They finally did it. After losing eight games in a row, the Canadiens finally won a game on Tuesday.
During the losing streak, as it usually happens in a large market such as Montreal, outrage seemed to be at an all-time high. Once again, the social media hashtag #FireBergevin was trending.
The Canadiens’ general manager Marc Bergevin has understandably received the brunt of criticism over the past few weeks for a multitude of reasons. The Canadiens have missed the playoffs three times of the past four years; the one time they did make the playoffs during this time ended with a poor performance resulting in an elimination from the first round.
This makes it the eighth year of Bergevin’s supposed five-year plan he preached about when he first stepped into the job in 2012 (via “What the Puck: Canadiens ‘just getting started’ on a new five-year plan”, Montreal Gazette, 04/12/19). One would think that when such a plan fails in a market that demands success to Montreal’s level, the manager would have lost his job by now.
However, a change in general managers in the middle of the season rarely happens, so we will likely see the same front office for the rest of the hockey year. Much to his reputation, Bergevin is still hard at work exploring solutions to improve the team. He is currently in Russia meeting with promising prospect Alexander Romanov to convince him to join the Canadiens next season instead of renewing his KHL contract. Rumours understandably point to pending unrestricted free agent Taylor Hall as a rental target.
However, the Romanov situation won’t find a resolution until much later. Regardless of how some of these may succeed, it is clear that this season may be his final chance to prove he is the right man for the job. Eight seasons is the longest a Canadiens’ general manager has remained in the office since Serge Savard, with Gainey closely behind at seven years.
Reading the pattern, some important decisions should take place at the end of this season. So, Bergevin will have to do something smartly drastic to continue on in good faith. What can he do to secure his future with the Canadiens?
What is the Plan, This Time?
The biggest positive for the Canadiens not only this season but what has been more promising compared to recent memory is the youth in the system at all levels. From Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the NHL club, Ryan Poehling and Cayden Primeau in the American Hockey League, Cole Caufield in the NCAA and Rafael Harvey-Pinard in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Canadiens truly feel that the future is bright.
In fact, that’s why the team has been more optimistic about its future in a long time. However, the message from the team has remained that there will be no full rebuild and that it would continue to try and make the playoffs each year. Performances during this past month are unacceptable for a team trying to accomplish that. It completely erased any comfort zone the team had in the standings and it is currently in a non-playoff position. Therefore, if making the playoffs remains the goal, something has got to give.
If the Canadiens can turn things around with the players they currently dress, that is the best-case scenario, but it may be too much to ask. They have also been losing players to injury recently, one of the factors to their quick decline. Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron suffered wounds to keep them out for a significant amount of time. The best left-shot defenceman on the team Victor Mete is out for two weeks.
Though some applauded the Canadiens’ depth at forward this season, injuries and the slide down the standings shows that it may not be as strong as originally anticipated. Bergevin has to make a move that goes beyond replacing key injuries and identifies a pre-existing weakness in the lineup.
Since he cannot guarantee Romanov joins the team next season, he will have to look to other NHL teams for a strong left-handed defenceman. It is the team’s greatest area of need, as shown by weak defensive play all season long. It’s gotten to the point where Ben Chiarot has played an average of over 29 minutes per game over the past three.
So where exactly does the solution lie; which player fits this description and can help the team right away? It should not be anyone from the AHL, as evidenced by Gustav Olofsson’s short tenure (from “Canadiens call up defenceman Otto Leskinen from Laval Rocket”, Montreal Gazette, 12/04/19). Rotating AHL defencemen is not a proper solution. It is a problem Bergevin will have to solve.
Working with What He Has
The last thing Bergevin should do is to fire the head coach Claude Julien. Julien should receive a chance to have a more competitive lineup before any such drastic decision should take place. Besides, there aren’t any viable candidates that fit the Canadiens’ profile with a mandatory speaking knowledge of French. With all due respect to these players, but when Jordan Weal or Nick Cousins are playing on the first power play unit or when Chiarot sometimes has to play close to 30 minutes in a game, something is missing.
“He’s been really good,” Carey Price said in regards to Julien. “It’s not an easy situation to be in. We’ve got a lot of young players that he has to be mindful of. It’s definitely frustrating for all parties involved, but I feel like he’s doing a pretty good job of handling himself” (from “Canadiens coach Claude Julien trying to keep things calm,” Montreal Gazette, 12/2/19).
That isn’t to say that the coach can’t make adjustments of his own. The penalty kill continues to require work and the team allows higher than league average in scoring chances against and high-danger chances against. He does have the Canadiens playing a fast-paced, possession-focused type of game that has given them plenty of good scoring chances, but they need to clean up defensively, as well.
Thus, if Bergevin can make a move that not only fills a need in the lineup but helps Julien make adjustments to fix aspects of the team’s game, the Canadiens can put the eight-game losing streak behind them.