MONTREAL – When Marc Bergevin arrived in Montreal in May, he knew how bright the future looked with all the young prospects the Habs had waiting in the wings. The last few weeks have given him an opportunity to see their progress for himself.
Rather than twiddling his thumbs in his office waiting for the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement to be resolved, the Canadiens’ general manager has been racking up frequent flyer miles getting to know some of his stars-in-the-making. While he may have a whole stable of prospects to keep tabs on all over the world, Bergevin has made sure to pay special attention to the new crop of Bulldogs hitting the ice in Hamilton.
“The past couple of weeks have allowed me to go see some of our young players who arrived here before I did and therefore I don’t know as well as the others,” admitted Bergevin. “The only time I really got to see the Bulldogs last year was in Rockford [the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate]. I wasn’t really watching the Canadiens’ prospects since I was there to evaluate Chicago’s players. I’ve now had the chance to get caught up and formulate my own opinions about those guys.”
Like any team whose roster is jam-packed with newcomers, chemistry hasn’t happened overnight in Hamilton. After a solid start to the campaign, things took a turn with the Bulldogs losing four of their last five games. Despite the slide and the team’s current second-to-last place standing in the Western Conference, the big boss is showing plenty of patience when it comes to evaluating the kids on the farm.
“I was sort of anticipating the kinds of struggles the Bulldogs are having and it’s possible they might struggle a little while longer. I knew coming into the season that we had nine rookies in the lineup, including five defensemen. We’re going to keep seeing highs and lows,” explained Bergevin. “You want to see those players progress; you don’t want to send them down to the ECHL if they can develop where they are. That’s the price you have to pay if you want to develop young players. It will take the time it takes.
“Not to mention, the American Hockey League is stronger than usual this year because a lot of the best young NHL players are down there right now,” he added. “For a lot of clubs, they have four or five guys who will get called up to the NHL as soon as the CBA is resolved and that makes a difference. We probably won’t see a whole lot of movement [in Hamilton] when that happens which will even the playing field. Plus, [Cedrick] Desjardins is injured, which changes things, even though [Robert] Mayer is doing a great job.”
The team’s current record also hasn’t changed Bergevin’s opinion of his new head coach in Hamilton, Sylvain Lefebvre, who has taken on the responsibility of helping his young squad adapt to life in the pros. His players aren’t the only rookies in town; Lefebvre is also in his first year behind the bench in a head coaching role and the way he’s managed to get the job done without the help of grizzled vets in the lineup has already earned him a few fans back in Montreal.
“I’m proud of the work Sylvain has done so far. His mandate was to help the young guys develop and that’s what he’s doing. We talk almost every day and after every game. That’s key. He’s my eyes in Hamilton. I hired him because I believe in his vision of what a hockey player should be. Anytime he changes something or he addresses an issue, he lets me know so I’m in the loop. Sylvain is a really great communicator,” shared Bergevin of his longtime NHL opponent.
With over 2,000 games between them spent patrolling NHL blue lines, few people understand the challenges young defensemen face better than Lefebvre and Bergevin. Budding young Hamilton rearguards Greg Pateryn, Antoine Corbin, Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Morgan Ellis have combined for a minus-27 differential to date as they continue to adjust to the speed of professional hockey.
Having been through that himself early on in his career, Bergevin isn’t worried about his green defensive corps. He knows the learning process isn’t always pretty and it might take his blue-liners a little longer to adapt than the rest of their rookie teammates.
“As a former defenseman, I’ve been there,” mentioned Bergevin, who spent 20 years in the NHL. “The development process for a defenseman is longer. The guys who have the easiest time adapting are the wingers. Then, in this order, it’s centermen, defensemen and then goalies. If you’re a winger and you make a mistake, you have plenty of ice left to make up for it. Same thing for a center.
“When a defenseman makes a mistake, it could lead to a scoring chance for the other team. When they make a bad pass, you see it. The safety net is a lot smaller for them. I don’t want to use the word ‘pressure’, but for them it’s definitely a longer road with more bumps along the way.”
Still, one of those defensemen has already caught Bergevin’s eye.
“Tinordi has surprised me,” he admitted of the 6-foot-6 blue-liner. “For a big guy like him, I find he’s managed to simplify his game. He’s effective. I knew he was good, but he’s been progressing faster than I anticipated.”
After a quick layover at home, Bergevin’s bags are packed once again for another trip to see the Bulldogs in action. When the NHL gets back to business as usual, he’ll know exactly which of his prospects are ready to make the jump to Montreal when it’s time to call for reinforcements.
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Shauna Denis.
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