BROSSARD, Que. – Reaching the NHL Eastern Conference final was nice, but the Montreal Canadiens have a long way to go to make it a habit.
That was the message Monday from general manager Marc Bergevin as he met with the media to review the season less than a week after the club was eliminated by the New York Rangers in six games.
“I feel we’re not a mature team,” he said. “We’re a good team.
“We’re moving forward, but there are teams I see around the league that are more mature. For them, you could almost say every year they’re a guaranteed playoff team. But we’re not there yet.
“Next year, we go back to the same starting line with everybody else. Our first goal will be to make the playoffs and, once you’re in, anything’s possible. Maybe one day down the road we’ll be a mature team but we’re not there yet.”
Otherwise, Bergevin had little to say other than confirming that coach Michel Therrien, who has a year left on his contract, will be back—likely with an extension.
He avoided any talk of the seven potential unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents on the roster—star defenceman P.K. Subban in particular—by saying that he doesn’t discuss contracts in public and that decisions about next season’s roster will only be made after meetings with his hockey staff.
That left little of substance to pass on to the crowd of media that turned out for the general manager’s traditional post-season review.
“It’s a little early to project what we’re going to do, but obviously we’ll have discussions internally,” he said. “But I thought our young players learned a lot.
“What they learned in 17 playoff games you cannot buy.”
Two questions to ponder are whether a trio of young defencemen—Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn—will move up permanently to the NHL club next season, and what to do with a tricky backup goaltending situation. Bergevin was vague on both.
What the team’s plans are for their young rearguards would affect whether they look to keep UFA’s like Andrei Markov, Mike Weaver and Francis Bouillon.
Bergevin says he hopes the youngsters are ready to take the next step, but how they play in training camp and beyond will decide whether they are ready for full-time NHL duty.
“It’s going to be them that will make the decision for us,” he said. “They’re a part of our future, but it’s up to them. They’re going in the right direction.”
When starter Carey Price was injured in the opening game of the conference final, coach Michel Therrien made the surprise move of using third-string goalie Dustin Tokarski over backup Peter Budaj, who has a weak career playoff record. Tokarski was solid the rest of the way.
Now the club must decide what to do with Budaj, who has a year left on his contract at US$1.4 million.
“It takes nothing away from Peter Budaj,” he said. “He’s one of the best backups in the NHL.
“I know him personally. He’s a great man, loved by his teammates. And through this whole thing he was very positive. Michel had a hunch to put (Tokarski) in for the second game and he gave us a chance to win. Internally we’ll discuss it, but it’s a nice problem to have.”
He also defended the team’s much-criticized handling of the concussion suffered by forward Dale Weise in Game 5 of the conference final. Weise was wobbly and went to the dressing room after a blindside hit by New York’s John Moore, but returned later in the game.
Weise did not play in Game 6 due to what Therrien would only call a “body injury.” It appeared the team let Weise back out on the ice even if it looked obvious he had his brain rattled by the hit.
Bergevin said the team didn’t find out until the next day that Weise had a concussion and was satisfied that he was properly examined according to the league rules before being allowed to return.
“The NHL has a protocol that needs to be followed,” he said. “If the player says he’s OK and the test says he’s OK, then he’s OK. Players have a list of things they need to do before they can return to play and he passed with flying colours.
“It’s flawed, but I’m not a doctor. We all worry about our players, but we can only go by what we’re given.”
A big decision awaits on potential unrestricted free agent Brian Gionta, the team captain whose five-year deal paying $5 million per season is expiring. Bergevin had only good things to say about the 35-year-old whose production dipped this season.
“Gio is a big part of this team,” said Bergevin. “I believe in leadership internally, what happens in the dressing room, the way the guys respect Gio.
“He’s a great leader and captain. I’m aware of this situation we’ll see what we can do with Gio, but he’s an important part of this team.”
The deal that will be closely watched is with Subban, who won a Norris Trophy in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign and who has emerged as one of the league’s best rearguards.
He will likely be seeking a very lucrative long-term deal. Bergevin said he doesn’t discuss contracts but added Subban is “a big part of this team moving forward.”