Where the Montreal Canadiens were headed, it was not pretty.
It seemed every dollar was spent, and every idea exhausted, and yet, for the exception of a three-week stretch to open the season, it wasn't working. What Marc Bergevin had built in desperation, either in an effort to save his job or at least salvage something — anything — meaningful from his nine seasons as general manager of the organization, appeared devastatingly faulty. Montreal proved to be nothing more than a mediocre team in a mediocre division throughout the regular season despite his aggressive efforts to upgrade, and the Canadiens only earned a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs because two temporary division rivals failed harder, while it seemed the Ottawa Senators only ran out of time to catch them.
With Bergevin's clock winding down and just one more season remaining on his current contract, the summer was going to go one of two ways, it seemed: Either the Geoff Molson-led ownership body would get out in front of it, stomach the cost, and promptly show Bergevin the door, or the fuming collective of fans in the market would make itself loud enough to eventually force the issue.
In any event, Bergevin was walking the plank and quickly running out of wood as the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, and as the Canadiens appeared unsurprisingly unprepared to compete while losing three of their first four games versus the Toronto Maple Leafs.
How it turned around so quickly, the hockey world will still be trying to figure out past the end of the season. But the combination of the persistent failures of their first-round opponent, the freedom — or excuse — to finally ice the best roster possible, and, most importantly, Bergevin's ideas proving to hold some merit in the first place, have resulted in something incredibly special.
Now with 11 wins in their last 13 games, the Canadiens have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final — providing proof Bergevin's visions, his ideas, and his concept of team, was worth seeing through.
Bergevin's had moments of unanimous approval in his time with Montreal — his trades for Phillip Danault and Jeff Petry, the selection of Cole Caufield at No. 15 overall two years ago, and signing Tyler Toffoli in free agency this past summer, just to name a few.
But the list of decisions he's come under fire for is just as long, comparing instead in length to receipts on the most expensive bar tabs accumulated in Montreal on Thursday for St. Jean Baptiste Day.
Let's review some of the highlights, while keeping in mind how these decisions look now, with the Canadiens advancing to the NHL's championship series.
Traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber
Signed Carey Price to the richest goaltending contract in NHL history
Drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall
Traded captain Max Pacioretty for a package built around Nick Suzuki
Signed Ben Chiarot to a three-year deal worth north of $10 million
Traded for Josh Andersen, Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen, and committing just short of $12 million to extend them
Fired head coach Claude Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller, while promoting Dominque Ducharme to interim boss and keeping Luke Richardson on the staff
Fired goalie coach Stéphane Waite, while adding Sean Burke to the staff
Traded two draft picks for Eric Staal while at the time sitting 18 points back in the division
At the time Bergevin made each of them, the vast majority of these decisions were considered highly questionable, at best.
But from the most controversial (the decision to move a player and mega personality like Subban out of town for Weber, the colossal captain with the colossal contract), to the most obvious (the sweeping and understandable changes made to the coaching staff as an underperforming team failed to meet expectations in the regular season this year), these decisions from Bergevin have helped shape the concept and identity that the Canadiens have leaned on to reach the NHL's championship series.
Bergevin built a very specific type of team — one not designed to dominate in the regular season, but one built to break down a single opponent over time. Montreal's strength is the ability to identify and stamp out the best of the opposition, using a heavy, mean, and impermeable top four in tandem with Danault, one of the most underrated defensive centres in the entire NHL (and its best goaltender, Carey Price), in order to disarm the league's most powerful weapons.
However intentional this may be, it's something that turns games and series into tests of structure, and goaltending, and depth — or three areas Bergevin has invested so heavily in.
What's most fascinating about it is that it's not likely to be repeatable in the regular season, where the Canadiens show up at different rinks, to take on different opponents, and don't have the opportunity to create and capitalize on the same advantages they have manufactured on the road to the NHL's championship series.
This, in essence, is the duality of Bergevin and the Habs.
What they have built, and the ideas that have shaped the decisions, the structures, and the rosters, dating all the way back to the Weber-Subban trade, are catered to something, and an opportunity, they are in some ways unprepared to earn themselves.
For that reason, it's not out of the question that the Canadiens, regardless of whether or not they defeat either the Tampa Bay Lightning or New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final in the coming weeks, turn around and struggle to make the postseason next year in one of the toughest divisions in hockey.
It's taken extenuating circumstances over the past two seasons for the Canadiens to even qualify for the playoffs, to compete in the type of hockey they've geared themselves towards.
Without those breaks, Bergevin's ideas and concept of team — plus his bright-red two piece lucky suit — would only have continued to be questioned, not celebrated as it is today.
The position the Canadiens find themselves in, on the cusp of a championship, traces back to last summer — and the invitation to the bubble that was awarded on something far less than merit.
What Bergevin saw from his team in its play-in round upset and a hard-fought loss in the first round, while recognizing what little time he had left in charge of the organization, seemed to shape his decisions moving forward.
He doubled down on what he had, and what he saw as possible, again and again as the team struggled as an average regular season team at best. But what other choice was there but to stay committed given the position he was in?
As it happens, Bergevin and the Canadiens were fortunate, again, to have the opportunity to take part.
But once they earned that, and found themselves, they've shown us what Bergevin had envisioned all along.
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