Some fans may not like his plan, but Geoff Molson is sticking to it.
This week, Molson spoke for the first time since the NHL shut down due to the coronavirus, and he was unequivocal in his support for his general manager Marc Bergevin as he denied rumours that he was looking to hire a president of hockey operations to oversee Bergevin’s work.
“Am I satisfied that we took a step back? Or course not, and Marc knows that. But I do feel that we have a good plan and I still believe that we’re going to get through this,” Molson, the Habs’ owner, said.
This was Bergevin’s eighth season at the helm but as Molson sees it, it’s only year two of his second chance to build the Habs into a sustainable winner.
“I’ll call it a reset and in the first year of our reset, last season, we had a really strong year,” Molson said.
In the 2018-19 season, the Habs came within a point of making it into the playoffs with a team few expected to be as competitive as they were.
Naturally, the expectation this season was to build on that, but instead the injury bug made things tough on the team. Two eight-game losing streaks were too much for them to overcome.
The team was on track to miss out on spring hockey for a third season in a row when the NHL went on pause March 12.
“I take a step back because it’s very difficult to make a decision based on a short period of time, and we embarked on this plan two years ago. It was a commitment to be successful with it and we haven’t reached that goal yet, but we sure believe that we have a good plan,” Molson said.
Yet while Molson is convinced he has the organization on the right track, it’s getting tougher and tougher for some fans to buy in.
The numbers don’t lie and the fact is the Habs are mired in a streak of futility that would have seemed impossible for anyone who watched them dominate during the 1970s when they paraded down Ste-Catherine Street with the Stanley Cup six times in the decade.
“There is nobody in our organization that is lowering their standards and we never will,” Molson said.
High standards but lowered expectations?
The standard for excellence may still be high within the walls of the Habs’ head offices, but it’s undeniable that the NHL has changed since the last time the organization lifted the cup 27 years ago this month.
“The blunt answer is that our commitment to winning has never slipped. The hockey world has changed. There is an enormous amount of parity in the league right now,” Molson said.
In the modern NHL with a salary cap and 31 teams, winning the Stanley Cup has never been more difficult.
But what is tough for many fans to swallow is not that the team can’t win it all, it’s that the bar has been lowered so much that just making the playoffs is now seen as a victory.
More than 50 per cent of teams make the playoffs in the NHL (16 of 31), yet it’s been a struggle for the Habs in recent years just to be above average.
Molson understands how tough that is for loyal fans.
“It may be different now and 27 years [since winning the Stanley Cup] is a long time for Montreal,” he said.
“It’s hard and I want to get there, but the standards have never changed.”
Looking to catch lightning in a bottle
The team has had a couple of runs to the conference finals in the last decade, and that has shown Molson that anything is possible.
In 2010, they rode the hot hand of goaltender Jaroslav Halak past the favoured Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In 2014, they might have reached the Stanley Cup finals had Carey Price not been taken out early in the series against the Rangers.
So when the Habs were thrown a lifeline by being included in the NHL’s return-to-play plan, Molson saw it as an similar opportunity.
“There is nothing wrong with being an underdog going into a series, so let’s prove them wrong,” he said.
Of the 24 teams included in the NHL’s return-to-play plan, the Habs had the 24th best record.
“I never give up hope. But do I think that this is the team that’s built to win the Stanley Cup? I don’t think so. But I do think that anything can happen in the playoffs, we’ve seen it before.”
Molson’s admission that the team is not where it needs to be to win doesn’t undercut his belief that they’re on the right track.
If the Habs can once again exceed expectations with a deep run like they did in 2010 and 2014, it could give a much needed boost to a wary fanbase and serve to reinforce Molson’s belief that this team is better than the record they posted this season.
Molson’s plan to stick with Bergevin still has a chance to pan out, and based on his 90-minute question and answer session with reporters this week, Molson is confident he will prove to everyone who doubted him that they were wrong.
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