BUFFALO – The Canadiens might have been picking in the No. 9 spot on Friday night, but they certainly made their presence felt a lot earlier than that.
For the past few weeks, Habs fans were wondering what Marc Bergevin would do during Round 1. Would he move up? Would he make a trade? Or, would he just opt to keep things exactly the way they were? His moves in the opening round involved a couple of those elements, as Bergevin was active from the start.
Just minutes after the Toronto Maple Leafs made Auston Matthews the first- overall pick, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took to the microphone to announce a pair of trades, both of which involved the Canadiens.
First, the Canadiens traded Lars Eller to the Washington Capitals in exchange for two second-round picks, one in 2017 and another in 2018. A few seconds later, the crowd in attendance at the First Niagara Center learned that the Canadiens sent their two second-round picks this year to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Andrew Shaw. After spending a lot of time talking to his colleagues from other teams on the draft floor before the annual NHL event got underway, Bergevin decided to act and shake things up a bit.
“Andrew Shaw has played five seasons in the NHL and he’s won two Stanley Cups. We talked a lot about helping out our dressing room with character guys, and that’s one of the reasons why it was important to go out and get a player of his caliber. He’s got many good attributes on the ice and off it,” said Bergevin, who was still working in the Blackhawks’ organization when Shaw was drafted in 2011. “He knows what it takes to win. He’s scored big goals during the playoffs, and he reminds me a little bit of Brendan Gallagher. He takes guys into battle with him. I feel like our fans will appreciate him.”
While Shaw will soon become a restricted free agent, Bergevin is confident that he’ll get his new forward under contract soon. As has been the case for the past few years, the Blackhawks were forced to part ways with key players to make their salary cap situation work. Shaw is the most recent example of that. Likewise, the Canadiens were forced to deal Eller to Washington for salary cap reasons, too, following six seasons in Montreal.
“I’d like to thank Lars for the service he’s given to the Montreal Canadiens. There again, we had to make some space under the salary cap when we acquired a player. Washington saw Lars as a player who met their needs. I want to wish him the best of luck,” stressed Bergevin, referencing the Danish forward who still had two years left on his contract with the Canadiens.
Then, when the Canadiens elected to stand pat and pick ninth, Bergevin decided to focus once again on the back end. For a second consecutive year, he selected a defenseman in the first round, picking Mikhail Sergachev of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. Having learned to speak English in just a few months after arriving on Canadian soil last year, the newcomer couldn’t hide his excitement after joining the Canadiens’ fold.
“It’s very special. It’s one of the best feelings you can have because Montreal is a hockey city. Nothing can beat being drafted by the Canadiens,” said Sergachev, who led all OHL defensemen with 17 goals, and amassed 57 points in his first season in North America in 2015-16. “I’m a defenseman who’s good at both ends of the rink, and I have a good shot. I play in pretty much any situation.”
After meeting with the Canadiens’ brass on three occasions over the last few months, the Russian rearguard – who turned 18 on Saturday – admits that he thought a lot about the CH when it was their turn to head up on the draft stage in the opening round. Hoping to have the chance to showcase his skills in the NHL ranks as quickly as possible – even as soon as next season – Sergachev is eager to one day play alongside one his fellow countrymen, Andrei Markov, to whom Bergevin compared his newest prospect.
“It’s pretty cool [to be compared to a young Markov]. He’s definitely one of the best defensemen in the NHL, which is the best league in the world. It’s very special,” added Sergachev, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 203 pounds. “I’d like to play with him one day. He’s mature and he knows a lot of things.”
In Bergevin’s mind, selecting Sergachev – who compares his playing style to that of Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty – was a no-brainer. He’d always said he was intent on picking the best player available, and in his mind the Nizhnekamsk, Russia native was it.
“I wanted a defenseman. The projections on him say that he could replace Andrei Markov. Andrei still provides us with some precious work, but he’s getting older. We were very happy to get Sergachev. He’s a big guy, a player who’s capable of playing just as good on the left side as he does on the right. He’s very solid,” said Bergevin, who doesn’t want to look too far ahead when it comes to his top pick. “He needs to get a little bit more mature on the ice, as all young defensemen need to do. On the physicality side of things, he’s almost at the NHL level. We’re following him closely. He’ll come to camp and we’ll see what happens.”
After trading away his two picks in the second round, Bergevin still has four picks in the final six rounds to work with. Who knows what Saturday will bring…
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.