Clearly, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin had a great offseason last fall. There’s little disputing that, but “Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award” good?
That’s effectively what it should come down to anyway, Bergevin’s last offseason, because the regular season, which is on what the award is actually based, far from went smoothly for Bergevin’s Canadiens. Yes, the Habs made the playoffs after only reaching them last year for the second time in five seasons on a technicality, but they only barely did.
Bergevin’s Canadiens Struggle to Make Playoffs
With only 59 points and two fewer wins than the fifth-place Calgary Flames in the North Division, the Canadiens were the lowest-ranked playoff team in the standings. Considering the nature of the award, that’s especially relevant, with Bergevin officially having been named a finalist, regardless. He’s going up against Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders (71) and Bill Zito of the Florida Panthers (79), with each of their respective teams enjoying vastly superior campaigns.
There were admittedly extenuating circumstances, with the Habs having to play 25 games in 43 nights to end the season due to NHL COVID-19 protocol. Perhaps as a direct result of that compressed schedule, the Canadiens sustained numerous injuries to key players down the stretch, during which they went a fairly poor 10-13-2.
However, in spite of a dynamic 5-0-2 start to the season, the Canadiens finished with a mediocre record of 24-21-11. That means, in between the great start and piss-poor end, they were just 9-8-7, which, referencing the initial point, isn’t exactly GM-of-the-Year honors good. It isn’t even good in general.
Granted, Bergevin deserves recognition for the work he put in, building a team capable of reaching the third round of the playoffs, same as Lamoriello, while the Panthers got eliminated in Round 1. However, voting for him to win an award presented “to the general manager who best excelled in his role during the regular season” is probably not the best way to go about it.
So, why is Bergevin getting this recognition now? For the simple reason that the award is voted on following the second round of the playoffs, in which his Habs swept the Winnipeg Jets after dispatching the rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a hard-fought seven-game first-round series. In other words, recency bias.
Price Comes Up Big in Playoffs
On top of that, the biggest difference maker for the Canadiens this postseason run? Not Josh Anderson, Joel Edmundson, Corey Perry or even Tyler Toffoli, the players Bergevin acquired last offseason, but Carey Price, one of two remaining players he inherited when he took over in 2012 (Brendan Gallagher).
That isn’t to suggest Edmundson, Perry or Toffoli are playing badly (Anderson is more of a question mark). Just that Price is that far above everyone else in terms of contributions to this team’s success with a 2.14 goals-against average and .930 save percentage (SV%). Without his heroics (or admittedly Joel Armia’s to a lesser extent), it’s fair to say the Canadiens fail to so much as claw back down 3-1 to the Leafs and even reach Round 2.
To be fair, Bergevin did go out and acquire backup Jake Allen last offseason to ensure Price was well-rested for another playoff run. That shouldn’t be understated as possibly the biggest move he made. Nevertheless, Allen’s play down the stretch with Price injured, while critical to the Habs just barely hanging onto a playoff spot, was statistically just so-so. Recognizing Bergevin for getting a backup who posted a .907 SV% playing behind a supposedly deep team built to withstand injuries (but one that ultimately couldn’t) is overkill.
Lamoriellio’s Award to Win
Now, it’s fairly obvious Bergevin is the underdog to win here. Zito’s Panthers ended up with one more point in the standings relative to last season (despite 13 fewer games played). His acquisitions of Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist and Sam Bennett (for example) all paid off to such a huge extent that his consideration should have never been in doubt.
Meanwhile, Lamoriello, who won the award last season, has continued his work developing the Islanders, once a laughing stock of the league, into perennial Eastern Conference threats. Therein lies the issue with the award in the first place. Three of the first four winners of the award, which dates back to 2009-10, have since been fired. Ray Shero, who won it in 2012-13, was fired at the end of the very next season. Overall, five of the 11 GMs are no longer with the teams with which they won it. Coincidentally, five of the teams also failed to exit the first round the following season, with eight failing to improve on their overall finishes.
It goes to show how little the award, which rewards big moves made in a single season that can backfire soon thereafter, means. GMs who instead make tweaks season over season, looking at the bigger picture, often get overlooked. That’s why Lamoriello deserves to be the first-ever multi-time winner. More to the point, it’s why he deserves to win it in consecutive years, because it shows an ability to maintain a semblance of momentum.
In Bergevin’s Defense
In Bergevin’s defense, as a two-time former finalist for the award (2013, 2014), he himself showed some progress those seasons in question. In 2012-13, his first season as GM, he guided the Canadiens to a Northeast Division title (before getting upset by the Ottawa Senators in Round 1), one year after they finished third from last in the standings. The following season is when they made their last trip to Round 3, losing to the New York Rangers.
The difference between then and now is the Canadiens were technically the favorites against the Rangers. Obviously, Chris Kreider crashing into and injuring Price in Game 1 contributed to the end result, but the point is the Habs are heavy underdogs in the here and now and a path to a possible championship isn’t as clear as it was heading into Round 3 seven years ago. The Canadiens most definitely have their work cut out for them against the Vegas Golden Knights, but so does Bergevin, even if there’s little to nothing he can do at the moment. His time to shine is after the playoffs are over.
So, the question is “will Bergevin be able to address the clear deficiencies facing this team this offseason,” not “will he win General Manager of the Year honors?” Only one of those answers will give somewhat of an indication as to whether or not the Habs will be good enough to make the playoffs next season, because how they fared this past regular season, while an improvement over 2019-20, is far from clear on the matter.
Ultimately, Bergevin needs another good offseason coming up to prove last fall was no fluke and that he is indeed one of the league’s best general managers. The third-round appearance is an accomplishment. The seven years it took to get back, much like a nomination for a meaningless award, is not.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.