On June 27, 2021, Marc Bergevin greeted reporters at Stanley Cup Media Day, taking questions on his Montreal Canadiens’ miraculous, upset-laden post-season, expressing how grateful he was to see veterans Carey Price and Shea Weber reach their first final. Six months and one day later, Bergevin was fired as Habs GM.
Bergevin entered 2021-22 with an expiring contract and no extension lined up and thus wasn’t exactly on thick ice, but the team’s play last season theoretically would’ve kept him in the job through next summer. Alas, the 6-15-2 Habs, already 10 points out of a playoff spot despite leading the league with 23 games played, couldn’t wait any longer.
“I strongly believe that this organization needs a fresh start,” said Canadiens owner Geoff Molson in a presser Monday before clarifying he meant a fresh start at the management level rather than the team level. As for the odd timing of the decision, with days of rumors followed by assistant GM Scott Mellanby’s abrupt resignation, followed by the hiring of Jeff Gorton as executive vice-president of hockey operations: Molson explained Monday he was waiting for Bergevin to recover from his bout with COVID-19 before breaking the news.
So what happened? Why did the Habs toss Bergevin overboard along with assistant GM Trevor Timmins and executive vice-president of communications and public affairs Paul Wilson? A series of occurrences, some unlucky and some of his own doing, blended together in a putrid cocktail that got Bergevin fired.
LAST SEASON’S PLAYOFF RUN
The Habs, buoyed by tremendous goaltending from Price and an invincible penalty kill, made a stunning crusade through the 2021 playoffs, taking out the favored Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights. Montreal did so, however, after finishing the regular season with the league’s 18th-best record, 19th-best goal differential, 17th-ranked offense and 18th-ranked defense.
Their underlying shot-attempt metrics at 5-on-5 suggested they were better than they seemed, but, overall, the 2020-21 Habs were not a team that was actually finished rebuilding. They overachieved while they were breaking in their top three prospects in sophomore center Nick Suzuki, rookie right winger Cole Caufield and rookie defenseman Alexander Romanov. In the previous five seasons, they’d made the playoffs twice and failed to win a playoff series, hanging their hats only on a play-in upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2020 bubble. Getting within three victories of the franchise’s first championship since 1993 spiked expectations for the team going forward – if not among the fans then at least in Bergevin’s decision making.
Many of the moves Bergevin made entering 2020-21 were actually big hits. Josh Anderson, bad contract or not, was an ideal fit as a big, speedy matchup nightmare of a power forward in Year 1. Jake Allen proved a capable backup goaltender to lighten Price’s workload. Tyler Toffoli placed seventh in the NHL in goals. Corey Perry and Joel Edmundson brought gritty depth. As Sportsnet’s Eric Engels points out, Bergevin actually got the most first-place nods in the GM of the Year vote last season.
But with so many of Bergevin’s moves panning out and his team entering 2021-22 with championship aspirations, he wouldn’t throttle down. He spent $8 million in cap space to lock up left winger Mike Hoffman and Cup-winning defenseman David Savard for the next three seasons. By overestimating how ready the team was to consistently contend, Bergevin dug Montreal in a hole, with even next season’s team already projected to exceed the salary cap. It’s an awkward place to be for a team with one of the league’s worst records this season, with few high-impact players on expiring deals and few bona fide stars locked up to long-term deals. It’s a recipe to get stuck in a super-long rebuild phase, as we’ve seen with the Detroit Red Wings, who spent years just waiting for their ugliest contracts to expire.
On one hand, Molson implied Monday he has faith in his current roster to improve. On the other, he expressed comfort with the idea of a rebuild, which Gorton executed painstakingly when he was GM of the New York Rangers.
"I’m not afraid of that word," Molson said. "I think our fans wouldn't be afraid of that word either."
One difficult side effect of last season’s run was the franchise identity crisis created by elevated expectations. The elevated expectations also applied on an individual basis, which might have led to Caufield’s crisis of confidence. Labelled the Calder Trophy frontrunner by many (I’m raising my hand here), he failed to find the net in his first 10 games of 2021-22 and wound up temporarily demoted to the AHL's Laval Rocket in an unnecessarily humiliating turn of events that included the Utica Comets “bullying” Caufield with a mid-game tweet calling him out for being invisible. Rather than cutting his teeth on a rising team, Caufield entered this season expected to bust out as one of the game’s best young goal-scorers while playing on team that reached the Cup final months earlier. The pressure heaped on him at 20 probably explains why he’s stuck at one goal in 15 games.
LOSING CAREY PRICE, SHEA WEBER AND PHILLIP DANAULT
Here’s where we have to acknowledge bad luck. The Habs lost their superstar goaltender, captain and best shutdown center over the off-season. Price entered the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program for an issue he eventually revealed as substance abuse. Weber’s foot injury is a career-ender. Danault, Montreal’s star-smothering defensive whiz, signed with the Los Angeles Kings. Those departures alone weakened the Habs on paper despite Bergevin’s off-season additions. He had no control over Price and Weber’s fates, and Bergevin did offer Danault a six-year, $30-million contract before last season. Danault rejected and wound up tacking an extra $500,000 onto his AAV in L.A.. Without him, the Habs haven’t been nearly as dominant in their play-driving metrics.
Originally, this section read, ‘Drafting Logan Mailloux.’ The Habs chose him in 2021’s first round after he urged teams not to pick him at all following his sex-crime conviction. It was a black mark on the organization that included Molson having to do a lot of public damage control. He insisted Monday, however, that the Mailloux pick didn’t influence the decision to fire Bergevin.
What got Bergevin and Timmins, the Habs’ draft quarterback for almost two decades, axed was their overall recent body of work starting in 2012, when Bergevin was named GM. The Habs whiffed on several high-profile first-round selections, most notably Alex Galchenyuk (third overall in 2012), Michael McCarron (25th in 2013), Nikita Scherbak (26th in 2014), Noah Juulsen (26th in 2015) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (third in 2018). Adding the Mailloux embarrassment to that pile surely didn’t help things even if Molson says it wasn’t a determining factor in the firings.
So the Cup run was nice, yes. And Bergevin’s tenure as GM was a spirited one in which he aggressively tried to improve his team. He ultimately leaves the franchise in an uncomfortable place, however, unsure of whether it can bounce back to contender status, supposedly built around a young core but ranking as the league’s 14th-oldest team. Whichever bilingual GM Gorton chooses to replace Bergevin will have freedom to paint the roster as they see fit, but, with so many long-term contracts in tow, the canvass won’t be blank.