Montreal has not been an elite team for a quarter century and if you think that’s okay, then you’re not a real Habs fan.
What the Puck: The Canadiens have been mediocre at best since 1993
Last season was terrible for the Montreal Canadiens.
So was 1994-1995, when the Habs missed the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century. The next season was pretty bad, too. The one after that kind of sucked, as well. You get the picture.
When the team missed the playoffs in 2002-2003, it was the fourth time in five years that they didn’t make the postseason. They have had a bit of playoff success since then — making it to the conference final in 2010 and again in 2014. But the sad, with gusts up to tragic, fact is that this once-storied franchise has been somewhere near the bottom of the league in terms of playoffs success in the years since that last Stanley Cup win in 1993.
Basically, Montreal has not been an elite team for a quarter century and if you think that’s okay, then you’re not a real Habs fan. I am such a fan and it rips out my insides to think how this once-great outfit has been mismanaged into the ground since that improbable run in the spring of 1993.
How do you explain this long-running mediocrity? It stretches through three successive owners, the Molson brewery, George Gillett and the current owners, a consortium led by Geoff Molson.
I find it pretty mysterious. There’s no easy explanation for 25 years of ridiculously bad decisions, a litany of embarrassments that include trading Patrick Roy to the Colorado Avalanche for a bag of pucks, dumping star centre Pierre Turgeon in return for Murray Baron and a past-his-prime Shayne Corson, and sending Norris Trophy-winner P.K. Subban out of town just because you didn’t like his larger-than-life personality.
You tell me how it made sense for Habs president Ronald Corey to hire Réjean Houle, a nice guy with absolutely zero hockey-management experience? Clearly it’s the same kind of logic that has Geoff Molson refusing to fire his general manager Marc Bergevin, even though it’s becoming clearer every day that Bergevin might actually be doing as much damage to the team as Houle did back in the ’90s.
On the bright side, at least the Habs are consistent in their stinkyness. But joking aside, I honestly don’t have an answer. I have speculated that the 25 years of failure is due to the fact the team has done well financially for much of that period. It’s a thesis that drives many hockey pundits crazy, but it doesn’t take much to get them mad at me. I stand by the notion that if Molson and his partners made a profit of more than $90 million last year, that removes at least some of the incentive to make your team a true contender.
The complicating factor is that the team was a money-loser when the Molson brewery owned the team in the late ’90s and it was just as badly managed when it was bleeding cash as it was when it was making money hand-over-fist. Famously, when Molson sold it to American entrepreneur Gillett, Molson president Dan O’Neill said his publicly-traded company couldn’t keep maintaining these losses. The fragile financial shape of the franchise was the reason there were no Canadian buyers interested in picking up the property.
Part of the problem is that for years, it has been hard to convince prominent free agents to come to Montreal, a pattern that continued this summer when both John Tavares and Paul Stastny refused to even bother to take a phone call from Bergevin. Another factor is management’s fear of alienating the team’s passionate fans. The common wisdom for decades is that you can’t rebuild in Montreal because the fans won’t put up with the pain. But that’s absurd. The team has been crappy for much of this time, so they might as well have been rebuilding.
The brutal reality is that bad management has become the norm for this team. They love showing us videos highlighting the glories of past years, but that’s mostly to distract us from the second-rate product on the ice. The organization has been focused on looking in the rear-view mirror for three decades and so they’ve coasted on the history while ignoring the present. The business model is built on cashing in on nostalgia rather than trying to make money with present-day wins.
The other thing is that all these managers — from Corey to Houle to Bob Gainey to Molson and Bergevin — react rather than act. Oh my God, Roy told the coach to F off, let’s trade the best goalie in hockey. Oh Alex Kovalev won’t sign, then let’s sign Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri and see what happens. Oh a guy who speaks French is available, let’s get him — hello Jonathan Drouin — and give up on a super skilled young puck-moving defenceman in Mikhail Sergachev.
These managers are always in a panic. I said Bergevin has no plan but neither did Houle or Gainey. Nor did late-period Serge Savard.
So how do you get out of this spiral of mediocrity? Read my column next Friday.