During his overly long tenure as GM of the Canadiens, I produced thousands of words defending Marc Bergevin.
Not that I thought he was great at his job. He wasn’t. But I felt that many of the attacks on the man were unfair, the knee-jerk reactions of critics who detested so much they refused to give credit where it was due.
Bergevin lost my support with the Logan Mailloux draft, but on balance, his record on the trade market and at the draft were a mixed bag. Good trades and bad trades, good picks and bad picks.
Obviously, he had flaws: He failed to emphasize smarts at the draft table, never saw a slow-footed defenceman he didn’t love and let things get personal rather than sticking to business.
Where the criticism was most fair was in Bergevin’s handling of contracts. Bergevin consistently handed out fat contracts to players who simply weren’t worth it, from Karl Alzner to Joel Armia. Simultaneously, he decided to play tough at the wrong time — with Andrei Markov, with Alexander Radulov and Phillip Danault, who is among the best defensive centremen of his time.
If ever there was a player who deserved a two-year deal and an opportunity to wind up his career and play his 1,000th game with the Canadiens, it was Markov. As he did so often, Bergevin let his ego get in the way.
Behind Bergevin’s pyrotechnic approach to negotiations that tended to blow up in his face, there’s a simple truth: Managing a hockey team has become a billion-dollar business and it is now well beyond the abilities of stalwarts who have always grabbed the front-office jobs in the NHL — men whose formal education ended when they played their first game in junior hockey.
My mentor Stu Cowan said as much a month ago when he wrote a report shedding some light on the difficulties Carey Price’s contract creates for Bergevin’s successor, Kent Hughes. The report, citing both Hughes and the good folks at CapFriendly, was as clearly written as it could possibly be — and yet I had to read it two or three times to begin to understand it.
With each new basic agreement, it seems, the salary cap becomes more complex, its application more uncertain. If you don’t understand it thoroughly, you can sign a player to a contract that matches his abilities and his contribution to the team, only to discover down the road that it contained hidden pitfalls.
The Price contract is the perfect illustration of the changes necessary in NHL front offices from Anaheim to Boston. Price will almost certainly never play again, but he still has three years to go on his contract at an annual cap hit of $10.5 million.
That’s a risk you take. Some applauded Price’s $84-million deal when it was signed, others criticized Bergevin because of Price’s age and injury problems at the time he signed it. But there’s another factor at play with contract negotiations — the reaction of the fan base. With Price as with Brendan Gallagher (who signed another whopping contract), Bergevin was dealing with a local hero and he would have been savaged had he not obtained Price’s signature on the dotted line.
As Cowan explained in his piece, the not-so-hidden trap in the Price deal was in the way the signing bonus was spread out. This season, Price is owed a base salary of $2 million and a signing bonus of $6.5 million, which negates the possibility of trading the contract (and the full cap hit) as Hughes was able to do with Shea Weber’s contract.
Years ago, I backed Julien BriseBois for the GM post that eventually went to Marc Bergevin. To hockey’s good old boys, BriseBois did not have the necessary experience in those frigid arenas where junior teams practise before boarding the buses for Chicoutimi or Moose Jaw.
My argument was that the game has grown too complex for managers whose qualifications rest entirely on their knowledge of the game. In hindsight, I was right. Had the Canadiens hired my Greenfield Park homie back in 2012, they may not have been stuck with a long list of albatross contracts that Bergevin handed out like party favours.
In hiring Hughes and Jeff Gorton to run this team, Geoff Molson was acknowledging that truth. First, by splitting a fundamentally impossible job between two individuals, then by hiring people whose business acumen matched their understanding of the game.
Bergevin, deservedly, will get some of the credit for the very young team that will take the ice when the Canadiens open their season in Toronto next Wednesday. He drafted Kaiden Guhle, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Cole Caufield, traded for captain Nick Suzuki, claimed Sam Montembeault on waivers and signed Arber Xhekaj, among others.
Beyond the fun they provide on the ice and the promise for the future they represent, the raft of young players the Canadiens have on the roster provides another boost that often goes unnoticed: they mean cap flexibility.
Like it or not, that’s the nature of the game today. It’s also a game tailor-made for a highly intelligent former agent — Kent Hughes.
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