As the Canadiens’ brass continue to peddle hope amid an injury-plagued season (during which the organization’s lack of depth has become plain for all to see), both fans and management would be wise to step back and consider what changes might be required to build the perennial contender that Marc Bergevin promised when he was appointed the Canadiens’ General Manager eight years ago. The management duo of President Geoff Molson and GM Bergevin have not delivered on the ice to date. There are prospects in the pipeline and the team, when healthy, probably is better than its record this season. However, the Habs are still a long way from contention and, most likely, will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Fans and pundits are in two camps. Some vent with indignant recriminations screaming for the replacement of Bergevin (and others). Others counsel patience for a pipeline of prospects acquired and developing over the last few years that promise better days ahead.
Regardless of one’s views on GM Bergevin, Trevor Timmins’ drafting record or the Canadiens’ mediocre results in the area of player development, improvements are imperative. And those on-ice improvements will not come from Molson.
Mr. Molson is doing a fine job for his fellow investors as the value of the team and its related assets (the Bell Centre, condos, etc.) continue to appreciate handsomely. As for the team’s on-ice performance, let’s just say Mr. Molson is performing well for the fellows in the boardroom.
While no one on the outside knows first-hand how hockey decisions are made in Montreal, Bergevin’s comments to the media and the perception of the team’s fanbase suggest that the buck stops on Bergevin’s desk, almost to the exclusion of others. Perhaps he could use a hand.
A President of Hockey Operations is not a new concept in today’s NHL. The position complements the GM’s role and leads to more objective and consensus-driven hockey decisions. It also allows a person who is more of the GM’s equal – as opposed to the GM’s underling – to take on some of the hockey responsibilities. The position is also helpful when problems arise that require independent intervention, for example when negotiations and relationships have broken down between the GM and a player (or the player’s representative).
If you do not think this might be helpful, just think back to the summer of 2017. The relationship between Andrei Markov and Bergevin were obviously strained and negotiations were at a stalemate. Would sober second thought and some third party intervention not have been helpful? Instead, Bergevin infamously ranted on with his, “if you want loyalty, buy a dog” speech and he lost both Markov (and Alexander Radulov), all the while having over $8 Million in unused cap space.
While Bergevin has made some outstanding moves, with the benefit of hindsight, there have been some very questionable decisions as well. The Drouin-Sergachev trade, the Karl Alzner signing, relentless (and thankfully unsuccessful) attempts to sign Milan Lucic, and the loss of the entire left side of the defence corps in the 2017 offseason most certainly fall into that category. Another hockey mind that was the GM’s organizational equal might have caused the team to reconsider these moves, decisions that have most definitely weakened the roster.
A new, independent voice at the table may also have moderated Bergevin’s early penchant for appointing his pals to key player development and coaching roles (for example, Sylvain Lefebvre and J.J. Daigneault) and sticking with them far too long. Player development suffered greatly during the early years of Bergevin’s tenure as a result.
There are two very strong candidates for the job that are not currently working in the NHL but have ties to the Montreal Canadiens. Mark Hunter was the Canadiens’ seventh overall pick in the 1981 NHL draft and played with the Habs for four seasons. Since he retired from the NHL, Hunter’s best work has been as part-owner and GM of the London Knights. Under his guidance, the London Knights have been one of the most successful Junior Hockey franchises in Canada. Hunter has been the architect of those teams and is a respected evaluator of talent. With his brother Dale Hunter, the London Knights have developed many NHL players. Hunter was the GM for Team Canada which won the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championships in January. Hunter also served as Assistant GM to the Toronto Maple Leafs from the summer of 2014 until the spring of 2018.
If Mark Hunter is not their man, Bobby Smith is currently the majority owner of the Halifax Mooseheads. He has served as their Coach as well. The Halifax Mooseheads are also one of Canadian Junior Hockey’s premier franchises. While Smith was not drafted by the Canadiens, he was the Habs No. 1 centre on their 1986 Stanley Cup team and the 1989 Habs club that lost in the Finals to the Calgary Flames.
If Geoff Molson did not fire Marc Bergevin after the 2017-18 season, Molson is unlikely to fire him this coming offseason. Unlike a few years ago, over the past few seasons, the prospect pipeline has been improved. There is some hope on the horizon. Nonetheless, the status quo is untenable and fans are starting, quite rightly, to lose interest in a team that is struggling to make the playoffs in a good year. Changes must be implemented and a President of Hockey Operations is a step in the right direction.
There may be some readers who question whether the unilingual Hunter or Smith should lead the Canadiens and represent the team. Bergevin and Julien can continue to be the face of the franchise and they will continue to have significant influence over the on-ice product. Will Hunter be offended if Julien and Bergevin handle the PR side of the business? This scribbler lives in London, Ontario and can attest to the fact that Mark Hunter does not like talking to reporters anyway. Appoint the best President of Hockey Operations available and all Canadiens’ fans will revel in the development of a winner.