The 31-31-9 Montreal Canadiens, who technically earned more losses than victories this past season, have stumbled into a rare win-win situation. They can’t afford to take it for granted though, especially not general manager Marc Bergevin.
Lottery Implications for Canadiens
Following the NHL Draft Lottery, the Canadiens are undeniably in great shape. They ended the shortened season 10 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third Atlantic Division playoff spot and nine behind the wild-card New York Islanders, who held three games in hand, for the final one altogether.
Nevertheless, the Habs were awarded a berth in the play-in round, the worst of the 24 teams to earn one based on points percentage (.500). Keep in mind, their next regular-season game that had been scheduled before the league went on hiatus would have been against the Buffalo Sabres, who just dismantled their hockey operations department after another failed season.
Whether the Sabres’ mass firings were justified is open for debate. What isn’t are the cold, hard numbers: Had the Sabres, a mediocre team against whom the Habs have gone 2-1-3 since the start of last season, beaten the Canadiens again, they would have had the better record (based on points percentage and number of games played) and theoretically earned that final play-in-round berth instead.
Canadiens Have a Shot at the Playoffs
In other words, the Habs, in spite of themselves, have a realistic shot at a playoff spot, assuming the postseason plays out as planned. Considering COVID-19 has been less than co-operative up to now, that’s far from a certainty. Nevertheless, if the Canadiens upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in their projected play-in round, they’ll do what had all but been impossible before the rest of the season was cancelled and actually make the playoffs.
Only then, if the Canadiens manage to do that, can they call this past season a success. Let’s not forget, Bergevin entered it with his eyes on making the playoffs after just barely missing them by two points in 2018-19. Had the season concluded as expected, he would have fallen well short of that goal and any well-established standard for success with a single playoff berth in the last five tries.
A failed season standings-wise would not necessarily have been a lost one, though. The Habs would have earned a higher shot at first overall and projected French-Canadian superstar-in-the-making, Alexis Lafreniere, the consensus top prospect available. If not Lafreniere, than another potentially franchise-altering player in an especially top-heavy draft.
As it stands, because the NHL Draft Lottery played out the way it did, the Habs will either make the playoffs or have a one-in-eight chance at securing the right to draft Lafreniere. Bergevin looks somewhat like a genius as a result, but let’s not get carried away. The one-in-eight chance is hardly a guarantee, meaning the Habs could much more easily fall to ninth place, which is admittedly nothing at which to scoff.
Drouin vs. Lafreniere
No one started this season looking to draft ninth though, including Bergevin, who infamously traded Mikhail Sergachev in his last attempt at acquiring a French-Canadian superstar, Jonathan Drouin. That didn’t work out so hot, considering the Habs are still searching for both a perfect defensive partner for Shea Weber and arguably a No. 1 center, which Bergevin had foolishly hoped Drouin, a winger, would become.
Since the trade, Drouin has been notoriously inconsistent. He’s topped out at 53 points and finished this past season with just 15 after multiple injuries limited him to 27 games. Not that injuries are ever a decent excuse, because the organization’s lack of overall depth was front and center this season, and that’s on Bergevin. However, now that Drouin and the Habs are healthy in general, fans will get more of an accurate idea of how well they stack up against one of the league’s stronger teams in the Penguins.
For all intents and purposes, this is Bergevin’s team, the one he believed had a shot at making the playoffs at the start of the season. If the Habs fail in that regard against the Pens, they’ll become the first incarnation of this franchise to miss the playoffs in four out of five seasons since 2003.
The team’s general manager at that point in time, Andre Savard, did not survive, getting replaced by Bob Gainey. There are of course several differences between Savard’s tenure and Bergevin’s. Savard had actually reached the second round the previous season, whereas the closest Bergevin has gotten during his current streak of futility was two wins into Round 1 against the New York Rangers in 2017. Also, it was only Savard’s third season on the job. Bergevin has been GM since 2012 and has suffered diminishing returns from a results perspective since taking his seat in the Habs’ front office. So, those standards for success? They’ve changed over time.
To be clear, Bergevin’s job is not at risk, taking into account owner Geoff Molson’s recent vote of confidence in him and how his contract is not up until 2022. It’s unlikely Molson finds the idea of paying both Bergevin and a replacement at the same time all that appetizing. However, Bergevin’s legacy is very much on the line here. Even though he doesn’t deserve it, his team has a chance to make the playoffs. Any hope that they drop their play-in series to the Pens for a 12.5% chance at landing Lafreniere is misguided, because ultimately the Habs have no control over that situation. They do against the Penguins. Lafreniere may be a sure thing, but getting the chance to draft him is definitely not.
It’s admittedly a bit of a moot point, because Bergevin doesn’t really have control over the situation either. The games will be played on the ice and not in the boardroom and, for their part, the Habs themselves won’t tank. Asking a professional athlete to purposely lose at a team sport is kind of like asking an astronaut to stay in the ship instead of going on a moonwalk. It goes against their nature. If Bergevin fails again, everyone will have a definite idea of his nature as a GM, an executive who may make decent trades every now and then, but can’t get the job done when it counts.
Sure, Bergevin may very well luck into landing Lafreniere, but if he doesn’t this situation can turn into a lose-lose pretty quickly for a GM that will have missed the playoffs yet again. So, forget about Lafreniere for now and focus on what actually matters: trying to win. That’s his job as GM in the first place.