Top Challenges Facing Habs GM Bergevin

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin’s job just got a lot tougher. News that Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty won’t negotiate during the season has effectively tied Bergevin’s hands.

While Pacioretty doesn’t have a no-trade clause, the hope had been that Bergevin would be able to leverage a potential extension to get a bigger return. That’s been evidenced by reports a trade with the Los Angeles Kings got nixed, because Pacioretty chose not to ink a new contract with them.

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty – (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

So, now Bergevin has to maximize the return on Pacioretty when his value is at an all-time low, in part thanks to him after he argued an attitude problem in the dressing room was a cause of the team’s horrible season. With that, here are four other challenges Bergevin faces heading into 2018-19:

Deciding What to Do with Paul Byron

Pacioretty isn’t the only pending unrestricted free agent who will command a big raise. Paul Byron, who, to this day is one of Bergevin’s greatest success stories as a waiver-wire pick-up with two consecutive 20-goal seasons, is in the last year of his three-year, $3.5 million deal.

To be clear, Byron’s annual salary isn’t $3.5 million. That’s the total he’ll have made over the last three years, meaning Bergevin will have to properly assess what he has in the speedy penalty-killing specialist. Is he just a beneficiary of more ice time than he normally would have gotten on another team? Or is he legitimately this good?

Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron
Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Byron’s 17.4% shooting percentage last year might hint at him having just been lucky. However, his career shooting percentage is actually higher at 18%. So, he can probably sustain this level of success, given the right opportunity. Bergevin has to decide if that opportunity is here in Montreal, because, either way, Byron is likely going to get paid.

Finding a Spot for Peca

It’s not like Matthew Peca is guaranteed a roster spot out of training camp. It would appear he has the inside track, though. Bergevin signed Peca to a one-way deal… the first time Peca has earned that type of contract. Not only that, but Bergevin proclaimed after signing Peca that he expects the bottom-six forward to play in Montreal this season. High praise for a 25-year-old veteran of just 20 NHL games.

If it were just Peca, it wouldn’t be an issue, because every NHL team needs secondary scoring in their bottom six. Unfortunately, a spot for Peca potentially takes one away from Nikita Scherbak, Jacob De La Rose or Michael McCarron, just for starters. Like Peca, each of those guys, who have arguably paid their dues within the system, have to go through waivers if they were to be demoted.

It’s never a sure thing a waiver claim will go through come training camp, because teams are still finalizing their rosters themselves and may not have spots to give. Still, each of the players listed above have impressive pedigrees as high draft picks once upon a time.

Bergevin must either make a few more calls for the purposes of making a trade. Otherwise, he risks sacrificing part of his legacy (each of those guys were his draft picks) for Peca, without getting anything in exchange. That wouldn’t be a good look.

Insulating Price in Weber’s Absence

There’s never a good time to get news that Shea Weber is out until December. If there was though, it would probably be before the NHL Entry Draft and the start of free agency, so any team unlucky enough to suffer the fate of being without their No. 1 defenseman for half the season could go about making the necessary moves to replace him in the lineup (as much as possible).

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber – (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

Thankfully, the Habs had at least that going for them… and then they did nothing. I mean, they did declare on several occasions that the goal was to still make the playoffs, which is something. But, from a free-agency standpoint, they signed Peca and an over-the-hill Tomas Plekanec up front and that’s it.

Sure, on defense, they signed Detroit Red Wings cast-off Xavier Ouellet, but he can’t be expected to pick up the slack required to make up for the loss of Weber. After all, not only has Ouellet failed to establish himself as an NHL regular since being drafted in 2011, but he’s a left-handed defenseman (Weber’s a righty).

So, Ouellet would have a hard time realistically developing into the No. 2 defenseman the Habs still need to play with Weber, let alone someone who can fill the void on the top pairing for Weber himself.

Granted, the free-agency class on defense was far from rife with talent, but thanks to the Habs’ inability to make any signings or trades of consequence, they’re entering 2018-19 without a top pairing. For a team that gave up the seventh-most goals in 2017-18 and needs a rebound season from goaltender Carey Price, those are less-than-ideal circumstances. If the Habs are serious about making those playoffs, Bergevin will have to do something. Chances are good they’re not, though.

Staying Gainfully Employed

It’s unfortunately likely that the Habs aren’t gunning for a playoff spot at all. In fact, the likeliest outcome isn’t just that they contend for last overall, but that Bergevin gets fired after this season.

Consider that the Habs have made the ill-advised decision to publicly say they will strive to make the playoffs. Whether they believe in that goal or not, that’s still a matter of public record at this juncture. So, if they fail in that “official” goal, the season will be a failure as well. There’s no other way to frame it.

Add to that how the Habs are poised to miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons and how the Habs just finished in 28th spot, the same position they were in when Bergevin’s predecessor, Pierre Gauthier, got fired. It becomes clear: Bergevin may only have a job right now just so he can get fired at the end of the season as the team’s latest winner of Scapegoat Search. You know it, you watch it, you love it.

Marc Bergevin
Marc Bergevin – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Had Bergevin and the Habs played it right, the Weber injury could have served to keep expectations low. And, to be fair, they kind of are. Few people have the Habs making the playoffs, but Bergevin’s job could have been safe. All he had to do, with owner Geoff Molson’s blessing, was say, much like the New York Rangers did, that they are going to take advantage of the unfortunate situation laid out before them to start “building the foundation of our next Stanley Cup contender.”

That really doesn’t sound all that bad, does it? And most fans would probably have understood and accepted it, without even blaming Bergevin for the losing season to come (all other seasons are a different story). They probably would have even applauded the decision. Bergevin wouldn’t have even needed to commit to a long rebuild, just say that this specific year would be used to evaluate talent internally and lay the groundwork for another competitive season in 2019-20.

Instead, Bergevin has to either make the team competitive this one (and he’s lagging seriously behind the curve) or convince everyone next April another non-playoff finish was the plan all along… after he said it wasn’t. In other words, one way or another he has his hands full.