By JD Lagrange – Reading social media, there is no doubt that many fans had grown tired of Marc Bergevin, for multiple reasons. Most of it started back on June 29, 2016, when the former Canadiens’ GM showed more guts than an antilope being devoured by a pride of lions in Africa, daring trading fan favourite P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. And the disgruntled grew from there, to the point that after just over nine years, they finally got their wish and he was let go.
The goal here is not to determine Bergevin’s legacy as we’ve touched on that in the past, and in more than one occasion. No, today, I want to talk about the man who replaced him, in one of his duties at least, the GM position. That’s right, let’s talk about some comparatives between the former GM and the new one. And before jumping to the conclusion that there are no similarities between Bergevin and Kent Hughes, let’s look at what we’ve learned from the former players’ agent first.
But before we get into the meat and potatoes, let’s just remember one important thing. We saw two versions of Bergevin over the years. We saw the inexperienced GM who inherited a team and tried to “win now”. Then, since the summer of 2018, we saw a GM who followed a “reset” plan, accumulating draft picks and trading for young assets. Also, it is a fact that Hughes is starting with a huge advantage over Bergevin, if only by looking at the depth chart of the team today in comparison to what Bergevin inherited.
For the differences, we might have to include the implication of VP of Hockey Operations, Jeff Gorton, as that was also part of Bergevin’s job. It’s difficult to draw the line between what is a Hockey Ops or GM decision at times.
There is no doubt that the biggest difference sits in the hiring of Chantal MaChabée as the new VP of Communications. Although the finger should be pointed to the other Geoff (Molson) for that hiring, it is a stunning difference. Bergevin was a no nonsense type of guy and the members of the media on a witch hunt were put in their place in a hurry. Personally, I loved that but obviously, the media didn’t and Chantal coming from that side of the business is making sure that even the bad ones are treated like the good ones.
But her role goes beyond that. She is making players, coaches, even the GM available and fans like that. She is also preparing the players, coaching them a bit about the media, encouraging a more positive relationship. That’s a plus.
The second biggest difference is in the player development. Although from reading social media, the honeymoon stage seems to be fading out with the controversy raised by the decision of keeping Juraj Slafkovsky in Montreal, which fans claim resembles decisions made in the Bergevin era. We’ve read the words “ruining first round picks” more than a few times since then.
But the Canadiens are definitely committed to focus on better developing their own. The hiring of Adam Nicholas and Marie-Phillip Poulin are only two examples of that. Even head coach Martin St-Louis is taking a patient approach with the young players on the ice. Older folks like yours truly, who have seen others before, will warn you that this is easily done when there is no pressure to win, and that will definitely change when the expectations change too. But so far, so good.
Focus on skills
Well, yes and no. I truly feel this is a misconception, as every team, every GM, is looking for skills. But I’m putting it here because it seems like many fans think that it’s a difference between the two management styles. Those who hated Bergevin’s gut will point out to the focus on size and grit, or character as Bergevin pointed out in the past, to claim that he was putting that ahead of skills. It wasn’t the case and we will touch on that further in the similarities.
Some will even point out to the selection of 5-foot 8-inches defenseman Lane Hutson to support their claim, but conveniently forget that Bergevin (and Timmins) selected Cole Caufield (how can anyone forget?). And there are other examples, such as Xavier Simoneau (5’6”), Rhett Pitlick (5’9”), Rafaël Harvey-Pinard (5’9”), Sean Farrell (5’9”)…
If we remain unbiased, we will notice a lot more similarities between the two regimes than some may want to admit.
The first thing we noticed with Bergevin is that he didn’t like to see his players being pushed around, or intimidated. He attempted bringing grittier, bigger players throughout the years. Many didn’t pan out, but others like Weber, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson certainly did.
Hughes drafted Juraj Slafkovsky first overall and you have seen the behind the scene videos, it became clear that his size was one of the determining factors. But it goes beyond that. If you look at the size of the players he has brought in through trades so far, most have size. Hughes has admitted that while he has nothing against smaller skilled players, he wouldn’t want “a small team”. That’s Bergevin-like.
Trades for youth
Admittedly, Hughes has had it easy so far in that department. Any GM will tell you that it’s much easier to blow things up for picks and prospects than it is to trade for established, proven players and adding to a roster to win. That will come soon enough for the new GM.
But since 2018, that’s what Bergevin has been doing, although while trying to remain competitive. In what perhaps was his worse big trade, he did get a young Jonathan Drouin. He also manage to get a young Max Domi, then a somewhat young Josh Anderson. Hughes got Kirby Dach and Justin Barron so far, in the same line of thinking.
Much like his predecessor (since 2018), Hughes understands the importance of building through the draft and he has been trading for more picks, or assets like Sean Monahan and Evgenii Dadonov, which could bring more picks at trade deadline. As mentioned above though, he has yet to go through the cycle, where the team is in a playoffs’ position or in a position to compete for the Cup. We shall see how that goes.
Bergevin somewhat managed to replenish the prospects and picks cupboards while building a team made for playoffs, with a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup finals where they ran out of gas against a team $18 million over the cap. Pundits will point to last season’s misery but the toll and devastation that playoffs’ run took on the Habs was unmeasurable.
Key waivers pick up
Bergevin picked up a few players on waivers, none more important than Paul Byron. Prior to Hughes being hired, Jeff Gorton picked up what appears to be a similarly important players off waivers in Rem Pitlick. We shall see how the claim of Johnathan Kovacevic will turn out to be.
Remains to be seen
There are a few traits that still remain to be determine, things that will come over time, when it comes to compare similarities or differences between Hughes and Bergevin.
Hughes will have his work cut out to match his predecessor’s success when it comes to getting the most out of his trades, particularly the big trades. While pundits will be quick to point to the Drouin trade, other GMs were starting to fear trading with the Canadiens because of Bergevin’s knack for winning those. The Subban, Pacioretty, Galchenyuk, Domi, Weise and Fleischmann, and the list goes on and on…
As mentioned above, Hughes has done well so far with a team that’s nowhere close to contention, trading away assets at trade deadline. That’s the easy part of the trades’ job. He’s a smart man and he has displayed some patience, a good quality for a GM when it comes to trading. We can be optimistic. If he comes anywhere close to Bergevin’s track record, it would be amazing.
Many are feeling that due to Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher’s contract extensions, Bergevin wasn’t good at negotiating contracts, or that he was “too attached to his players”. Yet, every single GM is close to his core of players and those who aren’t don’t last long. Bergevin also had negotiated the previous contract extensions of the team’s last two 30-goals scorers, Max Pacioretty ($4.5 million, 6 years) and Gallagher ($3.6 million, 6 years). He also re-signed Jake Allen, in his prime, to take a pay cut from $4.35 million to $2.875 million. But that’s easily forgotten.
Being a former players’ agent, having his clients’ backs trying to get them the most money possible, it will be interesting to watch Hughes negotiate contracts from the other side of the fence now. So far, he has re-signed Allen, giving him a million dollars more per season than Bergevin had given the goaltender. Not bad.
As you can see, there are a lot more similarities than differences so far between the two management styles. Only time will tell how effective this current management will be but the emphasis on player development, in particular, has the potential to yield some great results.
Bergevin’s was nominated for GM of the Year, finishing in the top-3, three times. He won three division titles and his team made the playoffs in six of the nine seasons he’s been the GM. They have won a total of seven playoffs’ rounds. To put that into perspective, it is the most amongst Canadian teams. In the same time span, the powerhouse Leafs have won… 0.
Still, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic and hopeful if you’re a Habs’ fan. But remember… many of the prospects we’ve been drooling all over so far at camp, and many of those coming in the next couple of seasons, were picks by the Bergevin and Trevor Timmins combo. It seems like the duo of Gorton and Hughes are simply continuing in a similar path, which is good.