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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.

Domi’s passing skills impress Habs’ Gallagher

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If you want to paint the grimmest picture for the Montreal Canadiens’ side of Friday’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes, consider goal stats for Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk.

It’s been noted that Galchenyuk scored almost as many goals in one season (30 in 82 games during the 2015-16 campaign) as Max Domi has during his entire NHL career (36 in 222 games). Brutal, right?

Yes, but it probably oversells the gap between the two as overall players, even if Galchenyuk has undoubtedly enjoyed the superior career.

For one thing, Domi’s enjoyed his moments. He scored 18 goals during his impressive rookie season, the only year he’s enjoyed a respectable shooting percentage (11.5 percent).

As you zoom out, the comparison gets less lopsided. Glance at overall points and things get closer. Domi’s generated 135 points over his 222-game career, good for an average of .60 points per contest. Galchenyuk, meanwhile, comes in at .61 (255 points in 418 games). So, if those averages stood during an 82-game season, Galchenyuk would score 50 points while Domi would generate … a fraction less than 50 points.

Now, you can counter those observations by fairly noting that goals come at higher premium than assists. Again, it’s clear that so far, Galchenyuk’s been more dynamic.

But that’s not the point. Instead, one should realize that Domi is a superior threat as a passer, not a shooter. (Galchenyuk, meanwhile, can be a deadly sniper.)

Domi’s teammates seem to notice that distinction, especially Brendan Gallagher, who won gold with him at the 2016 World Championship.

“He plays extremely hard, he competes hard, but he’s a pass-first kind of guy. It was shocking at times, the way he sees the game,” Gallagher said to Dan Braverman of the Canadiens website. “If you’re out on the ice with him, you have to be ready to shoot the puck, because he’s looking to feed his linemates, which is always nice to play with.”

In a fascinating breakdown for Sportsnet, Andrew Berkshire points out that playmaking has been an issue for the Canadiens for quite some time, even with the addition of a creator like Jonathan Drouin. Berkshire wonders if Domi (who Berkshire deems a “borderline elite playmaker”) could make a big difference in that regard.

Domi spent a huge chunk of last season playing on a line with Christian Dvorak, and he shot 9.9 per cent after scoring on 17 per cent of his shots last season, so his presence doesn’t guarantee anything, but the playmaking ability Domi displays is absolutely something the Canadiens are trying to address here, and I think they’re banking on adding that playmaking ability to a group of shooting forwards making a bigger impact on team goals than Galchenyuk’s style of play would.

Again, this isn’t to say that Domi is more valuable than Galchenyuk. (Berkshire ultimately describes Galchenyuk as “the better, more talented, more dynamic player,” for example.)

Instead, it’s merely important to recognize that this might not be as egregious as the Shea WeberP.K. Subban trade.

Interestingly, it’s easy to imagine both Galchenyuk and Domi enjoying improved results in 2018-19, at least if healthy. Domi might not be much of a goal threat, but it’s tough to imagine him suffering through another six shooting percentage. Galchenyuk fell off his typical goal pace thanks in part to an 8.9 shooting percentage in 2017-18 (versus 16.3 percent in 2016-17 and 12.4 for his career).

There’s also the matter of Domi’s cap hit ($3.15 million) coming in cheaper than that of Alex Galchenyuk ($4.9M), but you can dive deeper into those aspects here.

Does this mean that the Canadiens won the trade? Right now, the answer seems to be “No.”

The point is that this might not be remembered as the sort of head-shaking disaster that the Subban – Weber trade ended up being and the Mikhail Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin swap looks like after the first year.

That said, it’s still worth giving Marc Bergevin a hard time about, because “maybe not as bad as it looks” isn’t the ideal peak for a GM’s recent trades.

More on the Domi – Galchenyuk trade

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.

Wild’s new GM faces tough task in finding ‘finishing touches’

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If you look at NHL GM gigs like flipping a home, then some jobs call for a massive renovation, and it must be fun to deal with a “fixer-upper.” But what about when someone wants you to turn an already-expensive house into a mansion?

That’s essentially what’s being asked of longtime Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton as he takes over the Minnesota Wild job from Chuck Fletcher.

Wild owner (and former Predators owner) Craig Leipold at least had a sense of humor about his demands during the press conference that introduced Fenton as GM.

“Our goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey. But, no pressure, Paul,” Leipold said, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

For those who are waiting to interject with a comment along the lines of “Yes, but every team talks about winning the Stanley Cup in these situations” … well, that’s true. Sometimes you can root out some semi-useful information in reading between the lines during these moments, though.

Take, for instance, the video clip below. On one hand, Fenton wants to “move the puck” and play an uptempo style that virtually every team discusses (aside from a relative outlier here or there, like Peter Chiarelli wanting “heavy and hard hockey”). On the other hand, there are some interesting kernels to consider. Fenton at least seems open-minded to making things work with head coach Bruce Boudreau, which is certainly a fair question since he wasn’t a bench boss handpicked by Fenton. Multiple comments also indicate that the Wild hope to ascend to the level of contender rather than going into a rebuild, as “finishing touches” indicate.

If anyone’s ready for a GM job, it’s Fenton. He’s been rising up the Predators organization since 1998, earning glowing reviews from Nashville GM David Poile. There’s a reason he’s been on plenty of GM candidate lists for years.

Minnesota could especially benefit if Fenton observed how Nashville flourished after making courageous trades such as the P.K. SubbanShea Weber swap. Not everyone has the stomach for such risks, but those gambles often separate contenders from pretenders.

There are a number of reasons why Fenton might fail, or at least could struggle. Let’s dive in.

Jumping right into the deep end

The 2018 Stanley Cup Final is nearly upon us. The draft isn’t far away on June 22, and free agency is right afterward. Wild fans have to hope that Fenton’s experience in scouting and his familiarity with the Central Division will come in handy, as this next stretch is a true “trial by fire.”

Fletcher left quite a mess of long-term contracts, most obviously in challenging deals for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, so the Wild aren’t exactly bursting with cap space.

[A deep dive on the mess Fletcher left behind. It’s a mixed bag at best.]

It’s up to Fenton to try to land pending RFAs Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba to team-friendly deals after each player enjoyed easily the best seasons of their NHL careers. Over the years, the Predators have piled up some really nice contracts for players they developed, most notably Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Bargain extensions often come down to timing, however, as you can see in Ryan Johansen getting a Getzlaf-like deal. Fenton faces two challenges in getting Zucker and Dumba signed to affordable contracts, whether that means going short-term or trying to bring the annual price down by handing out more term.

If “finishing touches” boil down to small tweaks and savvy shopping in the discount aisle, that’s fine.

Something more drastic could be highly difficult to pull off …

Central issue

… Because the Wild are in a true meat grinder of a Central Division.

Consider this: Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was being comically hasty in discussing his team becoming a “dynasty.”

That said, when you consider how young and talented that core is, you never know. At minimum, the Jets are structured in a way where they’ll be on-paper favorites against the Wild for the foreseeable future.

Fenton will need to make beautiful music to get his Wild to outmatch his old boss in Nashville, while it’s possible that the Blues and Stars are the ones who are “finishing touches” away from legitimate contention. You can’t totally count out the Blackhawks either (what if Corey Crawford was healthy all season?) and the Avalanche seem like they’re onto something.

One could envision Fenton making the right moves and the Wild still stalling in this first-round limbo. The Central Division is that tough, and there’s a genuine fear that Minnesota simply doesn’t have a high enough ceiling to break through.

***

There’s a school of thought that the Wild might be better off rebuilding, or if that’s too extreme, maybe a brief “reload.”

Minnesota definitely has some talent, and the Wild can look like a contender on better nights. Still, that series against the Jets felt telling; you wonder if they’re doomed to be stuck at good when they need to be great.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Long-term extension would make sense for Coyotes, Ekman-Larsson

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The Arizona Coyotes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are in talks about a possible eight-year contract extension that would carry a cap hit of a bit more than $8 million per season, according to Craig Morgan of ArizonaSports.com.

Do note that, whether a deal is actually close to be agreed upon or the situation is fluid, an extension wouldn’t become official until July, when “OEL” is first eligible for such a contract. (He’ll enter the final year of his current deal in 2018-19).

So, things could fall apart between now and then.

Still, such an extension could make a lot of sense for both the Swedish defenseman and the fledgling Coyotes. Let’s dive in under the assumption that an eight-year deal would cost (slightly?) more than $64M, which is essentially the extension Brent Burns signed with the San Jose Sharks in November 2016.

Peace of mind (and maybe some control?) for OEL

Ekman-Larsson (26, turning 27 on July 17) is currently on a deal with a $5.5M cap hit and $7M salary heading into 2018-19. OEL’s contract lacks a no-trade or no-movement clause, so if negotiations fell through, he could find himself in a less-than-desirable situation as a “rental.”

By signing a deal in that Burns range, he’d carry one of the biggest cap hits of any NHL defenseman, at least as of this writing (trailing P.K. Subban, but slightly more than Burns, Shea Weber, and Aaron Ekblad). Of course, as of this writing is the key phrase, but we’ll get to that in the Coyotes’ section.

OEL opting to sign that contract brings plenty of benefits:

  • Not needing to answer a bunch of questions about his contract year.
  • Avoiding the risk of an injury derailing/lowering his prospects of getting a new deal. Eight years is the maximum term, so OEL would land the most security possible, covering the next nine years of his career.
  • Speaking of years, the Coyotes are the only team that could sign him for eight. This could be advantageous for Ekman-Larsson even if things actually turned sour with Arizona, especially if he …
  • Possibly gets a no-trade or no-movement clause, gaining more say in his future, even if he loses the ultimate freedom of exploring the free agent market.

Yes, there’s a lot to like from OEL’s standpoint. So, what about the Coyotes?

Getting ahead of the gold rush for defensemen

Now, it’s worth noting that some key moments for soon-to-be-richer defensemen could happen in late June by way of trades at or around the 2018 NHL Draft on June 22. For all we know, Erik Karlsson could be traded from Ottawa, possibly accelerating his own schedule to sign an extension.

Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson are far from the only prominent defensemen who will enter 2018-19 as contract years (assuming they don’t sign extensions themselves). Karlsson and Drew Doughty aren’t shy about possibly driving up their own prices, maybe together. Ryan McDonagh isn’t setting the world on fire with the Lightning, but the market could still send piles of money his way consider the demand for defensemen and the scant supply of capable ones. Ryan Ellis is another defenseman worth watching if he rides things out with Nashville next season.

From OEL’s perspective, he’d avoid the threat of a potential buyers’ market. The Coyotes, on the other hand, might look at the very real potential for Doughty and Karlsson to command deals at or above Jack Eichel‘s extension, thus making $8M a reasonable, risk-reducing price.

Question of worth

Now, it’s fair to wonder if OEL would actually be worth $8M per season. Ekman-Larsson’s mostly been a strong possession player on a bad team, and his 85 goals since 2013-14 ranks second among defensemen. Still, he’s only passed the 50-point plateau once (2015-16), so he hasn’t necessarily had that “huge” year one might demand from a player seeking that big payday. (None of this is to say that he isn’t very good; instead, it’s just a reminder that big cash inspires big-time nitpicking.)

It’s tough to imagine him not being worth it for the Coyotes, though, so the debate feels a bit moot. Perhaps they’d be on firmer ground to grind something out if they won the draft lottery, but the fifth pick likely means adding another nice piece rather than a revolutionary one as Rasmus Dahlin is hyped to possibly be.

The Coyotes showed that they wanted to make the next step by trading for Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, and Niklas Hjalmarsson last summer. While the results weren’t quite what they hoped for in 2017-18, would they really want to take a step back by letting their best defenseman/player* go after next season?

Yes, with just about any big extension or contract, there are risks to consider, especially in a sport where a career-derailing injury could always be one hard collision away. It’s also plausible that Ekman-Larsson might buckle under the pressure of such a contract. Being labeled an “albatross” can really mess with an athlete’s head, even if they don’t get the reference.

All things considered, if the Coyotes and OEL agree to a deal along the lines of what Morgan reports, it would probably rank as an “everyone wins” situation.

Bonus points if Ekman-Larsson can actually, you know, help the Coyotes start winning.

* – Hey, for all we know, Clayton Keller could become “The Guy” in Arizona by next season.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Habs have interesting decision to make with third overall pick

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The 2017-18 season was a huge disappointment for the Montreal Canadiens, but they finally got some positive news on Saturday night, as they jumped up one spot in the draft. In June, GM Marc Bergevin will have an interesting decision to make with the third overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft.

Not winning the lottery after being one of the final three teams in the hunt for the top pick must have been deflating for the Habs, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ll have the opportunity to come away with a talented teenager. Rasmus Dahlin playing on a pairing with Shea Weber would have been nice, but that’s not going to happen.

So, now that Dahlin is out of the picture, where should the Canadiens go with their pick?

For a team like Montreal, trading the selection should almost be out of the question. Of course, they can always listen to offers from rival general managers, but unless there is a can’t-miss deal on the table, they need to hold on to the pick. As tempting as it might be to get immediate help in the form of a proven NHLer, teams have to consider the value of “cheap” entry-level contracts on their roster.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The consensus top four players available in the upcoming draft are: Dahlin, Russian right winger Andre Svechnikov, Czech right winger Filip Zadina and Boston University left winger Brady Tkachuk.

Getting a talented winger isn’t a problem, but it doesn’t solve one of the Canadiens’ two biggest needs. First, they have two major holes down the middle. They don’t have a legitimate first or second line center on their roster. They drafted Ryan Poehling in the first round last year, but he’ll be heading back to St. Cloud State next season. When it comes to centers, Finnish prospect Jesperi Kontkaniemi is considered by many to be the best one available. Even though he’s been pegged as a top 10 pick by many, no one seems to have him as a top three selection.

Both Svechnikov and Zadina have shown an ability to find the back of the net. This season, Svechnikov scored 40 goals in 44 games with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, while Zadina 44 goals in 57 games with the Halifax Mooseheads. Tkachuk’s offensive numbers don’t stand out as much (eight goals in 40 games), but he’s a big power forward that has a good combination of size and skill. You know Bergevin will appreciate those attributes.

The other pressing need is a left-handed defenseman. Finding someone talented enough to play top-pairing minutes with Weber has been a problem. Again, there’s no one in the system that can fill that void right away.

There’s a plethora of young defensemen like Evan Bouchard, Quinn Hughes, Noah Dobson and Adam Boqvist worthy of being selected in the top 10. Of those four blue liners, only Hughes shoots left.

But finding a true number one center has been a 30-year problem for this organization. Should they stick to taking the best player available, or should they reach a little for a potential top-line center with size? Many people would suggest simply taking the best player and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are examples of teams going against the grain to select a position of need.

The most recent example near the top of the draft occurred two summers ago, when the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had the third pick, selected center Pierre-Luc Dubois over winger Jesse Puljujarvi. Leading up to the 2016 draft, almost every draft expert had Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Puljujarvi as their top three selections. The fact that the Jackets opted for Dubois was a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t an “off-the-board” selection because Dubois was still considered to be a high-end prospect, but very few people envisioned him going in the top three. Fast-forward two years an that selection has worked out pretty well for Columbus.

With Kotkaniemi making a push up most draft boards, it’ll be interesting to see how much he pops up on the Canadiens’ radar. He had a solid year at the Finnish league as a teenager, as he racked up 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games. In his latest mock draft, TSN scout Craig Button said that Kotkaniemi “plays the game in a similar fashion to Anze Kopitar and to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.”

If the young Finn comes anywhere close to being Kopitar or Toews, it won’t matter how good the other draft-eligible players turn out to be.

Now, the Canadiens just have to decide whether or not that’s the direction they want to go in with this pick that they absolutely can’t afford to miss on.

A lot of front-office jobs are depending on it.

MORE: Buffalo Sabres to select No. 1 overall after winning 2018 NHL Draft Lottery

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.