MONTREAL, QC — At long last, Montreal Canadiens hockey has returned. Well… sort of. No, the Collective Bargaining Agreement issues still haven’t been settled. No, we still don’t know when the next NHL game will be played. But in the interim, Habs fans should follow the example General Manager Marc Bergevin laid out when he stated last week that his attention is shifting for now to the Hamilton Bulldogs.
As was officially reconfirmed yesterday, the Bulldogs will open camp tomorrow with physicals and media availability in Brossard. They will then shift to Sherbrooke for some scrimmages, before beginning preseason action in Ontario. The group on hand for day 1 of camp is far larger than normal for an AHL squad, with 43 names compared to last season’s 16, mostly due to the fact that most players were retained by the Canadiens for at least another week or so to see NHL preseason action.
The size of this year’s camp can also be attributed to a different philosophy on the part of Bergevin and his team as compared to the previous regime. With last week’s signings of former Atlanta Thrashers first round pick Daultan Leveille, offensive AHL journeyman Stephane Chaput, and long-time dependable Bulldog Olivier Fortier, the club showed its understanding of a need for depth even at the American League level, clearly planning to take advantage of its affiliation with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers to keep bodies in reserve. That trend continued with no fewer than 13 players being added to the camp’s roster on an invitation basis, up from just four unsigned invitees a year ago.
In previous seasons, when injuries and call-ups decimated the AHL roster, the Canadiens management was left in dire straits. The club desperately searched high and low for quick-fix college or other league players it could sign to temporary mid-season tryout agreements just to ice a big enough roster. The team was forced to look for AHL players it could acquire on the trade market to fill roster spots. Clearly, Bergevin plans to be more prepared, with 42 players attending the ‘Dogs camp despite having a full 23-man roster on locked out NHL contracts.
Certainly it’s doubtful that all 13 of the invited players end up staying within the organization. At least three of the players seem bound for Wheeling whether they are signed or not, as goaltender Scott Darling and forward Zack Torquato already have ECHL deals there, and defenceman Cody Wild was under contract with the squad last year, though he spent most of his time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
Michel Ouellet is an interesting name that likely rings a bell to you. Yes, it is that Michel Ouellet, a 30-year old veteran with 190 games of NHL experience. The ‘Dogs are very young and fresh this season and could use a veteran leader up front, and though Ouellet’s best days seem behind him – he once scored 19 goals and 48 points in a season with the Pittsburgh Penguins under one Michel Therrien – he remains a competent offensive AHL player who could pick up the slack left by Brian Willsie‘s departure for Europe.
Two other players of note are one who attended a Habs Development Camp this summer and impressed sufficiently to earn a call back this Fall in goaltender Cody Reichard, and another whose invitation to the Montreal camp was confirmed some two months ago in forward Brendan Ranford. That Reichard was retained surprises me some, as even in the previous camp, he seemed outclassed by fellow invitee Brandon Maxwell, but goaltending coach Pierre Groulx must have seen something he felt he could work with. Ranford, already 20, is currently lining up as an overager for the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, where he is a teammate of Hab prospect Tim Bozon. An undersized energy player with decent offensive instincts, the 2010 7th round Philadelphia Flyers selection potted an impressive 40 goals last season.
While there is always room for surprises, the only other tryout perhaps worth mentioning at this juncture is 21-year old forward Spencer Bennett. Taken in the fifth round by the Calgary Flames back in 2009, Bennett was a teammate of Brendan Gallagher‘s for half a season with the Vancouver Giants in 2010-11. A fellow BC native, Bennett joined Gallagher in skating with the Giants when their training camp opened this Fall. At 6’4″ and 200 lbs, he has the frame of a power forward and put up good numbers in his final junior season before being limited to just 13 games last year due to freak injuries which included a broken wrist suffered in practice.
‘Dogs camp looks to be highly competitive this year, with a group unseen at this level likely since the last lockout (a squad which included Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Andrei Kostitsyn, Ron Hainsey, Mike Komisarek, Jason Ward, and more, though even that year “only” 33 players were invited to camp). Competition means AHL rookies like Patrick Holland and Steve Quailer will have to earn their spots ahead of some more experienced players to start the season in prominent roles. The depth will be important for the club to remain competitive given that, until the lockout ends, they will have to compete with the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Adam Henrique, and Jeff Skinner. Thus, for both Hamilton’s success this season and the enjoyment of hockey fans everywhere, let’s hope the NHL and NHLPA returning to the negotiating table tomorrow yields a first bit of true progress.