About a month ago, Geoff Molson held a news conference that was thought to be about the Canadiens’ plans for their return to play. At the time, rumours were also circulating that Vincent Damphousse would be appointed to the position of President of Hockey Operations, a position that has been established by many NHL teams over the last several years. Rather than providing the details about the team’s plans for the upcoming play-in round, Molson really focused on three points:
1) Bergevin is his man.
2) There is no need to appoint Damphousse or anyone else to the position of President of Hockey Operations.
3) Molson believes in the team’s “reset plan”.
When making point number 2, Molson was defensive, referring to the confidence other NHL owners have in him, as evidenced by his appointment to the Executive of the NHL Board of Governors. Clearly, Molson has mistaken the pundits’ calls for a Hockey Operations executive as a personal indictment of his performance as President.
From an investor’s perspective, Molson is a capable President. The Canadiens continue to be the NHL’s third most valuable franchise as rated by Forbes, behind the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The increase in the team’s value since Molson’s ownership group purchased the Canadiens is substantial and has garnered healthy returns for Molson and his fellow investors. Of course, Molson cannot take all the credit for these returns as sports properties worldwide have produced unprecedented returns for owners over the last decade.
However, Molson’s business acumen as President of the Habs is not the issue. To paraphrase James Carville’s famous quote in 1992’s Bush-Clinton election, “It’s the on-ice product, stupid”. The Canadiens have been mediocre for most of the past five seasons. That’s five years of Carey Price’s prime that have effectively been wasted. Marc Bergevin inherited a young core that had potential. The Habs performed well the first few years with Bergevin as GM, relying on players drafted and developed by his predecessors.
Bergevin has since traded well, with a few exceptions which is expected. But apart from the last two NHL Drafts, the Canadiens have drafted poorly, particularly in the first round. And the team’s player development has until recently been terrible (the jury is still out for the recently acquired prospects). While Bergevin and his management team have drafted some NHL players, they have trouble developing those prospects into NHL players of any consequence.
Nonetheless, Molson continues to support Bergevin unequivocally and insists that the current organizational structure, with Bergevin having final say on all hockey decisions, is in the team’s best interests. In this scribbler’s view, Molson and his fellow investors would be wise to re-evaluate the team’s stubborn defence of the status quo for the following reasons:
1) Molson is a businessman and is not qualified to critically evaluate the hockey decisions of Marc Bergevin or any other NHL General Manager. Get over yourself, Geoff. Smart people know what they do not know. Judging by the team’s financial performance, you are doing your job just fine. Acknowledge the limits of your expertise and hire someone like former Hab Mark Hunter to assist and evaluate Bergevin’s performance as an organizational peer (as opposed to the various underlings that currently report to Marc Bergevin).
2) Bergevin simply has not demonstrated that he has the expertise to draft and develop prospects. He trades well but drafting and player development has, to date, been a weakness for this GM. If Molson is not going to fire him, hire someone who knows how to draft and develop players to complement Bergevin’s skill set. Since Montreal is not a destination that free agents find appealing, the organization’s need for change or at least an executive with the proven ability to draft and develop players is that much more urgent.
3) By his steadfast loyalty to Bergevin (which conveniently avoids having to absorb the remaining years on Bergevin’s contract) and the team’s consistent failure to spend to the salary cap, Molson, perhaps unfairly, is perceived to be unwilling to make the investments necessary to win. The appointment of a proven player development executive might provide Hab fans with some hard evidence to the contrary.
4) It’s not working, Geoff. Four out of five years, the Canadiens have not (or should not) have qualified for the postseason. Barring an upset of the Penguins, six real playoff games in five years with no series won. Maybe this year’s play-in round is being used by Molson and Bergevin for cover but you cannot successfully apply lipstick to a 31-31-9 record. The team is broken and sticking with the same approach and expecting a different result would be, in Albert Einstein’s words, insanity. It is time for change.
With the exception of the British Royal Family, few institutions do pomp and ceremony as well as the Montreal Canadiens. However, after close to thirty mostly mediocre years, these celebrations of past glory and dynasties are becoming tiresome. The pre-game ceremonies lose their lustre when most of the crowd and TV audience were not even alive during the Canadiens’ last dynasty. Molson and the Canadiens will only be able to trade on the accomplishments of others for so long. The commemorations become more dated every year.
Geoff Molson’s June news conference was nothing more than a defence of himself, Bergevin, and the status quo. If the Canadiens do not even try to introduce changes intended to improve the team, it will not be long before the team’s value will diminish. Maybe that will finally get Molson’s attention.