Marc Bergevin called a press conference four games into his team’s season and somehow doesn’t appear to be presiding over the most urgent situation in the NHL at the moment.
That would be here in Toronto, where Kyle Dubas’s Maple Leafs have put three more points in the bank than Bergevin’s Montreal Canadiens, but are already dealing with a crisis of confidence.
Among their vocal fan base, without question, if not their own minds.
There was a quote from Jake Muzzin on the first day of training camp that set the bar for this group. Asked where he felt the team could improve following last season’s first-place finish and fumble in the first round against Montreal, Muzzin identified “maturity” as an area where they needed to grow.
“I think it’s a little bit of learning from your failures, gaining experience every year, understanding what’s really important and building on that every day,” he said.
Muzzin has a knack for cutting to the heart of every matter. I took his response to mean that the Leafs needed to become a team that was more aware of what the circumstances required at any given moment in time, whether that meant locking down a lead late in a game or adjusting the playing style when missing key personnel to injuries or building a defensive wall when their third goaltender is forced to make a start.
No excuses. No doubts.
There are plenty of qualifiers we could attach to Toronto’s uninspired 2-3-1 start, of course, but none of them feel particularly relevant. They are a group that talks about building Stanley Cup habits and raising the standard, and so they should be expected to navigate their way through injuries or tough stretches of schedule.
What underpins the entire situation is that as an organization the Leafs have run out of hope to sell.
More than 17 years removed from a playoff series victory and more than five years deep on this core, they must win to maintain the trust of their customers. That relationship is on shaky ground. It would once have been unthinkable that a Leafs team with this many stars would fail to sell out Scotiabank Arena — even with the added challenges brought on by a pandemic — and yet there’ve been unsold seats at every game this season.
Internally, the front office has not been viewing this as a make-or-break year.
There’s a certain logic to that with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander all under contract for multiple seasons beyond this one and still in their peak performing years. However, as the salary cap bleeds the Leafs of secondary talent every summer — hot starts by Zach Hyman in Edmonton and Freddie Andersen in Carolina aren’t helping, optically — it becomes tougher to stick to the same plan without results.
This is unquestionably an important year for the franchise and, in the big scheme of things, this was simply one bad weekend during a big year. But it’s a weekend that stirs external doubts about the direction and raises questions about whether things are growing stale.
Saturday’s blowout loss in Pittsburgh brought back memories of a 6-1 defeat at PPG Paints Arena on Nov. 16, 2019 that effectively sealed the fate of former head coach Mike Babcock. He was officially replaced by Sheldon Keefe four days later.
Dubas may not have that card to play this time, but he’s going to have to answer with something if his team doesn’t summon its own response.
Speaking of Bergevin, it was noteworthy to hear him tell reporters that he’d love to remain in Montreal “in a perfect world.”
That only reinforced the idea that money has brought the veteran Canadiens general manager into a lame-duck season after extension talks with owner/president Geoff Molson failed to bear fruit in the summer.
That is, a gap between what he wants to be paid and what his owner is willing to pay him.
There are multiple dynamics unique to this situation, starting with the fact that Montreal is one of the only NHL teams that pays its executives in Canadian dollars. So he’s earning a figure less than some of his colleagues and getting dinged on the currency. And you could make the argument that his job comes with more challenges than any other because of a dual-language market with no other major sporting franchises to share the spotlight with.
Then there’s the matter of who Montreal might turn to as a replacement if they can’t reach an extension by the end of the season. There isn’t an obvious successor if the Habs want another Francophone to fill the role — at least not one with extensive NHL experience in a senior management position.
Molson announced before the season that he wouldn’t be discussing Bergevin’s contract publicly, but it remains a big talking point in league circles.
Good on the Winnipeg Jets for pulling out two big wins after losing Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele to COVID-19 protocol.
The Jets were in one this past week after leaving Wheeler behind in Minnesota to isolate after his positive test, which was accompanied by symptoms from the virus. They landed home from an 0-2-1 season-opening road trip to news that Scheifele had also produced a positive test while asymptomatic.
That triggered concerns they may be dealing with an outbreak and basically saw them revert to last season’s protocols, with extensive mask-wearing and increased social distancing in the dressing room. Paul Maurice wore a mask while skating during practice and behind the bench for games.
The Jets travelling party needs to continue to produce negative results through Tuesday before they’re considered to be in the clear.
And they’re heading right back to California this week for another three-game road swing.
C.J.’s Top Five
After seeing Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena open to rave reviews on Saturday night, here’s my completely subjective list of the best places to watch an NHL game:
1. Bell Centre Montreal
Come for the theatre, atmosphere and engaged crowd, stay for the tasty hot dogs at intermission.
2. T-Mobile Arena Las Vegas
They know how to put on a show on the Strip. You’ll feel like you walked into a nightclub and saw a hockey game break out.
3. Bridgestone Arena Nashville
Vegas light, with plenty of local charm. You can’t beat the location, either, for pre- and post-game festivities.
4. Madison Square Garden New York
An unbelievable place to people-watch. Plus great sightlines and immaculate vibes.
5. Canada Life Centre Winnipeg
The NHL’s smallest building is its most intimate. Going to Winnipeg feels a little like going back in time to watch a game.
Connor McDavid has 51 goals and 151 points in his last 82 regular-season games … Elite weekend for the Oilers, by the way — they stayed in Vegas following Friday’s win, played golf Saturday and attended the Eagles-Raiders game Sunday … Mike Babcock is off to a 1-0 start as head coach at the University of Saskatchewan … One of the assistants on his Huskies staff? Michael Babcock, his son … NHL general managers were asked this summer if they thought every team should be required to carry a third goaltender, but the idea didn’t gain enough support to become a rule for 2021-22 … There are just four NHL players who remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 … New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood is one of them. He was included on Team Canada’s Olympic long list, but will require full vaccination to be eligible for selection to the Beijing Games … The Blackhawks remain open to trading Dylan Strome, who has had trouble cracking the lineup this season … From the “gradually, then suddenly” department: The San Jose Sharks have started accepting crypto payments for luxury suite leases, and at least one NHL head coach is hoping to have his paycheque automatically converted to Bitcoin … Suggestion from a veteran agent: Rather than allowing a team like the Leafs to recall goaltender Michael Hutchinson for two weeks with no cap charge after signing an amateur backup for one game to trigger emergency conditions, why not simply process the call-up when the emergency arises and account for any cap overage created by carrying it over to the following season, like with entry-level bonuses? Food for thought.
Beyond the rink
A weekly thought on the sporting world at large: As a Dallas Cowboys fan, I’ve become conditioned to expect heartbreak. But this is as good as I’ve felt about the team in more than a decade. Perhaps we might get another Cowboys-Bills Super Bowl?
If you had to have one beer on the circuit; who, what, when, where and why?
Killer question from Gary in Las Vegas, a longtime reader/listener. I’ll go with Ziggy’s Pub on Crescent St. in Montreal, post-game in the playoffs, with the crew of reporters who covered the game. There’ve been many good nights there with NHL folk and it’s been far too long since my last one. Here’s how Google describes Ziggy’s: “Unpretentious watering hole with a cheery vibe offering standard drinks & sports on TV.”
The next best place would be anywhere my trusted road companion Scott Burnside wants to take us.
Ok C.J. What is with the Las Vegas Space Helmets??? Are we expecting an alien invasion?
I will not stand for this slanderous take on those glorious Golden Knights domes. It’s Vegas! It’s the Strip! It works!
Are you going to be nicer and talk about the @SanJoseSharks more now that they are 4-1-0?
Now that you’ve uncovered my evil plan to freeze out the Sharks … I’ll say a few words about them. They’ve got some great mojo going early in the season, the special teams have been sharp and they’re getting some saves. A winning recipe after a demoralizing 2020-21. They’ve also benefited from Logan Couture’s dad, Chet, being able to attend the first four games in person. The Sharks have a great record when he’s in the building.
Who gets hired first, Bruce Boudreau or Claude Julien?
I’m going entirely on gut feel here when I say Claude Julien. He’s a little bit younger than Boudreau and hasn’t been removed from the bench for quite as long. Boudreau also jumped to the dark side and has been doing some TV work with NHL Network in the U.S.
How was the Birthday?
Awesome in every way. I felt all kinds of love with texts and calls and social media messages and then I got to cover a game that night. When you don’t actually have to “work” for a living there’s nothing wrong with working on your birthday. Here’s to many more!
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