Hughes and Bergevin – Differences and Similarities

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.

Differences

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.

Media relationship

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.

Player development

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”)…

Similarities

If we remain unbiased, we will notice a lot more similarities between the two regimes than some may want to admit.

Size matters
Juraj Slafkovsky

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.

Accumulating picks

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.

Trades
Nick Suzuki and Shea Weber

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.

Contract extensions

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Kent Hughes – A Study in Patience

By Bob Trask – If nothing else, Kent Hughes has demonstrated that he is a patient General Manager. And with no urgency to transform the Canadiens into contenders this season, he can afford to be. The message has been clear; the upcoming season will be one of evaluation and development.

Evaluation and development does not mean, however, dumping all the veterans and throwing the younger players and prospects into the deep end of the pool. Youth can benefit from the stabilizing influence and mentorship provided by veterans. For that reason, it seems unlikely there will be a fire sale of veterans like Christian Dvorak and others.

All of this seems to point to Hughes being patient in the trade market. We can go back to the Lehkonen trade as an example of that patience. Hughes patiently waited until his asking price was met – and both teams benefited. Colorado won the Cup and the Canadiens came away with a couple of assets in return for a player they may not have been able to re-sign. It was classic Hughes.

At the same time, the Canadiens management team seems to have no fear of playing a lot of rookies if they can prove that they belong. That gives Hughes even more leverage. If he feels a prospect is ready to make the jump and is looking to trading a veteran to open up a spot on the team, he isn’t forced into asking for an NHL ready veteran to fill the hole created.

The approach that Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes are taking is made possible because they have set reasonable expectations with regard to the current competitive level of the Habs and the time it will take before they become serious contenders.

The Waiting Game

There is little doubt that Hughes would like to make a couple of moves sooner rather than later but it does not seem to be in his DNA to make a move just for the sake of it. All decisions are measured and re-measured. In the meantime, every GM in the league probably knows by now which players on the Canadiens may be available and what the initial asking price for that player might be.

With training camps now underway and the pre-season set to begin, teams begin to evaluate their talent with greater scrutiny. One or two may be dissatisfied with their depth at a particular position and if they know Montreal has a player available, they may come calling.

As a contact sport, injuries can also be a big factor in the success of a team. Look no farther than last year’s edition of the Canadiens for a stark example. Throughout training camp and early into the season, there is always a possibility that a team could suffer an injury that could lead them to seeking a replacement via trade. Again, if they know who is available on the Canadiens roster, they may circle back to Hughes to re-visit trade discussions.

Changes are Coming

The good news is that if none of this happens before the season begins, the Canadiens have the roster flexibility to send players to Laval without going through waivers. Hughes can wait to see how the season unfolds while the young guns get lots of playing time in Laval. There is no urgency for him to make a stop-gap trade to improve the Canadiens’ playoff chances. For other teams, this may not be the case.

Make no mistake, there will be more than a couple of changes to the Canadiens’ roster before the season ends. As fans, we can get impatient and want to see something happen on the player front sooner rather than later. But Hughes and Gorton have stated multiple times that this a year of evaluation and development with an eye to become consistent contenders over the long term. It has been and will continue to be a patient reconstruction, at least for the foreseeable future.

Salary Cap Issues

One thing Hughes has been adamant about is salary retention. Or to put it more clearly, his absolute refusal (so far) to retain salary in any trade. As a former agent and a GM who always has one eye on finances, Hughes does not want to compromise his ability to sign players in the future because he has too much retained salary on the books.

Other sweeteners may be added to the mix in a trade (Ryan Poehling is an example) but salary retention seems out of bounds. It may eventually come to that, but for now retaining salary is a non-starter.

Conclusions

If it means a couple of highly touted prospects need to start the season in Laval, I can see Hughes waiting patiently until a deal he is comfortable with presents itself. Yes, the management team has said that they will waive a veteran if a rookie has proven to be better. But that may also be a signal to veterans that they will need to put their best foot forward at this camp.

The caveat is that Hughes continues to (pleasantly) surprise us with how he has handled the construction of the roster. He has given us clear signals of his intentions – the Petry trade is an example – but the transaction that finally takes place isn’t always what we, as fans, expect.

This may be exactly what is happening now. Veterans have gently been put on notice and more than one is likely to be traded. But we don’t know where, when or what the return will be. The strong initial showing by several prospects only strengthens that possibility.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the pre-season and play the waiting game.

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