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Bergevin: Expectations still as high as ever

The Canadiens' GM is already seeing key differences in the group under interim head coach Dominique Ducharme

by Matt Cudzinowski @CanadiensMTL /

WINNIPEG - General manager Marc Bergevin is sticking to his guns.

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During his mid-season press conference on Tuesday afternoon, he insisted that his elevated expectations for this edition of the Canadiens haven't changed, even though wins have been tougher to come by recently.

With 28 games in the books and 33 points in the bank, Bergevin is adamant that this group is still on track for a top-four finish in the North Division come early May and a coveted postseason berth.

"It's a tough league. Every night it's a battle, and I expect the same down the road. We have to make the playoffs. I feel we have a team to make the playoffs, and then once we get in, I feel that anything's possible," said Bergevin, who watched his squad snap a two-game losing streak with an impressive 4-2 victory over the Jets on Monday night at Bell MTS Place. "It's hard, though. Every night, it's a one-goal league. We're pretty good in net. We're up there with the best in the league. I like our team. Our young players keep progressing. They have some little peaks and valleys. That's a part of being a young player. But they care and they want to do well, so we have high expectations for ourselves."

Video: Marc Bergevin's mid-season review

While the Canadiens' 4-3-3 record under interim head coach Dominique Ducharme isn't exactly sparkling, the man who gave him the reins on February 24 appreciates the changes being implemented thus far.

Bergevin indicated that he was "satisfied" with how things have progressed under Ducharme's watch, identifying a few key switches that caught his eye in the early stages of the Joliette native's tenure as bench boss.

"I think our special teams overall have improved, even though we don't score all the time on the power play. I find we're more engaged, we have some looks and we control the puck more," praised Bergevin, referencing the Habs' 31.8% success rate with the man advantage (7-for-22) since Ducharme and assistant coach Alex Burrows were installed in their new roles. "I also think our goalies are on top of their games now, and I like to see what Dom is going to do with our team for the second half of the season."

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: Josh Anderson:"YES!"#GoHabsGo

That includes finding ways to get the players over the hump when contests go beyond regulation because the Canadiens are winless under those circumstances.

Montreal has dropped four games in OT and three in shootouts on the year, but Bergevin is already seeing some modifications in that department.

"We're more patient [in overtime] and we're in possession of the puck for longer periods of time now. We'll only go if we really have a chance of scoring instead of going for it every single time. That often resulted in odd-man rushes against us," explained Bergevin. "We were taking too many useless chances. That's the big difference I see. We have room for improvement, but I see the changes Dom has made."

With respect to goaltending, Bergevin is pleased to see starter Carey Price return to form.

The 33-year-old Anahim Lake, BC native has posted a 3-1-1 record and a .948 save percentage over the last two weeks while working directly with Laval Rocket goaltending coach Marco Marciano and virtually with new Canadiens director of goaltending Sean Burke.

"I think it's a bit of everything, the change, a new voice, a new approach, but also that Carey took a step back," responded Bergevin, when asked to explain the seven-time All-Star's turnaround. "Pricer is a guy who is very hard on himself. His expectations are high. He's a good pro, a player who cares about the Montreal Canadiens and his teammates. Like we see right now, he's back on top of his game."

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: Une victoire pour le 700e de Price. 🥳A win for Price's 700th game.#GoHabsGo

Even though Bergevin believes his club is trending in the right direction and a playoff spot is certainly in the cards, don't expect significant movement ahead of the April 12 trade deadline.

First and foremost, he made it abundantly clear that replacing veteran defenseman Ben Chiarot while he spends a significant amount of time recovering from hand surgery simply isn't feasible due to salary cap issues. 

"Ben's not going to be out long-term. He'll be back. We said six to eight weeks. It's probably going to be closer to six, hopefully. We have to be careful, because spending his money knowing he's coming back, he'll have to re-enter onto our team, so we need the cap space," explained Bergevin. "We're just really tight against the cap."

That doesn't mean that the 55-year-old former blueliner will remain idle, however.

Like the rest of the general managers around the NHL, he'll surely be making and fielding his fair share of phone calls in the coming weeks, but it takes two to tango.

"If the opportunity presents itself to go out and get something that I'm convinced will help the team, I'm going to look at it," stated Bergevin. "People have always wanted us to spend to the salary cap and we did it, but for the right reasons. It's tougher and tougher to add to your team. You really have to be creative, which we can be, but we were just $30,000 below the cap on Monday. It's tough to manage."

Remember that Bergevin acquired defenseman Jeff Petry's services on the morning of trade deadline day just over six years ago, so anything is possible until the clock strikes 3:00 p.m. ET.

He reflected on the move that sent a second-round pick and a conditional fifth-round pick in return to the Edmonton Oilers.

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: Petry marque son 11e but de la saison sur une belle passe de Jo!Petry gets his 11th of the season on a beautiful backhand pass from Drou!#GoHabsGo

"Back then, I had no idea if we were going to be able to re-sign him, but our scouts really liked him, so we made the trade, and the rest is history," shared Bergevin. "What I like about Jeff is that he improves every year. We see the way he skates and the way he handles himself on the ice. He's an elite player in the NHL. He also wanted to stay in Montreal, so we were able to give him an extension last summer. He's a very important player for us. We're very proud of that trade that brought Jeff to Montreal."

'I like his improvement'

Top prospect Cole Caufield was also a topic of conversation on Tuesday.

The 20-year-old University of Wisconsin sophomore and Big Ten Player of the Year has been outstanding for the Badgers this season, leading the nation in scoring with 48 points (27 goals, 21 assists) in just 29 games.

Tweet from @BadgerMHockey: OT GWG!!! Wonder how @Brian_Posick called it 🗣

Caufield, who was selected 15th overall by the Canadiens in 2019, is well on his way to turning pro in the near future, and Bergevin has enjoyed seeing the incredible strides in his game.

"His commitment without the puck took the biggest step for me. He's always been a goalscorer. Like last night, we saw [Jets left-winger] Kyle Connor, he's one of those types of players where they need just that one chance and it's in the back of the net. That's always been there, but I remember watching a clip where Cole lost the puck at the blueline and he was the first guy back," mentioned Bergevin, regarding the uber-talented right-winger. "He lifted the guy's stick, so I think his game without the puck has improved a lot."

Video: NHL Draft: Brendan Gallagher interviews Cole Caufield

Nevertheless, he wasn't about to comment on the Hobey Baker Award hopeful's readiness for the NHL ranks.

"It's impossible to say until the player gets here. It doesn't matter if it's Cole Caufield, Jordan Harris or another player. There's a big difference between the NCAA and the NHL, so as long as the player isn't here with us, it's impossible to say," added Bergevin. "But I like his improvement. He's engaged without the puck. He'll never be perfect, but at least he's capable of helping us in that aspect and not hurting us."

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