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GM: Canadiens good enough to contend

Marc Bergevin says he changed coaches because Montreal wasn't playing to potential

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens are ready to contend. At least that's what general manager Marc Bergevin thinks two weeks from the NHL Trade Deadline, March 1 at 3 p.m. ET.

After replacing coach Michel Therrien with Claude Julien a day earlier, Bergevin explained his decision to make the change by saying Wednesday he did not believe the Canadiens were playing to their potential.

They have gone 1-5-1 in their past seven games and are 18-18-7 since starting the season 13-1-1, so Bergevin's point is valid.

But how much better are they? And are they good enough that Bergevin needs to aggressively improve the team before the deadline to take a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup?

The message was mixed on that front.

Bergevin was asked if he feels the roster he built during the offseason through bold moves that added defenseman Shea Weber and forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw was good enough to contend right now.

"Yes," he replied.

Video: STL@MTL: Weber hammers a slap shot past Allen

But Bergevin went to great lengths to explain not only to the gathered media or Canadiens fans watching the press conference live, but probably also to the 29 other general managers around the NHL, that he will not sacrifice the future in order to benefit the present.

He mentioned prized defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev, the No. 9 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, as an example of someone he would not trade to find a short-term fix. In so doing, Bergevin appeared to suggest the prices on the trade market currently were that high, and he had no interest in paying that price.

"Personally, I believe we have the tools necessary," he said. "In terms of trades, the state of things right now, I want to be clear on this, of giving young players like Sergachev for a fix is not happening. I will always look to improve the team, but if the price to pay is our young players who will be in the organization for the next 10, 15 years, I won't do that.

"So we won't be making a big trade like that; it won't happen. If the price drops and it's something that is reasonable for the organization in the short and long term, I'll do it. Otherwise nothing's going to happen. I want to be clear on that."

Later, however, Bergevin was asked whether he would consider trading a top prospect for a player with some term left on his contract, and he did not dismiss the idea as adamantly as he did previously.

"Depends on which player and it depends on the term," he said.

Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene has two years remaining on his contract after this season and is the type of player the Canadiens could sorely use. Montreal has four forwards who legitimately could be considered top-six talents: Max Pacioretty, Radulov, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Adding one more wouldn't hurt, and if that player were a center, it would be even better.

Bergevin stated a certain willingness to mortgage the future for immediate help, but that willingness came with the same condition attached as before.

"If the future is our top prospects, the answer is no," he said. "It's a short conversation, about 20 seconds, just so you know. The window [to win], I think we have a very good team, we have strong leadership, good veterans and some young, up and coming [players]. So the mindset hasn't changed. It's make the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs; once you're in, everything's possible. There's elite teams in the League, you can maybe put Washington, Pittsburgh in that mold, and after that everybody's really tight. So once you're in, you don't know what could happen."

The window Bergevin was talking about could be seen as the same as the length of goaltender Carey Price's contract, which expires after next season. But in order for the Canadiens to consider themselves true contenders in that window, Price needs to play at the same elite level he has in the past.

Video: MTL@BOS: Price stones Pastrnak on the doorstep in 2nd

And that hasn't happened for two months now.

Since allowing four goals on 18 shots in 26:44 against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 16, Price is 8-11-3 with a 3.11 goals-against average and .895 save percentage in 22 games. The hiring of Julien might help lower the number of high-quality scoring chances Price sees each game, but his play has to improve if the Canadiens hope to do anything in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Julien mentioned at every opportunity he had during an hour-long conference call Wednesday how Price is the best goalie in the world, and that's probably because his ability to make a difference as a coach is dependent on that actually being the case.

"I believe standing here today that Carey is the best goalie in the world and his game will be on track consistently before you know it," Bergevin said. "Do I have full confidence in Carey Price? No doubt in my mind.

"Am I concerned? No. Do I expect more from Carey? Yes. He's had some difficult periods, yes. But is it Carey Price's fault we're here today? No. It's the team that I felt wasn't performing at a level I expect from them and that they expect from themselves. Carey is a winner. He's had a lot of success and I have no doubt he will get back to where he was not so long ago."

The debate about whether Bergevin should sacrifice prospects to bolster the Canadiens during the next two weeks will be rendered moot if Price does not turn it around. But assuming he does, and Price's track record suggests that is likely, the pressure will be on Bergevin to give his new coach some reinforcements by March 1.

The Canadiens play their first game under Julien on at home against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday (2 p.m. ET; CBC, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV), their first of six games remaining prior to the trade deadline.

That is also the window the Canadiens players have to convince their general manager they are worth gambling on this season.

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