You can’t go onto any platform, message board or conversation about the Montreal Canadiens without someone demanding that general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin or head coach Claude Julien be fired. My THW colleague and Habs Unfiltered’s, Trege Wilson made a list of top coaching replacements.
A change would temporarily calm the bloodlust of a vocal portion of the Canadiens’ fan base that demands that the franchise finds a way to achieve that unprecedented glory of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Any replacement for Bergevin would need to meet the basic qualifications of an NHL GM. Precious managerial experience, at multiple levels, would be beneficial. The ability to sell ownership on their plan to build on what has already begun in Montreal would help.
Even though Bergevin is finally carrying out the plan he wanted at the start of his tenure, a new GM must have a plan to continue or be a variation of the “build through the draft” plan that has reached the point of taking the next step.
They need a plan to take advantage of a top-five prospect pool, 25 draft picks spread over the 2020 and 2021 drafts, significant cap space and some quality bottom-six forwards to include in a package that could fill two main needs: A top-four puck-moving left-handed defenseman to play alongside captain Shea Weber, and a top-six scoring winger who can also help on the power play.
On top of those requirements, a new GM would need one qualification that no other NHL team requires, and that is to be bilingual. This issue was front and centre in 2011 when the team was looking for a new head coach soon after Geoff Molson purchased the Canadiens from George Gillette (while Randy Cunneyworth was the interim head coach after replacing the fired Jacques Martin). Molson stated:
“Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach.”– Geoff Molson
Former GM, Bob Gainey is not Francophone but was accepted in Montreal. However, Gainey was a beloved former captain who led the Habs to multiple Stanley Cup championships.
He also won a Stanley Cup as GM of the Dallas Stars in 1999 and had learned to speak French with working use of the language in his Montreal playing days. His situation is therefore unique.
Habs GM Replacements
The language issue makes finding acceptable candidates difficult. An obvious choice would be to scour the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) for names like Cam Russell of the Halifax Mooseheads, who, unfortunately, is not bilingual.
Another name fans gravitate toward is Patrick Roy head coach and GM of the Quebec Ramparts, whose talent and fiery disposition made him a favourite as a player. However, that temperament did not serve him well as coach and vice-president of operations of the Colorado Avalanche. After a disagreement with management regarding his say in player personnel, Roy quit. A GM must be patient and be able to work with others to shape a team into a contender. Roy lacks this ability, and the competitive spirit that made him one of the greatest goaltenders in the world may also be his Achilles heel as a manager.
That being said, if Roy is given the control he desires and can build his own staff, he may be the right fit for the Canadiens. He’s a Hall of Fame goaltender whose number was retired by the club despite his controversial departure. He has managerial experience in the QMJHL and NHL. He understands the need to develop and rely on youth from his time in Colorado. Also, it’s possible the Canadiens fan base would welcome Roy with open arms and hail him as a returning hero.
The Canadiens could also choose an internal replacement in Trevor Timmins. He is a logical choice as the Habs’ assistant general manager (AGM) and formerly as the director of player development. He joined the organization in 2002 and has filled several roles working his way up to AGM.
He has been criticized for his “poor draft record”, however, his record is far better than he is given credit for. He has had misses, all teams do, but he has had more hits than many realize. Former NHL scout Grant McCagg researched his work and noted that Timmins has been successful in his fifteen years at the draft given the club’s draft positions in that time.
Timmins has been apprenticing for the job of GM for years and in one of the most difficult markets in pro sports. The Ottawa area native has also built up his conversational French to be passable in the role of GM. Still, some who are demanding change may not be satisfied with this choice since he has been with the organization for almost two decades.
Pat Brisson is a possibility from left field. The Quebec native, and NHL agent, would be an unusual pick due to the unorthodox leap from the player’s side of the negotiating table to management’s side. That being said, he may be a new voice and a different mindset that could push the team to the next level. As an agent, he would be well versed in negotiating contracts and navigating the salary cap structure.
His working relationship with NHL GMs could prove beneficial. However, it may also be a liability if some GMs see it as their opportunity to get revenge on Brisson for years of strong negotiating tactics.
If language is not an issue, Ron Hextall would be an ideal GM for a team in transition. The former Philadelphia Flyers and Quebec Nordiques goaltender has the experience of an NHL player and knows what players must do to succeed. He also has been groomed in an NHL front office. He was vice president and AGM for the Los Angeles Kings from 2012-2013, winning a Stanley Cup in the process. In 2013, he re-joined the Flyers as an AGM in charge of hockey operations, and from 2014-2018 he was the club’s GM.
In his time in Philadelphia, Hextall followed a patient plan. He focused on rebuilding the prospect pool and stockpiled draft picks that would assist in that goal. His plan is not unlike what Bergevin stated after the 2017 season. Now, the Flyers’ pool is envied by many. When he was fired for not wanting to sacrifice the team’s future to make immediate gains because he believed the team as not ready to make the leap, the Flyers had an excellent base to build on, with cap space, young talented players joining the roster and prospects developing well at the lower levels.
Same Issues Will Persist
No matter who is hired to replace Marc Bergevin or when that will happen, the new GM will face the same issues as every GM before him in Montreal. They must find a way to make the Canadiens more than just competitive, they must build a contender. The Habs are always under pressure to win and, as Guy Lafleur famously said, “there’s no pressure when you win.”