BROSSARD - While failing to secure a playoff spot was a tough pill to swallow, general manager Marc Bergevin insists the Canadiens are trending in the right direction.
And with good reason. The 2018-19 campaign was far different - and far better - than last year.
Bergevin made a point of stressing the significant improvement the club made in the standings.
"We're very disappointed that we aren't in the playoffs. That's the message I passed along to the players during the meetings. From a positive standpoint, though, we collected 96 points. That's a 25-point improvement over last season. It's a step in the right direction for the organization," mentioned Bergevin. "We have a bright future. There are a lot of young players knocking on the door. We're among the 10 youngest teams in the NHL."
Now that the Canadiens' season is officially over, Bergevin will surely look at a variety of options to improve his team, but he still has full confidence in the group he is currently working with.
"We're going to continue looking to improve the team at every position. I think that we're ahead of things in terms of the experience that we got during the season," explained Bergevin. "That doesn't mean that we won't do anything, but from the time I spent with the players, the message they gave me was: "We're just getting started." I'm confident about that."
On Tuesday night, the Canadiens learned that they will be selecting 15th in Round 1 of the 2019 NHL Draft. In that regard, he shed some light on his plan going forward.
"You definitely want to improve at every position," said Bergevin. "We have good young players at center that are coming. We have good wingers. On defense, we're relatively young. We have Shea who is 33, and we have young ones in Kulak, Mete and Reilly. We have [Alexander] Romanov who I've seen who isn't available yet. You always want to get the best player available, regardless of position."
Bergevin also shared his thoughts on the performance of several players over the last six-plus months.
He had kind words for Victor Mete. After a brief seven-game stint with the AHL's Laval Rocket early in the year, the 20-year-old blueliner returned to the big club and impressed Bergevin time and again.
"He convinced me that he's an NHL player. Even internally, the way he had discussions with Shea on the ice. You see that he is more and more comfortable. The way he carries the puck, the way he supports the rush. He took an enormous step forward. The only knock on Meat is that he isn't a big player, but there isn't a perfect player. There are players that are bigger, but that aren't as quick as him," explained Bergevin. "He's fast. He has a good stick. He breaks up plays. We asked him to close quicker. He worked with Joel [Bouchard] in Laval, and Joel helped him. He came back and we saw a real difference. I'm really proud of this player that we drafted in the fourth round and we see in him a very good player for the organization."
Jonathan Drouin's name was also brought up on several occasions during the end-of-season press conference. While the Sainte-Agathe native matched his career-high in points this season, he had a tough time putting up numbers over the last two months of the year.
Nevertheless, Bergevin was still pleased with his exit meeting with the highly-skilled forward.
"Jonathan was really open. It was a good chat. We weren't there to be negative. It was just about how he could leave here feeling good, knowing that we support him and that we'll give him the tools to help him become better. He accepted that and he understands," said Bergevin. "I think that taking a step back during the summer, coming back and learning from what happened, it will allow him to take another step in the right direction."
Bergevin also offered up his thoughts on the play of young gun Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Like Mete, the Finnish centerman impressed his general manager.
"Overall, it's very positive," praised Bergevin. "We all saw that the second half was tougher for him. There was physical fatigue and mental fatigue. He's 18 years old. But, on the whole we've very satisfied and we expect even more from him in the years to come."
Bergevin also confirmed that goaltender Antti Niemi would not be back with the club next season.