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Marc Bergevin’s tenure has slowly but surely made Canadiens worse

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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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: Vegas’ amazing run; Lars Eller’s historical night

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Despite not winning the Stanley Cup, the Vegas Golden Knights had an incredible inaugural season. (Sportsnet)

• The Washington Capitals celebrated in style last night, as they racked up a $100,000 bill at their post-Stanley Cup party. (TMZ)

• The Texas Stars beat the Toronto Marlies in Game 4 of the Calder Cup Final. This best-of-seven series is all tied up 2-2. (Canadian Press)

• The Capitals and their fans have gone through years of playoff heartbreak, but that finally all paid off on Thursday night. (Washington Post)

• The City of Washington finally gets to celebrate a major sports championship thanks to Alex Ovechkin and his teammates. (Sports Illustrated)

• Not only did Lars Eller score the game-winning goal to clinch the cup for the Caps, he also became the first player born in Denmark to hoist the Stanley Cup. (NHL.com)

T.J. Oshie got to share a Stanley Cup championship with his father, who’s been dealing with Alzheimer’s. What an emotional moment. (TSN.ca)

• Seeing the Capitals celebrate a championship victory at T-Mobile arena wasn’t exactly fun for the locals. (Las Vegas Sun)

• It’s been a great few hours for Alex Ovechkin. Not only because he’s now a Stanley Cup Champion, but also because he and his wife are expecting their first child. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• What does a Stanley Cup title mean to the fans in Washington? NBC Sports Washington breaks it down for us. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Up top, check out the highlights from the final game of the 2017-18 regular season. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.

• Young fan Keelan Moxley remembers what it was like to get a puck from Caps forward Brett Connolly before Game 2 of Washington’s first-round series against the Blue Jackets.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Capitals end DC championship drought with first Stanley Cup win

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It finally happened. The Washington Capitals finally won their first-ever Stanley Cup after conjuring more magic than the Vegas Golden Knights.

After years of heartbreak for Alex Ovechkin, not to mention the franchise as a whole since being founded in 1974, the Capitals finally won it all.

One can imagine some exhales amid the screams for the team’s long-tortured fans, not to mention fans of D.C. sports in general. It’s been a long, long time since a Washington team took home a championship.

There was something symbolic, almost, about the clock briefly breaking during the late moments of the Capitals’ 4-3 win against the Golden Knights in Game 5. For fans of the Golden Knights, it likely felt like Vegas resisting the clock turning midnight on “Cinderella.” For those who’ve followed Ovechkin and the rest of these Caps through these trials and tribulations, breaking the curse meant breaking the clock.

For Vegas, it’s the first real taste of the soul-crushing heartbreak that comes with a playoff elimination that seemed to come out of left field. Thanks to some opportunistic plays and more than a few lucky breaks, the Golden Knights carried a 3-2 lead into the third period. It seemed like the bounces were finally (that word again) breaking their way again.

Instead, the Capitals refused to go home without the Stanley Cup.

To start the last rally, Devante Smith-Pelly scored his seventh goal of the postseason on a diving goal that would make Ovechkin proud. In a way, it was fitting that a player riding a great opportunity and some lucky breaks ultimately dealt such a painful blow to Vegas’ hopes. For the Golden Knights, it was the wrong kind of “finally,” as they finally saw their magic run out.

Less than three minutes later, Lars Eller continued his incredible playoff run by burying a loose puck behind Marc-Andre Fleury for what would be the Capitals’ Stanley Cup-winning goal.

Washington rarely seemed threatened after that, opening the door for an emotional celebration for Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom … and anyone else connected to the Capitals, really.

Ovechkin’s celebration was as glorious as you can imagine, if you could even imagine it. He ended up taking the Conn Smythe, edging out some other excellent Capitals choices, including Evgeny Kuznetsov. “The Great Eight” scored in Game 5, breaking the franchise record for goals in a single postseason with his 15th (sorry, John Druce).

Last summer, the Capitals dealt with “a Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup.” Considering that they broke this curse in Sin City, it probably won’t be tough to generate a real hangover while celebrating the real thing tonight.

Finally.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How James Neal’s miss swung Game 4

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WASHINGTON — Maybe the Vegas Golden Knights would have still lost.

Maybe it would have still been a blowout.

Maybe they will still shock the world — again! — and run off three consecutive wins and make everybody forget about their 6-2 loss in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

But when James Neal had the puck on his stick early in the first period, staring at a wide open net, and then proceeded to fire it off the inside of the far post it felt like one of those moments that would be a turning point in the game, in the series, and ultimately, in their season.

At that point Vegas was in complete control of the early stages. They were dictating the pace. They finally looked like the team that had started fast in just about every game this postseason. They were finally, after three games of spotty, inconsistent, and sloppy play in the Stanley Cup Final, giving the Capitals their absolute best shot.

Then everything unraveled for them.

[Related: James Neal’s miss leads to Capitals’ offensive eruption]

Five minutes after Neal’s miss defenseman Colin Miller was sent off for tripping Lars Eller in the neutral zone.

Just 30 seconds after that play T.J. Oshie cashed in on his look at an empty net and from there the first period Capitals blitz was on, giving Vegas what would prove to be an insurmountable three-goal deficit.

The entire sequence was just another reminder as to just how fine of a line there is between winning and losing in the NHL and what a significant factor luck plays in all of this.

Heading into Game 5 in Vegas on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBC) the Golden Knights find themselves facing elimination for the first time this postseason with their entire season and Stanley Cup dreams on the line. It is incredible to look at how they got here.

After taking Game 1 of the series they were a miracle Braden Holtby save away from sending Game 2 to overtime where anything could have happened.

Then in Game 4, they hit two posts in the first five minutes including Neal’s wide open miss before everything started to go wrong.

“It was a perfect play,” said Neal after the game. “At the start I thought he was going to shoot it, then he held on to it and it was great. Holtby was kind of over there, he gave it to me, Niskanen laid down for a second so I wanted to wait a half a second and just shot it off the post.”

“It changes the game for sure if I score there,” Neal added. “But now we have to win a game at home that is what we will focus on. I like the way we played, you take the positives from tonight because there were a lot of parts of our game that we liked tonight.”

The latter part is what has to be a cruel twist for the Golden Knights as they finally seemed to be getting back to playing their brand of hockey, and then for the first time this postseason seemed to not have everything go their way.

“It was frustrating because of the score,” said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant when asked how he felt after the first period. “I thought we played our best period of the Final so far. We hit two posts, we had some good chances, and we got nothing out of it. After the first period we came in here and said let’s keep going, let’s keep working hard, let’s keep playing well because things can change in a hurry so we wanted to keep going. Thought we played a pretty good game for the most part.”

“There was a lot of moments it was our game for sure. We played a lot of the game the way we wanted to play it.”

Here is where that becomes a concern for Vegas: After splitting the first two games of the series on home ice they came into Washington for Game 3 and got what was probably Marc-Andre Fleury‘s best game of the series (and he was pretty great for most that game).

It still was not enough to win.

In Game 4 they had their best start of the series, played what was perhaps their best game of the series, and still ended up getting blown out on the scoreboard and dropped their third game in a row.

It has to be crushing to give a team your best shot and still end up having that sort of a result on the scoreboard.

This all feels very similar to the way the Capitals’ second round series went against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 5 of that series the Penguins played what they thought was their best game of the series. It still resulted in a loss. When both teams came out for Game 6 two nights later they both played like they knew it as the Penguins were suddenly the team that looked tight and the Capitals finally looked like they had the weight of the world lifted off of their shoulders. That seems to be where everything changed for this Capitals team. Every step of the way after that has looked the same as they finally seem to be exorcising all of the postseason demons that have haunted them for years.

In postseasons past Alex Tuch‘s shot late in Game 2 gets roofed under the crossbar and the game goes to overtime where they probably lose on some stupid play. Marc-Andre Fleury probably steals Game 3. James Neal probably buries his wide open look in the center of the net and Vegas is the team that goes on a roll to start Game 4.

Not this year. Because this year the breaks are finally going their way.

The common theme after Game 4 was that teams make their own breaks and create their own luck. Maybe to a point that is true, and it is not meant to discredit what the Capitals have done to this point to say they are finally getting a little puck luck.

No team has ever won the Stanley Cup — or any other championship — without a lot of luck going their way. It is an essential ingredient in winning, almost as much as talent, coaching, health, or whatever other factor you want to talk about.

For the previous 42 years it almost always seemed to work against the Capitals.

In year 43 it finally is not.

There was perhaps no better example of it than James Neal, with the first strike of a pivotal Game in the Stanley Cup Final sitting on his stick, firing it off the post for no reason at all.

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1 (Capitals leads series 2-1)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Capitals lead series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Alex Tuch putting ‘The Save’ in the past, focusing on Game 3

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WASHINGTON — Two days before Alex Tuch’s missed opportunity in the dying moments of Game 2, it was Lars Eller unable to convert on a chance right in front of wide open net (while taking a slash to the stick in the process).

You’ve all seen the save. A fortuitous bounce for the Vegas Golden Knights led to a glorious chance for Tuch to tie the game with two minutes to go in Game 2. A sprawling Braden Holtby denied the opportunity with his paddle.

(Be sure to check out the save now in flipbook form!)

That would be the Golden Knights’ best chance to tie as the Washington Capitals would even the series with a 3-2 win.

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said he believes he’s watched the replay half a dozen times and is firm believer that the save was the doing of the hockey gods evening things out after Eller’s miss.

“[I]t was a huge save for us. It was one of those saves that can be a game-changer in a series,” Trotz said on Friday. [Alex Ovechkin’s] expression said it all. I had the same expression, you just couldn’t see it because it was inside.”

Inspiring on one side. Deflating on the other. A goal there would have likely forced overtime and given Vegas an opportunity to head to D.C. for Game 3 on Saturday and improve upon their 6-2 road record with a 2-0 series lead. It wasn’t to be, and now with full focus on the game ahead, the Golden Knights, and especially Tuch, have moved on.

“I’ve seen worse plays than that, honestly. It was a great save, and it’s going to happen,” Tuch said. “Whether it’s going to be me or another guy in this room, or a guy in that room. They missed a wide-open backdoor play the game before that, too, to tie it up. Stuff like that happens and you just have to forget about it and move onto the next game.”

“No, he didn’t let the team down. He’s a 22-year-old kid I really like who has had an outstanding playoffs,” said Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant.

It’s not the first time Tuch has been robbed by a goaltender this season. In early December, Anaheim Ducks netminder John Gibson made a flashy glove save to deny the Golden Knights forward of a goal. Tuch would get revenge later in the game by scoring the only goal in the shootout.

“That happens and that’s hockey,” said Tuch. “It’s a game of inches each way, and you just have to bear down a little bit and bury those opportunities.”

If the hockey gods like evening things out, as Trotz believes, Tuch will get another opportunity at some point this series to redeem himself. But he’s put ‘The Save’ in the past, and so has Holtby, who’s not one to reflect on what happened days ago, especially as the games get more important.

“It was a big point of the game. That’s probably the only thing I take away from it because it’s a strange play, weird play and one of those that you could play it the exact same and it might not go the same way,” Holtby said.

“That’s definitely behind us now. It’s not going to have any effect on the next game. We’re going to have to refocus and play an even better game.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.