What a difference a year makes, at least for some general managers anyway. Last season, both Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens and Peter Chiarelli of the Edmonton Oilers were in the throes of losing campaigns, with conceivably their jobs on the line. We all know how that turned out.
Bergevin’s Quest for the Playoffs
Following what has turned out to be a successful offseason for Bergevin, the Canadiens suddenly find themselves in a seeded Atlantic Division position, seven points clear of the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres. Needless to say, even if you take into consideration the Sabres’ three games in hand, the Canadiens are in a good position to make the playoffs (78.7% according to Sports Club Stats). The Oilers aren’t as lucky, well on the outside looking in.
It really wasn’t that long ago Bergevin found himself alongside Chiarelli and maybe Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion as one of the widely considered worst GMs in the league. Of course, he still had legion of supporters who believed he was unjustifiably getting a bad reputation because of how his team had missed the playoffs in two of the three last seasons.
It’s an incredible thing to write and then re-read that last sentence. After all, the Habs, without Shea Weber until late-November this current season, were actually poised to miss the playoffs again, meaning for the third time in four seasons. It’s not exactly something a lot of current GMs can claim to have done, because most owners would see the warning signs and not let it get to that point.
Chiarelli Gets Fired
Case in point, Chiarelli was in the exact same situation with the Oilers, having missed the playoffs in two of his last three seasons at the helm. Despite CEO Bob Nicholson giving Chiarelli a vote of confidence in December, saying his job would be safe if he made the playoffs, it became clear the Oilers weren’t going to, not with the current make-up of the team. So, instead of waiting and seeing if Chiarelli could pull off the Herculean task in front of him and turn things around, the Oilers’ brain trust pulled the trigger ahead of schedule.
It’s hard to argue with the thought process. Rather than bet on Chiarelli making another move seemingly out of desperation (like replacing head coach Todd McLellan with Ken Hitchcock), they took away the keys to the car before he could wreck it further.
It was already two seasons ago that Bergevin fired off that arrow in his quiver, even with the Canadiens on the verge of sneaking into a playoff spot under then-head coach Michel Therrien. Replacing him with Claude Julien (who had coincidentally won Chiarelli a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins), Bergevin effectively saved himself for the time being.
Patience in Bergevin Pays Off
It’s in part what makes Habs owner Geoff Molson’s decision to keep Bergevin on a season later after a failed 2017-18 campaign so perplexing. However, it has turned out to be a good one, with the moves to build for the future during Bergevin’s 2018 offseason paying off sooner than expected.
You can definitely make a case that it’s actually in the Habs’ best interest to miss the playoffs this season and secure another high draft pick. However, Bergevin, hate him if you must, cannot be blamed or fired should the Habs end up making the playoffs, especially when he hasn’t had to sell off futures to put them on that very path.
Like Chiarelli, Bergevin was always going to stay on if the Habs made the playoffs this season. Unlike Chiarelli, his recent moves haven’t blown up in his face. Far from it, with Max Domi producing like the No. 1 center Alex Galchenyuk was never going to become and Tomas Tatar more than compensating for the loss of Max Pacioretty up front.
So, in the case of the Canadiens, their patience in and loyalty to Bergevin has paid off. Maybe the Oilers weren’t patient enough with Chiarelli, seeing as he had only been on the job since just before the 2015-16 season. However, his desire to bring “heavy hockey” to the Oilers was flawed from the get-go, even though he had won that way in Boston.
Chiarelli Fails to Learn
Maybe it represented a certain bias on the part of Chiarelli, even though a large part of the Bruins’ victory in 2011 can be attributed to the play of Tim Thomas. Connor McDavid can cover up a lot of holes, but, as Chiarelli may have discovered, he can’t play goal and eight seasons is a long time to watch the game pass you by, especially if you’re oblivious to it.
After all, mere weeks ago, Chiarelli was still at it. Seemingly making trades just for the sake of doing something, he effectively doubled down on the notion that size and mediocre stay-at-home defensive play wins. So the patience on the part of the Oilers would have justifiably been wearing thin.
Fun fact: Bergevin only came on as Habs GM the season after Chiarelli and the Bruins won the Cup. While Bergevin could of course be accused of having the same old-school mindset (and having the same-caliber goaltending), he’s perhaps learned the error of his ways and how the game is evolving in front of his eyes. The demotion(s) of Karl Alzner represents a small sample size to be sure, but it’s also proof Bergevin can admit he’s made mistakes. More importantly, it’s proof he can actually see he’s made mistakes.
Bergevin and Chiarelli will forever be tied to that fateful day on June 29, 2016. Within minutes of each other, Chiarelli had dealt Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson and Bergevin had dealt P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber. Neither move has panned out exactly as the GMs would have liked, but the disparity between Larsson’s value to the Oilers and Hall’s to the Devils is definitely clearer.
Both GMs have been accused of relying on intangibles over skill. It’s not even the first time Chiarelli has downgraded on a player the caliber of Hall, whose character was dragged through the mud on his way out of town. Hell, it’s not even the first time Chiarelli has downgraded on a player of Hall’s caliber from the same draft year, trading away Tyler Seguin three years earlier for what has amounted to spare parts.
It became evident Chiarelli wasn’t going to adapt, at least not with the Oilers. Bergevin just may with the Canadiens. It’s not a foregone conclusion by any stretch, but he at least has the chance to prove that he can. Chiarelli simply ran out of chances on his end.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.