Marc Bergevin never questioned his grand plan.
The Montreal Canadiens general manager was, however, left searching for answers throughout long stretches of an improbable, roller-coaster 2021.
Bergevin’s team, the one he’s built over nine years in his hockey-mad hometown and province, owned the NHL’s best record through 10 games of the league’s pandemic-shortened schedule.
Montreal had surprised in the post-season bubble months earlier, and the GM spent the fall retooling the roster through trade and free agency.
He was ready to see his blueprint in action.
“I’m like, ‘OK this is what I envision,”’ Bergevin said Friday looking back on the winter months less than 48 hours after the underdog Canadiens fell to the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in an unexpected Stanley Cup final trip that stretched into July. “And then we got a dip.
“We just never got out of it.”
That led to the firing of head coach Claude Julien and the promotion of assistant Dominique Ducharme into the top job on an interim basis in February.
But still, Montreal couldn’t get any traction thanks to a combination of new systems, inconsistent play, a COVID-19 shutdown, key injuries and a condensed calendar.
“Is there a point where I doubted? No,” Bergevin continued. “But there was a point where I’m like, ‘I don’t understand why we just can’t take off again.”’
It took some time, but something eventually clicked.
The Canadiens, 18th in the regular-season standings and the last club to qualify for the playoffs, came back from a 3-1 deficit in the first round against the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs with consecutive overtime victories before putting in a dominant Game 7 performance to advance.
“I’m like, ‘Wow,”’ Bergevin said. “Now I felt some momentum, some belief in ourselves in our dressing room.”
Montreal followed that shocking result — at least for nearly everyone outside its four walls — by sweeping the Winnipeg Jets and getting past the Vegas Golden Knights, who had the league’s second-best record, had downed the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche and were hockey’s biggest third-round favourite in more than 30 years.
And the Canadiens played the final four games of that 4-2 semifinal series victory without Ducharme because of a positive COVID-19 test.
But then they ran into a battle-tested, well-oiled buzz saw in the final as Tampa repeated with ruthless efficiency and disposed of the Canadiens in five games.
Despite the gut-wrenching disappointment, Bergevin was proud of his players and what they showed in a trying, gruelling six months.
“That’s the closest group I felt as a team,” he said of his tenure in Montreal. “When I say ‘team’ I believe ‘team’ wins championship, not individuals. We didn’t have those superstars, but we have guys that believe in each other and fought for the guy next to him. And that’s why we went this far.
“We just came up against a team that was doing the same thing.”
Like any off-season — and this one will be much shorter than normal — Montreal must now turn its attention to the future. There’s and expansion draft with the Seattle Kraken joining as the NHL’s 32nd franchise, the entry draft and free agency.
Bergevin, meanwhile, was asked if he’d like to continue on as GM with his contract set to run out in less than 12 months.
“I have one more year on my contract,” he said bluntly. “And I will honour that.”
It’s also clear that Ducharme will almost certainly have the interim tag removed from his job title soon.
“It was a crazy ride,” the 48-year-old said of his personal journey this season. “But at the same time, that’s the kind of situation or challenge that we like.
“If you don’t like those kinds of challenges, I don’t think you’re in the right business.”
The Canadiens have a number of unrestricted free agents, including centre Phillip Danault, who only scored once in the playoffs, but showed his value in neutralizing the likes of Auston Matthews and other big-name threats.
They possesses a promising young core at forward in Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but star goaltender Carey Price is 33, while captain Shea Weber is 35.
Montreal will also be back in the powerhouse Atlantic Division next season with Tampa, Toronto, the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers after winning the one-off North necessitated by pandemic border restrictions.
But the Canadiens are convinced they’re on the right track.
“We went through a ton of adversity,” Suzuki said. “We learned a lot about ourselves, what we can do as a team. When we have the right mindset, we can play against anybody and beat anybody.”
Added Caufield: “This is only just the start. (The fans) deserve a winning team. We gave a little taste of it this year. Our expectation is to be a winning team.”
Price and Weber weren’t made available to the media Friday, but some of their teammates shared what it was like watching those veterans fall just short in the duo’s first final.
“You see guys like Shea Weber and Carey Price, and seeing those guys’ faces … it’s devastating,” winger Josh Anderson said.
“It’s a sickening feeling watching the other team celebrate winning the Cup when you’ve put in that much work,” defenceman Ben Chiarot added. “It’s tough to see a friend in that situation.”
The Canadiens fell just short of raising hockey’s holy grail for the first time since 1993 — also the last time a Cup banner was raised north of the border — but Bergevin was quickly back at his desk to begin the process anew.
“I’m disappointed we couldn’t bring back the 25th Cup to Montreal,” he said. “But my work to do it has started again.’
© 2021 The Canadian Press