With Bergevin era over, Canadiens tap Jeff Gorton to oversee ‘new vision’

MONTREAL — It was a seismic shift happening right under Marc Bergevin’s feet, and under his nose too.

He knew the end of his tenure with the Montreal Canadiens was nearing. He understood that, in failing to secure a contract extension prior to the start of the season, his days as general manager were likely numbered, and he had come to terms with that reality as he watched the team that got to last summer’s Stanley Cup Final flounder towards the worst start in its 111-year history.

But Bergevin didn’t expect the cracks to form as quickly as they did on Saturday, and on Sunday he — along with assistant general manager Trevor Timmins and executive VP of public affairs and communications Paul Wilson — was pushed through them.

In a release appearing on the Canadiens’ website at 3:09 p.m. ET., the announcement came that all three had been relieved of their functions effective immediately.

Timmins had been with the team for nearly two decades, overseeing the draft for all of that time and serving as AGM since 2017. Wilson had taken on his role in 2018 after working with the Canadiens for several years as a partner in NATIONAL Public Relations. And Bergevin was brought on to lead the team he grew up cheering for nine years, six months and 26 days ago.

Jeff Gorton’s appointment as executive VP of hockey operations on Sunday marked the end for all three men in Montreal.

Just prior to Saturday’s 6-3 win for the Canadiens over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported team owner Geoff Molson had obtained permission to speak the former New York Rangers GM and, according to a report from TVA’s Louis Jean later in the evening, that was news to Bergevin.

He had recommended long-time assistant GM Scott Mellanby for the position and both he and Mellanby were under the impression Molson was keen on moving in that direction.

But what quickly became clear to both men on Saturday evening was that the Canadiens’ owner had decided on another route.

Mellanby resigned 15 minutes into the first period of the Pittsburgh game and, as the night progressed, it became obvious Bergevin’s fate hung in the balance.

Sources informed us changes were en route as early as Sunday, and they came in the afternoon.

“On behalf of myself and the organization, I wish to thank Marc Bergevin, Trevor Timmins, and Paul Wilson for their passion and engagement towards our club over the last years,” read Molson’s statement. “Their relentless work allowed our fans to experience many memorable moments, including last summer’s playoff run that culminated with the Stanley Cup Final. We wish them all the success they deserve in the pursuit of their careers.

“I think, however, that the time has come for a leadership change within our hockey operations department that will bring a new vision and should allow our fans and partners to continue cheering for a championship team.”

The Canadiens haven’t been one since 1993, and they appear far off from becoming one — sitting in 29th place in the NHL, with just six wins in 23 games of what’s assuredly a lost season.

But Gorton’s job will be to oversee their revival, beginning with the task of recruiting — and eventually hiring — a bilingual general manager who will “bring significant hockey experience to the organization,” according to Molson.

The 53-year-old made his start in the NHL as a scout with the Boston Bruins in 1992. He then worked his way up to assistant general manager and was eventually promoted to interim GM after Mike O’Connell was fired in 2006.

Within a span of days, Gorton oversaw what’s widely considered the greatest draft haul in Bruins history — plucking out Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchard and trading Andrew Raycroft for Tuukka Rask — and made waves when he signed Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara as free agents.

It was then that he caught the attention of one of the shrewdest executives in hockey history, Glen Sather, who ended up hiring Gorton to work for the Rangers immediately after he left the Bruins in 2007.

“The first time I really had anything to do with him was we tried to sign Chara in New York,” Sather told Sportsnet on Sunday. “Jeff got the inside track on him and got him to Boston, and I was left surprised at what happened.”

Sather was impressed, too.

He later brought Gorton on as a pro scout with the Rangers and quickly promoted him to assistant GM. And in July of 2015, Sather named Gorton his replacement as Rangers GM.

Despite firing his protégé from that position in May of 2021 — a move most believe Rangers owner James Dolan demanded — the 78-year-old senior advisor still believes he’s uniquely qualified for the challenge in Montreal.

“I’m not going to explain what happened (in New York),” said Sather, “but what I will say is he’s a good man and I’m very glad he got the job.

“He communicates well with the people that work with him. He treats them well and has a lot of respect for them. He’s an interesting guy. He’s very respectful, very smart, and he’s good with the numbers. He’ll do a good job in Montreal.”

A rival executive we touched base with texted, “Jeff is bright. Very bright. Thoughtful, always has a plan.”

“Jeff takes his time, takes emotion out of it, does the right thing,” the exec continued. “He’s quiet. Doesn’t love attention or media.”

Gorton’s predecessor wasn’t a big fan of that, either, but mused in his final statement as GM on Sunday, “I would never have thought, in my life, that I would be getting more visibility than the Premier (of Quebec).”

Where Bergevin and Gorton diverge is on emotional detachment. Bergevin wore his emotions on his bulging biceps throughout his time in Montreal, and they got the better of him in some negotiations that went awry but also served him well in building strong relationships with nearly everyone around him.

The team was quite successful under the 56-year-old’s watch over the first five years, making the playoffs four times and earning him nominations for GM of the Year on two occasions. But it went through major turmoil from early 2017 through the spring of 2018 and left him hanging on by a thread.

It was then that Bergevin presented a plan to reset the roster, earning Molson’s endorsement and what was expected to be job security through the end of this season.

The work done since then was commendable. Last year, with cap space to burn and the economic conditions brought on the pandemic creating an opportunity for Bergevin to strike, it earned him the most first-place votes for the 2021 Jim Gregory Award, which eventually went to New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello.

It was arguably Bergevin’s finest work as Canadiens GM. He traded for and signed Jake Allen to play behind Carey Price, traded for defenceman Joel Edmundson and forward Josh Anderson and signed both to long-term contracts, extended long-time Canadiens Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher, brought in free agents Tyler Toffoli, Michael Frolik and Corey Perry, and completed the roster by adding in Eric Staal, Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson prior to the trade deadline — all moves that, as he put it, “allowed us to get closer to the ultimate objective.”

“But we fell short of hoisting the Holy Grail,” Bergevin continued. “Despite this, I am proud of what we achieved as an organization. I sincerely hope this objective will be achieved sooner than later.

“Montreal is the city where I took my first skating strides and it’s also the city where I learned to lead the NHL’s winningest franchise. This city and this organization will always have a special place in my heart.”

Bergevin knew the clock was ticking on his time here but didn’t know it would run out as quickly as it did over the weekend.

Timmins was “completely shocked,” he said, when the phone rang on Sunday and Molson was on the line.

“I spent 10 years with Ottawa and 20 with Montreal and I’ve never been fired from a job in my life,” he told Sportsnet on Sunday night.

His hard work on the draft was often interfered with both by Bergevin and previous general managers who made executive decisions on the floor, and it was at least partially undone by flawed development practices that plagued the organization for years.

In the end, whatever good discoveries the 53-year-old made in beyond the first round — and there were many over the years — were offset by first-round misses.

Still, Timmins selected Cole Caufield there, 15th overall in 2019, and drafted Kaiden Guhle 16th overall in 2020, and both decisions have been widely praised. He also made several other quality picks over those years that will likely have a more positive influence on how his time with the organization will ultimately be evaluated.

Timmins’ dismissal, however, comes just months after selecting a player who asked not to be drafted in 2021.

Bergevin authorizing the decision to take Logan Mailloux with the 31st pick after the player was charged in Sweden for violating a woman’s privacy and distributing a photo of her engaged in a consensual sexual act with him, left Molson apologizing days later.

It was a PR disaster overseen by Wilson. The removal of him, Timmins and Bergevin from the organization on Sunday at least suggests Molson isn’t over it.

The owner will surely be asked about that when he meets with the media on Monday for the first time this season.

Meanwhile, Molson acknowledged — days after Mailloux was drafted — that he was aware of the decision being made and grossly underestimated how it would be received.

“It was an error in judgment,” Molson said.

It was one of many that’s been made with him at the top of the hockey operations org chart, and perhaps one that made him realize it was time to put someone of Gorton’s experience in place.

With the Canadiens likely earning a top-10 pick in the 2022 Draft, which is being held in Montreal, Gorton will lend his strong background in amateur scouting to the process.

He’ll also help ring in a new era by bringing along what’s likely to be a rookie GM and, as Sather put it, “he’ll surround that person with great people.”

“He knows everybody in hockey,” Sather added. “He’s going to find the right guy.”

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