It’s the statement that has been making the rounds the past 48 hours by Montreal Canadiens fans on social media.
Famous last words for former general manager Marc Bergevin. They just happened to have been uttered four years before his departure.
“If you want loyalty, buy a dog,” said Bergevin after Alexander Radulov signed with the Dallas Stars in July of 2017.
When it came to hiring and promoting people in his hockey department, Bergevin was always willing to reward loyalty.
In the end, the former Habs general manager surrounded himself with too many yes men who failed repeatedly in their duty to the club. They climbed the ladder not based on the success of the Montreal Canadiens. Front-office personnel were never held to the appropriate standard of accountability for the failings of a hockey team that was supposed to be an annual contender for the Stanley Cup.
If there is an overriding theme throughout his near decade-long tenure with the club, it would be misplaced loyalty.
The alarm bells began to ring early down on the farm for Montreal Canadiens fans. When Bergevin was hired in 2012, he appointed Sylvain Lefebvre to be the head coach of the team’s AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs.
What followed was an unmitigated disaster.
Lefebvre survived two relocations to St. John’s, eventually landing in Laval. In five years, he had a record of 188-210-8. But more glaring was the inability to develop players and graduate them to the NHL. Quite literally the primary function of the bench boss in the American Hockey League.
Throughout Lefebvre’s five year tenure with the club, only Nathan Beaulieu became an NHL regular with the Habs. First round picks Louis Leblanc, Jarred Tinordi, Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak never developed. Their futures with the Canadiens eventually withered and died on the vine. Jacob De La Rose and Charles Hudon were poster boys for the tweener NHL/AHLers that came out of the AHL at that time. The atmosphere on the farm grew toxic and became a graveyard for growth.
But Lefebvre only lost his job in 2018 because of mounting pressure around Bergevin’s position with the Canadiens. Not because the team had failed in it’s ability to develop players or even win games, finishing dead last in the AHL at the time. In his press release announcing Lefebvre’s firing, Bergevin called him an “excellent coach”.
Based on what? Empirical evidence? No. It was instead because Lefebvre was his guy. His failure would have been a reflection of Bergevin’s failure in having appointed him.
A few months later, Bergevin saved his job by announcing the team would embark on a reset. But without changing any of the front-office personnel who had led the Canadiens to that point.
While it may seem unfair to blame Lefebvre for how those prospects turned out, that was quite literally his job. To improve and grow those players into serviceable NHLers.
The man who procured those players is the main culprit for Bergevin’s demise.
The Montreal Canadiens fired Trevor Timmins after 17 years with the organization. A crazy number of years in terms of longevity with one franchise.
But it does provide a large sample size.
Timmins parlayed a terrific draft in 2007 into an almost two decades long tenure with the Habs. He knocked it out of the park with the selections of Ryan McDonagh, Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban as the director of amateur scouting under Bob Gainey.
But his inability to draft impact NHLers has been his Achilles heel since then. The Habs never drafted a 70-point player during Timmins’ time as director of amateur scouting. He has found the solid third and fourth line players that have so often been miscast in premier roles with the Canadiens. But a number one centreman? Didn’t happen. Top pairing defenceman? Since Subban, nada.
His picks since the self-proclaimed reset? Well, the journey is still out on those. But the amount of players drafted by the team between 2012 and 2017 that are on the active roster is three. Ryan Poehling, Artturi Lehkonen and Jake Evans. Out of 39 players. That’s a seven percent success rate.
What did Timmins receive for his middling to bad draft record through those first five years? A promotion to assistant general manager in 2017. The same man who had overseen the lacklustre team-building to that point was then entrusted with cultivating the next crop of Habs hopefuls.
Accountability never came from the top down during Bergevin’s time as boss of the Canadiens.
The blame game
Other executives continued to receive promotions. Not for their work but because of their personal relationships with Bergevin.
Enter Martin Lapointe. He remains with the organization (for now) as director of player personnel and amateur scouting. He was hired as the director of player development in 2012 at the start of Bergevin’s reign. Lapointe oversaw the same dysfunction with the club’s prospects during Lefebvre’s time on the farm and Timmins’ poor draft record. Only he wasn’t fired in 2017. Like Timmins, he was promoted to his current position with the club following a horrendous record of drafting and developing players.
What this culture created was an inability to admit when things were being done wrong. Instead of acknowledgement and learning from mistakes it appeared as though Bergevin and people within the organization were more concerned with deflecting blame.
Mostly to the players.
Look no further than the highest profile drafting failures for the Montreal Canadiens during Bergevin’s time with the team. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Alex Galchenyuk. Did both of those players have their parts to play in their lack of success with the team? Sure. But both weren’t put in positions to succeed by being rushed into the NHL. When their progress at the highest level stalled, it wasn’t because of that according to Bergevin.
It was their commitment to their off-season program. Their commitment to their defensive game. Their parents. It was their failure to adapt in the pros.
Not our fault. Theirs.
There was just far too much passing of the proverbial buck during Bergevin’s nine years with the Montreal Canadiens. Protecting his peers and teammates in the front-office was as important as the results on the ice. Without that accountability from the top, the team floundered in mediocrity for almost a decade.
Bergevin can say the goal was always to win the Stanley Cup with the Habs. But he didn’t surround himself with a Cup-winning staff that could deliver. Then he promoted and defended them until his last day on the job.
If you want loyalty, don’t run a hockey team.
Buy a dog.