Let’s go back in time a few years to the summer of 2012.
The Montreal Canadiens are coming off of a disappointing 2011-12 season that saw them miss the playoffs, change head coaches, and fire their general manager. To fill those vacancies they hired Marc Bergevin away from the Chicago Blackhawks to serve as their new GM and brought back Michel Therrien for his second stint behind the team’s bench.
The big hire here would be the Bergevin one because he was the one responsible for shaping the direction of the team and is still doing so today.
Despite the struggles on the ice during the 2011-12 season there was still a promising young core in place that he was inheriting in which to build around.
- Max Pacioretty was 23 years old and coming off of his first 30-goal season.
- P.K. Subban was 22 years old, already starting to blossom into a star, and was about to enter a season where he would go on to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
- They had a young franchise goalie in Carey Price.
- They had a 22-year-old Lars Eller who had doubled his offensive production from his rookie season and a 20-year-old Brendan Gallagher set to make his debut the following season
- On top of all that they had the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, a selection that would ultimately be used on Alex Galchenyuk.
At times over the past six seasons the Canadiens have had some success. They went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013-14, went to the second round in 2014-15, and topped the 100-point mark three times. It hasn’t been a totally disastrous few years. You could easily — and justifiably — make the argument that some of that success was driven in large part by having Price mask a lot of the team’s flaws and carry it further than it probably otherwise should have gone. But it was still success in the short-term.
The important question to ask at this point is if the Canadians organization is in a better place today than it was six years ago when Bergevin was hired to re-shape the organization. That is, after all, the goal of a GM: To make their organization better than they found it.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that Bergevin has done that, while the young core that he inherited has slowly but surely been squandered.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been good moves here and there.
Getting Pacioretty signed to a long-term contract extension that paid him less than $5 million per year was one of the biggest steals in the league. Signing Alexander Radulov in his return from the KHL added some desperately needed talent and creativity to a stagnant offense. Today, though, Pacioretty is entering the final year of his contract and is the subject of trade speculation. Radulov, having been unable to work out a new contract with the Canadiens after his one year with the team, is in Dallas and coming off of a career-best season that saw him score 28 goals and 72 points for the Stars.
And the rest of the players mentioned above? That group of Price, Subban, Galchenyuk, and Eller? Only Price remains, while the trio of Subban, Eller, and Galchenyuk has been traded for a package of players and assets that amounts to Shea Weber, Max Domi, Joni Ikonen and a yet-to-be-used 2018 second-round draft pick (No. 62 overall).
Look at those two groups of players and then ask yourself which group you would rather have on your team this season and in the immediate future with all of the circumstances considered.
It’s not that Weber and Domi are bad or can’t provide value for the Canadiens. But how are the Canadiens better for having them instead of what they had?
Look at the fact that P.K. Subban, who was traded straight up for Shea Weber after the 2015-16 season, is four years younger, has been more productive the past two years, and is a finalist for the Norris Trophy this season. Weber, meanwhile, is entering his age 33 season, coming off an injury shortened season, and is signed until he is 40 at more than $7.8 million per season. Combined with Price, the Canadiens now have two players, both of whom are already over the age of 30 and have likely already played their best hockey, signed through 2026 at a total salary cap hit of more than $18 million. You can’t fault them for signing Price because he has literally been the backbone of the team, but given the ages, salary structure, and positions they play it is a very unique core for a team to build around. Unique does not always mean good.
During that same offseason the Canadiens made the decision to trade skill for more grit and toughness (a trend they followed all season in their roster transactions) when they sent Lars Eller, still under contract for two more years at a salary cap hit of $3.5 million, to the Washington Capitals for two second round draft picks (one used to select Ikonen, the other one to be used this weekend).
They then turned around and traded two second-round draft picks in 2016 to Chicago for Andrew Shaw and signed him to a six-year, $23.4 million contract extension — in other words, slightly more money than they were paying Eller.
Again, it’s not that Shaw is necessarily a bad player, but are the Canadiens better today for it?
If nothing else the optics of it look bad after Eller played a massive role in helping the Capitals win the Stanley Cup this spring.
Last summer there was the free agent signing of Karl Alzner, giving the Canadiens what is currently one of the oldest defensive lineups in the league, and one that is severely lacking in mobility and offensive production. Between Weber, Alzner, Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn and David Schlemko the Canadiens will open this season with five defensemen age 30 or older. Together, they will take up nearly $22 million in salary cap space. That coincided with the trading of top prospect Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay for Jonathan Drouin. The jury is still very much out on that trade but year one of the Drouin era in Montreal probably did not go as planned considering that Sergachev, an 18-year-old defenseman, finished the season just six points shy of Drouin’s offensive output.
Then there is the most recent move to trade Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for Domi.
This comes after years of not really being sure what to do with Galchenyuk. Through all of it, Galchenyuk still managed to produce at a consistent top-six level as a player you could pencil in for 20 goals and 50 points every year. Domi, who is only a few months younger than Galchenyuk and about $1 million cheaper under the cap, is coming off a two-year stretch that has seen him score 18 goals in more than 140 games.
Keep in mind that Galchenyuk has scored fewer than 18 goals in a single season just once over the past four years, and that when when he scored 17 during the 2016-17 season … in only 61 games.
There are a lot of reasons to like Domi’s potential. There is reason to believe he could bounce back. It is, however, not a given and the question yet again must be asked … how are the Canadiens better after this?
The answer, yet again, seems to be that they really aren’t.
And this has pretty much been the story of the Marc Bergevin era in Montreal: They’re not really that much worse, but they’re not really that much better.
Most of the trades (here is the full list) are inconsequential that don’t really hurt or help either team involved. But when it comes to the big moves involving the key players they all seem to end up making the Canadiens marginally worse or leave them in a slightly worse situation, whether it be from a talent perspective, a salary cap perspective, or some combination of the two.
None of them have really been a complete disaster (though, the Subban-for-Weber swap could drift that way depending how Weber ages in the coming years), but none of them have really done anything to improve the situation. Perhaps even more than the actual results is the thought process behind the moves, where grit and size seems to take precedence over skill and talent. It has left them with a mediocre team that lacks goal-scorers and skill and has committed an awful lot of money to get older and less skilled.
No general manager is perfect. Mistakes will happen and they will make bad evaluations from time to time. But when those little mistakes keep happening over and over again they eventually add up into one big mistake that leaves you in a hole that is difficult to get out of.
This should be concerning for Canadiens fans when they realize Pacioretty could be traded. Or that the Canadiens are open to potentially trading the No. 3 pick this year. It is entirely possible one or both could get moved in the coming days.
If history is any indicator it probably won’t be a total disaster. But it probably won’t be great, either.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.