The season that never ends finally ended last month. It is a very tough pill to swallow going from the Stanley Cup Final to the worst team in the league. While some of the performance gaps can be blamed on obvious things (e.g., injuries), other gaps in performance are bewildering and unpredictable (e.g., Caufield and Petry’s early season performance).
There wasn’t much time in the offseason for Marc Bergevin to improve the team for the 2021/2022 season. With the benefit of hindsight, here are a few obvious, and maybe a couple less obvious, moves that Marc might want a mulligan on.
Coach: Dominique Ducharme
Irrefutably, coaching had the biggest impact on the Habs’ performance in 2021/2022. In 2020/2021, Ducharme’s head coach record was 15-16-7 after he took over from Claude Julien. Julien himself was 9-5-4 in the first half of that season. Ducharme’s record then fell to a disastrous 8-30-7 (0.17 winning %) in 2021/2022, with virtually every part of the game struggling, including the basics of team chemistry and level of compete. The team got blown out regularly.
Team performance improved significantly once Martin St. Louis took over (14-19-4 or 0.37%) and many of the losses were close battles. It is hard to argue with there being one person more responsible for the performance gap than Ducharme.
Having said that, while there were certainly warning signs with some of Ducharme’s decisions, it’s hard to fault Bergevin for signing Ducharme as the permanent head coach. The team did, after all, make the Cup Final. I can’t imagine any GM not awarding an interim coach under these circumstances.
But with the benefit of hindsight, this has got to be one of those decisions that, if given the choice, Bergevin would choose a different direction.
Clearly, the Habs struggled all year up the middle as it was possibly their worst position (yes, even worse than goaltending!). The off-season saw major turnover at centre, so let’s take a look at each of those decisions.
Phillip Danault: After coming off a season of only five goals and 24 points, it is tough to argue that Bergevin didn’t make a good contract offer (reportedly at $5M per year for 6 years). Despite regularly centring some of the best wingers on the team (i.e., Pacioretty, Radulov, Gallagher, Tatar), Danault’s career highs of 13 goals and 53 points leave nothing to suggest that he was bound for a massive improvement like he accomplished this current season in Los Angeles (25 goals, 27 assists). If given a re-do, would Bergevin up his offer to match the extra $500K Danault got from the Kings? Would it even have made a difference with rumours circulating that Danault had concerns about his place in the lineup and the pressure of playing in Montreal? I suspect Bergevin knows that you don’t win a Cup paying someone like Danault $5.5M. With the cap, you need that money elsewhere in the lineup so I don’t think Marc would use his mulligan on this one.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi: After a promising rookie campaign, Jesperi didn’t really improve in the following two seasons. After getting a contract offer for well above his performance level, Bergevin accepted first- and third-round picks in compensation from Carolina. This season with the Canes, Jesperi posted 12 goals and 17 assists – right in line with his past performance. Letting Jesperi walk to an inflated contract is not a decision Bergevin would regret.
Christian Dvorak: I suspect this is the centre ice move that Bergevin would like a re-do on. Dvorak played in Arizona for years with lower-calibre teammates, and he was billed as a young veteran who would be able to step up his game with better linemates and play into a strong two-way second-line centre. I think Dvorak played well enough – as a two-way centre he ended up roughly in line with his career point production. But he certainly didn’t take a step forward, and without secondary scoring, the Habs faltered in many games.
Nick Suzuki continued to improve in his third NHL season but was clearly outmatched when playing against other teams’ top lines. He was a team-worst -29 and always seemed to be victimized for key goals against. Nothing wrong with making mistakes and improving, but for the 2021/2022 season Suzuki would have been better placed as a second-line centre.
Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling both played reasonably well in the third and fourth-line positions. Both improved and continue to show NHL talent.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think Bergevin takes a different approach to centre. While I don’t think he changes his mind on Danault or Kotkaniemi, the combination of Dvorak and Suzuki as their top two centres just didn’t work. Perhaps Bergevin keeps the Hurricanes’ draft picks and packages them with some additional assets to trade for a legitimate top-line center. With a mulligan, there’s no doubt that Bergevin takes a different approach to centre than what we saw in 2021/2022.
Mike Hoffman/Tomas Tatar
Like the rest of the Habs, Hoffman had a tough year. He scored some goals and had some great creativity, but just never clicked with any of the line combinations.
If Ducharme isn’t the head coach, perhaps there’s a chance that Tatar re-signs. This is the guy who finished in the top three in scoring for the team in 2018/2019, 2019/2020, and fourth in 2020/2021 all while playing on one of the best lines in hockey with unnatural chemistry with Gallagher. But Ducharme benched him in the playoffs and that was the end. It’s not hard to imagine that a re-signed Tatar (instead of Hoffman) playing with Gallagher would have led to a much-improved performance for both players.
Joel Armia/Corey Perry
After signing a $3.4M, 4-year contract, Armia delivered the worst performance of his career, bringing just seven goals and seven assists and playing an invisible game. Unless his performance improves considerably, his bloated contract will hurt the Habs for years to come.
Conversely, Perry put up impressive numbers with Tampa in 2021/2022 with 19 goals and 21 assists. And he did this on a two-year deal at $1M per season, while adding strong leadership and balance on the fourth line.
Reportedly the two-year term was a deal breaker for Bergevin. Looking back, that goal scoring and leadership from Perry might have been worth a lot more than the two-year, $1M asking price!
Some fans may point to the David Savard signing, but I’m not in that group. Sure, he struggled early on, but often it takes time to adjust to a new team and certainly the pressure in Montreal. That was definitely the case with Savard, and he eventually settled down and played the type of hockey that was expected. The rest of the defensive struggles (Ducharme’s defensive zone system, Edmundson’s injury, Petry’s play) shouldn’t be blamed on Savard. I don’t think Bergevin takes a mulligan on this signing.
At the end of the day, this is one of those seasons that we’re happy to put in the rearview mirror. Looking ahead, let’s hope Hughes and Gorton have a better offseason and don’t need any mulligans a year from now!