TORONTO - Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin held court with the media for half an hour on Saturday to share his thoughts on his team's performance in 2019-20, why he's leaving Toronto filled with optimism, and what the future holds for the Habs.
The Canadiens entered the bubble as underdogs after earning a spot in the tournament as the 24th seed. Very few - if any - pundits expected the Habs to make it past the heavily-favored Penguins in the Qualifying Round and anticipated that the Canadiens' greatest source of excitement in the offseason would be the team's participation in the NHL Draft Lottery.
Marc Bergevin on why winning in the qualifiers was worth losing out on a potential lottery win:
"The experience our young players got and the progression we saw from them, that's priceless. Moving down seven spots [in the Draft order] is the price you pay for that. What we went through over the last few months really helped this organization take a step forward. And if you look historically, a player who gets picked 18th can end up being even better than one who's picked eighth. We're comfortable with the idea that we'll get an equivalent player at 16 as we would have at nine. We'll see at the Draft, but the tradeoff is worth it for what we got by going through this experience with our young guys and the character they showed. It also helped show us where this team is going and will help us make decisions."
Bergevin on what he's most optimistic about when evaluating the team's progression over the last few months:
"The end of year media op we're having today compared to what it would have been in April without being in the playoffs and without having beaten Pittsburgh would have been very different. We're ahead of where we thought we were. We saw some things in the last few months that we were hoping we'd see. Like the way Nick Suzuki carried himself in big games, and [Jesperi Kotkaniemi]'s progression. What we see today is a team that's going in the right direction -- a team our fans can be proud of. It's been a long time since the Canadiens have had two very young centermen to build around. They have a 10-to-15 year career ahead of them in this organization and we can build around those two young players for a long time. We also have great young players coming, like Alexander Romanov and Cole Caufield. The core of a team is built through the Draft -- you can see that with a team like Vancouver. That's what the Canadiens are doing right now."
One of Bergevin's bubble highlights was getting to see two of his young stars enjoy coming out parties in the postseason, with rookie Nick Suzuki and 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi showing they can dominate even on the biggest stage. Suzuki and Kotkaniemi led the Habs with four postseason goals apiece. Three of Suzuki's goals came in elimination games and he impressed his GM and teammates alike with his play on both sides of the puck throughout the tournament. Kotkaniemi not only showcased his offensive prowess, he was also a force physically, finishing sixth in the League in postseason hits, with 36.
"Just how they performed, how they were able to bring their games to a new level...in Nick's case, he had a good year, but in key times like last night, he had two big goals and made big plays. And for KK, having a tough second year [in 2019-20], being sent to Laval and bouncing back and taking his career upon himself. He's getting stronger, as we all know. Last year, many times I felt watching him play that he was falling down a lot and losing his balance. So, whatever he did the last four or five months, working on his strength and legs -- and a lot has to do with his mental preparation -- he did that. We saw what he could bring to a hockey club and that's what we expect from him from Day 1 at camp next year."
With 14 picks in the upcoming Draft, Bergevin is excited about the longterm future of the team, but he's also optimistic about the team's potential in the immediate term and understands the role his veteran leaders have played in establishing a strong culture on and off the ice.
"As an organization, we've always believed in Shea [Weber] and Carey [Price]. They're leaders who elevate the culture in an organization. Eventually, those guys will leave, but what they're bringing to the organization for the young guys we have here now, that's going to last forever. They have a huge longterm value for us."
"Weber never surprises me. You can't build a leader; you're born a leader. And since he set foot in Montreal, he hasn't stopped impressing us on and off the ice. He helped create a culture that will last years after he leaves. He's an incredible person, a proud player, and someone who competes every shift. And I'm sure there's no one in the League who would look forward to battling with Shea Weber in the playoffs for at least four games. And with the way he trains and takes care of himself, he still has a lot of great hockey ahead of him.
Bergevin also gave an update on Brendan Gallagher's medical situation. The heart-and-soul forward suffered a broken jaw after taking a crosscheck to the face in Game 5, and underwent surgery in Toronto on Friday, but that wasn't the only injury Gallagher was playing through during the playoffs.
"Gally had surgery late last night and he's on his way back to Vancouver, probably in the next few hours. It went well and we expect a full recovery. But he was also playing with a hip issue. He was hurt against Pittsburgh and had a little tear in his hip. I know you guys know him as well as I do. He's got the heart of a lion, and he wouldn't get off the ice."