It’s been days since the beginning of free agency, and yet there’s been no shortage of analysis and second-guessing that is now a summertime tradition. When Marc Bergevin took over from Pierre Gauthier, most Habs fans expected big things. Happy things. Splashy things. He’s the white knight that will not only change the way the Habs operated, he would also just as quickly change the face of the team on the ice. In the brief time since he was hired (known as the honeymoon period) he has already managed to show that his operation will vastly improve internal and external communications. That’s fine for now, but nobody will care about either of those things if the team continues to be a doormat if and when the season starts.
For Canadiens fans, the highlights of this past season were (in no particular order):
- Jacques Martin being fired
- Pierre Gauthier being fired
- Looking forward to the draft
- Looking forward to July 1st
Considering sports are all about what happens on the field of play, these off-ice moves, dates and events strongly indicate the type of season the 2011-12 campaign was for the Habs.
Bergevin’s puzzle is coming together. Yes, there are still holes to be plugged and these holes won’t be easy to fill. That said, Habs fans ought to be cut a certain amount of slack for hoping that Bergevin was going wave his wand and fix everything overnight. From pining for Jagr, to crying about Parenteau, Parise and Semin, fans wanted Bergevin to make a statement. They wanted him to snag brand name players that are easily pictured potting 30 goals. The sad reality is that the previous regime wilfully put the Canadiens in to a very large and muddy ditch with reckless, desperate acquisitions dating back to the 2009 retooling, right through until the Bourque acquisition. The Canadiens restoration project is going to take longer than what one weak free agent class can fix; the fruits from what was reportedly a solid 2012 draft for the Habs are years away from drawing cheers at the Bell Center, but Bergevin has been busy laying the groundwork for the type of identity and character he’d like his team to embody. Travis Moen is back. Added to the fold are Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong and Francis Bouillon. It doesn’t take a genius to see the common traits. Clearly the Canadiens are going to be a tougher, peskier team to play against, and that in itself should bring a sigh of relief and smile to the faces of Habs fans. How this “truculence”, as Brian Burke would say translates to wins is anyone’s guess as truculence by itself doesn’t score goals. But if it sends the opponents home with some loosened teeth and battered bodies, then the Canadiens are a step ahead of where they were. The Bell Center needs to become more inhospitable, and the on-ice product can use a good dose of asshole. Save the ‘classiness’ for pre-game presentations and the handshake line. It’s time for the Habs to give back what other teams have fed them, and it’s time to bring some smashmouth on the road as well.
Bergevin may be more or less finished shopping in the clammy UFA market, but he still needs to find a top-six winger and top-four defenseman, which will now likely come via trade. Does he have the depth and assets to make such big moves? With a glut of second-round picks in 2013, and a number of prospects ready to turn pro, he has enough to address at least one of those glaring holes. Will he move those assets, or should he move those assets will be questions that we kick around as the off-season drags on. There’s also the non-trivial matter of what should be done with the sad-sack contracts of Gomez, Bourque and Kaberle? Bergevin would have to wave a telephone pole-sized wand to make those 3 disappear, and again, thank the previous regime for saddling the Habs with at least 2 horrid contracts.
As an era with a new look is massing its forces, and drawing up plans, it will be important to remain patient all over again. Building a team that is a perennial contender is not done on July 1st. Everyone wants their team to spend big when the free agency season opens, but from what we’ve seen not just in Montreal, but all over the league is that shopping for big names on July 1st often leaves you in cap hell at some point. Proper building is done through the draft. It’s done through shrewd cap management, clever, timely trades and proper asset management. Bergevin has to find a way to navigate the bad contracts that he inherited, while at the same time getting the team back in to the playoffs immediately, and simultaneously building for the future. That’s a triple-whammy mandate that would challenge any General Manager. Right now, we’re asking Marc Bergevin to win the race aboard the league’s oldest, creakiest vessel with no rudder and tons of dead weight in the cargo hold. All the hot air blown throughout Habs land won’t push his ship over the finish line any faster, so let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt and the time needed to make this team his own.