Is this it? Is Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin done shopping?
It sure feels like it. On Thursday, the Habs signed restricted free agents Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen , with Armia inking for $5.2 million over two years and fellow Finn Lehkonen agreeing to take $4.8 million over the same two years. With that deal, the Habs now have 24 players under contract and they’ve got $4.844 million left in available cap space.
The other two restricted free agents who remain unsigned are Michael McCarron and Charles Hudon and I think you can safely assume that neither will ever wear a Canadiens jersey again.
So once you forget the circus sideshow that was the “hostile” offer — quote marks because it wasn’t hostile at all! — for Sebastian Aho , the Canadiens off-season moves come down to signing three free agents who will not move the needle and re-signing a slew of Canadiens who won’t move the needle. The free agents are defenceman Ben Chiarot, back-up goalie Keith Kinkaid and forward Nick Cousins. The players re-signed, in addition to Armia and Lehkonen, are Nate Thompson, Jordan Weal , Christian Folin and Mike Reilly . I know, be still my beating heart.
The most significant losses are rugged forward Andrew Shaw , traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for picks, and free agent Jordie Benn, who signed with the Vancouver Canucks .
In other words, the team is, at best, as good as the 2018-2019 team, which failed to make the playoffs, or likely a bit worse given that Shaw contributed 19 goals, 47 points and much character in just 63 games. When I say things aren’t looking great, the Bergevinistas inevitably shout back, “Hey the summer’s not over.”
And they’re right, sort of. Of course it isn’t, but what are the chances that Bergevin has more tricks in his toolbox? My prediction is the team you see today is pretty well the team you’ll see when the regular season starts in October.
My bold July prediction is, if there are no big moves between now and opening night, this edition of the Habs will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season. And if that happens, that would take this storied franchise to new levels of mediocrity.
As my colleague Marc Dumont has mentioned in a couple of places this week, the Canadiens have only ever missed the playoffs in three consecutive occasions twice in their history. Once between 1919 and 1921 and again between 1999 and 2001. In other words, it would be a huge failure even by the lowered standards of 21st-century Habs fans who celebrate missing the playoffs as a victory because well, heck, the boys really tried hard and put on a good show most nights.
Here’s another fearless prediction. They won’t make the playoffs and — in spite of the fact they will have missed the post-season three straight times, will have missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons and will have secured one measly playoff series win in five years, owner Geoff Molson will not fire Bergevin.
This for a team that made it to Game 6 of the conference final in 2014 — making a go of it against the New York Rangers even though their superstar goalie Carey Price was on the sidelines. That 2014 team was not built by Bergevin, given that he only took over as GM in the summer of 2012. So he doesn’t get much credit for that run. He does however get full credit for tearing that team apart in the five years since. Yup, one playoff series win since that 2014 run. Fact.
So why is the management of the Canadiens so willing to put up with crap results? Honestly it’s a bit mysterious. I was sitting at lunch the other day with three pals, munching souvlaki brochettes and discussing just that. One idea raised is that there’s little impetus to excel given that the CH corp makes a cool profit of more than $100 million annually.
But we figured maybe the bigger reason is the lack of competition. Monopolies are never a good thing and the reality is that the Canadiens have a monopoly in the Quebec sports biz. Back in the good old days of the Battle of Quebec, the Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques battled it out, as did their owners, the Molson brewery, which controlled the Habs, and Carling O’Keefe, which owned the Nords.
Well, sadly, it looks like the Nordiques aren’t coming back any time soon. The more encouraging possibility is the return of the Expos. The last time I spoke to Mitch Garber, who is one of the partners in the project to bring major-league baseball back to Montreal, he told me that he believes there is an excellent chance this will indeed happen. That would be great, if for no other reason that it would provide a little healthy sports competition for the Habs.
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