In 2012, about thirty seconds after the Montreal Canadiens were officially eliminated from the playoffs, in an annus horribilus that saw them dead last in the Eastern Conference, owner Geoff Molson cleaned house. Gone was the Ghost, Pierre Gauthier, and his weird, secretive ways. Gone was former captain Bob Gainey, with his legacy of inexplicably trading away Ryan McDonagh for the dreadful Scott Gomez. And in came another former captain, Serge Savard, to help Molson pick the team that would turn the Habs around.
Savard recommended Molson hire rookie GM Marc Bergevin, and the former journeyman player arrived with his natty suits, frank answers to media questions and ready sense of humour. It was as far from the old management in style as anyone could imagine. When Bergevin came on board, from day one, he was clear about his approach.
"I'm here to build for the future, and the future is draft choices and player development," he said back then.
Bergevin inherited some promising young prospects from the couple of drafts previous. Nathan Beaulieu, the team's first pick, at #17 in 2011, was a good young defenceman with quick vision, great wheels and a bit of toughness. Sparkplug Brendan Gallagher was small and only a fifth-round pick in 2010, but always seemed to find himself a part of the action. And the first-rounder in 2010, Jarred Tinordi, was a big kid with NHL bloodlines from his dad Mark. He was a bit of a project, but could move very well for a guy who stood 6'6" and had a kind of maturity and poise you don't often see in a teenager. If the Habs wanted to build through drafting and developing young players, Bergevin had at least three strong candidates with which to work. Things looked even better in Bergevin's first draft, when, with the third-overall pick, he chose centre Alex Galchenyuk. The young player came with size and a collection of skills so enticing, any coach would beg to help him reach his potential.
Every year since 2012, Bergevin has added to the collection of young draftees, and every year he has reiterated his intention to build a winning Canadiens team through drafting and developing young players. While the intention is admirable and the logic sound, Bergevin has failed to deliver.
Most teams, when they bottom out the way the Habs did in 2012 and commit to a rebuild, really rebuild. They make a plan, decide which players are keepers, and then clean out those who don't fit. Then they play their kids. They play the butts off their kids. Those kids make mistakes and they lose games, sometimes a lot of games, but they learn. And they get better together and improve. If you're going to rebuild through draft and development, that's how it's done.
Ten years ago, when the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Jonathan Toews third overall, they committed to a rebuild from the ground up. A year and a half later, they had dumped coach Denis Savard, hired Joel Quenneville, and the average age of the team was about 23 years old. Those kids; Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and the rest of them played a ton of hockey and they made the playoffs for the first time in six years, advancing to the conference finals. Four years after that, they were Stanley Cup Champions. Dale Tallon built that team as the GM. Now he's doing the same thing in Florida, and the Panthers are following the same pattern.
In Montreal, on the other hand, Bergevin came in with something to prove. He was a local guy in his first job as general manager. He felt the pressure to make sure the Habs were on the elevator out of the Eastern Conference basement as quickly as possible. So he needed to hire an experienced coach who could get the best on-ice results while the rebuild went on behind the scenes.
Enter Michel Therrien. Therrien hadn't been a great success in his first go-round behind the bench in Montreal and he was suspiciously fired by the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though the team made the Cup Finals the year before. Therrien came with something to prove too, and he certainly wasn't going to prove anything by playing a bunch of rookies and losing a bunch of games.
So, when given a choice between playing Galchenyuk ahead of David Desharnais and letting the kid learn, Therrien plays it safe and gives Desharnais more ice time. Given the option of playing Francis Bouillon versus Beaulieu or Tinordi in 2013, Therrien chose Bouillon. The following season, when both young defencemen were showing signs of being very close to making the NHL team, Bouillon and big, slow Douglas Murray got priority ice time. In a real rebuild, with a coach and GM dedicated to the end result, that doesn't happen.
Sitting a young player, a first-round pick, for thirty straight games is outside the realm of the believable in a team committed to development. Turning around and dumping him for an AHL journeyman and the consensus NHL-worst forward defies all common sense.
First-round picks are the gold bouillon of rebuild currency. They're the young players who come with the skill and promise every team needs to improve, and the ones it's very hard to find if you don't draft them. The Habs have done an incredibly crappy job of choosing and nurturing the players they need to be the foundation if they're ever to win another Cup.
Max Pacioretty had his confidence broken and was relieved to go down to the AHL to get proper ice time. He's still not got the kind of resilience a captain should have. P.K.Subban has been benched, scratched, low-balled and publicly called out. Now he's playing a conservative game that may prevent more goals, but seems to have cost him his creativity. McDonagh was stupidly traded away. Louis Leblanc left Harvard too early and shriveled under Sylvain Lefebvre's inexperienced coaching. Tinordi's been thrown away for nothing. Beaulieu seems to have found a place on the team because injuries forced Therrien to play him. The futures of the latest three, Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherbak and Noah Juulsen are still unwritten.
This is not the story of a team that has drafted and developed well. This is the story of a team with an inexperienced GM and a coach trying to keep his own job. It's possibly the story of a team that chose the wrong players in the draft, but it's hard to say based on how they're used once they're selected by Montreal.
After dumping Tinordi for garbage this week, Bergevin made a statement about his thinking.
"We are fortunate to have a lot of depth on the blue line and for that reason it became difficult for Jarred to earn a regular spot on our roster. He showed great professionalism and kept a positive attitude. We wish him the best of luck with his new organization."
An organization with a commitment to developing its young players doesn't go out and sign Mark Barberio to compete with its first-rounder for a roster spot, then claim the team has too much depth for him to play. That's crap. An organization committed to winning doesn't throw a first-rounder away for nothing because the coach decides he's not going to play and drains his value away.
If Marc Bergevin thinks he's building the Canadiens through effectively drafting and developing players, he's very, very wrong. The core talent of the team he manages was drafted and developed by somebody else and if he keeps on the road he's on right now, they'll soon be gone and there will be no one left to replace them.
This season, the Canadiens deep problems on offence, including strength down the middle, are exposed. Andrei Markov, long the defensive stalwart of the team, is visibly slowing down and will soon retire. Bergevin has had four years to nurture the young D who'll be needed to replace Markov. He's had four years to make sure Galchenyuk becomes the anchor at centre. Yet, still the problems persist and the young players don't seem to be getting anywhere.
Perhaps Bergevin was in over his head when he took over back in 2012. Maybe his vision was the right one, but the reality of hockey in Montreal intimidated him and prevented him from doing what he needed to do. The bottom line in the current NHL is if you want to build a winning team, there has to be a period of losing. That takes courage on the part of management. The alternative is a team that might gain regular-season points, but will never have what it takes to bring home the Cup. And young players languish until they're traded away for garbage and the cycle continues.
If Bergevin means what he says, he needs to really commit and dump his conservative coach. He needs to give young players a real chance and hire someone who's not afraid to give them the trust and opportunity they need to turn this team around, even when they struggle and losses happen. Until then, we'll watch the Habs first-round picks fizzle out like homemade fireworks.