows for certain how most trades will pan out for several months or even years later, two of Bergevin’s offseason deals were seen as clear winners from the outset.
Joel Armia cost the Canadiens a defenceman that did not fit into their plans (Simon Bourque, who now plays for Concordia University) and some cap space (which the Canadiens have in abundance and used some for the buyout of Steve Mason’s contract). In other words, no impact on the roster or any futures. In Armia, they received a big forward who is an elite penalty killer, wins puck battles, and can play up and down the lineup. Despite his recent hat trick against the Rangers, Armia will never be a great scorer. However, he fills an organizational need, all for taking on a bad contract and providing the Winnipeg Jets with some cap relief.
While no one thought the Max Pacioretty trade would turn out so well, the acquisition of the younger Tomas Tatar (with Vegas retaining some salary), a second-round pick, and an A-level prospect in Nick Suzuki was seen as a win for the Canadiens from the outset. As things have turned out, Tatar has outperformed Pacioretty this season which is somewhat surprising. Suzuki and the second round pick were rightly seen as making the deal a winner for the Canadiens and this will likely become even more apparent in the near future.
The winner in the Domi-Galchenyuk deal was not as clear last June. While Max Domi is more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, he had only scored 18 goals the past two seasons and four of his nine markers last season were empty netters. To be sure, Alex Galchenyuk needed a change of scenery but, for a team that could not score, many pundits were expecting a greater return for the underachieving Galchenyuk. At the time, Domi was expected to play on the wing. Quite rightly, Bergevin was criticized for trading away one of his best talents and not filling an organizational need. Of course, Domi has excelled at centre and he is certainly one of the biggest reasons for the Canadiens’ success this season.
3. Luck. Several events have come together to enable the Canadiens to compete for a playoff spot this season. The Pacioretty deal was done just before training camp when it looked as if the Habs were going to be forced to either (i) start camp with Pacioretty (and all the distractions that soap opera would have entailed) or (ii) trade him for less than fair value. Then the Vegas deal happened…just in time. No one expected Domi to have a career season like this. Ditto for Tatar. And who would have expected 18-year old Jesperi Kotkaniemi to make the squad and add some strength down the middle for a team that has not had an elite centreman in a generation? Jordie Benn is also having a career year. Benn and Brett Kulak (who was acquired for almost nothing) have been a serviceable third pairing. The solid play of an inexperienced and outmanned back end held the Canadiens in until Shea Weber returned from injury. The Canadiens have been relatively healthy, particularly lately. All of these events could have worked out much worse for the Canadiens and Bergevin. The Canadiens’ luck was mostly bad last year. To be sure, the team’s hard work has paid off. But this year, their luck has been much better than last.
4. Bounce Back Years. Many core players for the Canadiens suffered injuries or simply underperformed last season. Weber was hurt as was Andrew Shaw for much of the year. Without Domi and others to motivate him, Jonathan Drouin went through the motions as he adjusted to the hockey-mad Montreal market. Most importantly, Carey Price struggled mightily, no doubt in part due to an undermanned Weber-less back end. This season, Shaw is having his best year as a Hab (notwithstanding missing some time in January), Weber picked up where he left off after returning from injuries, and Domi has proven that Drouin has a pulse…sometimes. Most importantly, Price, with the exception of a down November, has been among the best goalies in the NHL.
5. Coaching. Last season, the Canadiens played slow, boring hockey. They seemed to be playing in another era while the league’s best teams played with pace. This year’s Habs are all about speed and determination. The defence moves the puck quickly to the forwards and often join the rush in a five-man attack. All skaters are constantly moving their feet. Personnel changes have helped but the coaching philosophy has also changed. Coach Claude Julien may have evolved but the addition of Luke Richardson and Dominique Ducharme have no doubt had a positive impact on the game plans.
It is worth mentioning (and admitting) that, as bad an offseason Marc Bergevin had in 2017, his 2018 offseason was outstanding. And Bergevin accomplished this turnaround without sacrificing prospects or picks to any material extent. That is impressive. Geoff Molson made the right decision retaining Marc Bergevin. As a Habs fan, I am glad I was wrong.