TORONTO, ON – There were few spots up for grabs in Montreal Canadiens training camp. The team had finished 2nd in the NHL’s Eastern Conference last season, and despite a disappointing first round playoff loss to the Ottawa Senators, the return to health of some key veterans and development of young players have many hopeful that the building blocks are in place for long-term success. With many players returning on one-way NHL contracts, camp held little suspense, and what little there was mostly vanished when Michel Therrien revealed his plans to stick to last season’s line combinations.
Stability is a foreign concept in the American Hockey League. Teams that perform well are generally led by top players, whose outstanding performances see them given shots in the National Hockey League the following season. Few players sign long-term deals to stay in the AHL, and thus seeing players swap teams annually is hardly an unusual sight. Drafted North American prospects come of age for league eligibility, and thus teams are stocked with new young hopefuls.
In Hamilton, coming off a season where the hometown squad finished dead last in the league, the multitude of new faces who will report for physicals Friday will be a welcome reprieve from the memories of a year gone wrong. Thursday, the group that will attempt to start from the bottom and work their way back towards respectability, was announced as the Bulldogs revealed their opening training camp roster.
On it are most of the names you’d expect. Louis Leblanc and Joonas Nattinen return at forward, while Morgan Ellis hopes to take on a larger role on defense. Robert Mayer will again battle for playing time between the pipes. Not listed but undoubtedly soon to join the group once cut from the Canadiens are Martin St. Pierre, Patrick Holland, Christian Thomas, Magnus Nygren, Nathan Beaulieu, Darren Dietz, and Dustin Tokarski. Provided there are no further injuries, no more than one of Michael Bournival, Michael Blunden, or Gabriel Dumont should stick with the Habs at this point either, though the latter two would be subject to waivers if they are to join the ‘Dogs. Injuries on defense may delay the return of a Greg Pateryn or Jarred Tinordi, but at least the former should eventually spend some time in the Hammer this season.
Then you add in the rest of the fresh wave of prospects with Sven Andrighetto, Stefan Fournier, and Erik Nystrom, and this summer’s depth signings in Stefan Chaput, Ben Duffy, Justin Courtnall, Stephen MacAulay, Matt Grassi, and Drew Schiestel, and you start to get a crowded picture.
One imagines a preconceived depth chart might look something like the following:
Patrick Holland – Martin St. Pierre – Christian Thomas
Mike Blunden – Michael Bournival – Louis Leblanc
Erik Nystrom – Nick Tarnasky – Sven Andrighetto
Stefan Fournier – Joonas Nattinen – Steve Quailer
Ben Duffy, Justin Courtnall, Stephen MacAulay, Stefan Chaput
Greg Pateryn – Nathan Beaulieu
Magnus Nygren – Darren Dietz
Morgan Ellis – Drew Schiestel
Matt Grassi, Joel Chouinard
Mike Condon, Peter Delmas
With so many names already penciled in, where does the suspense come into play? Well the names above aren’t the only ones on Hamilton’s camp roster. The Bulldogs have invited a number of others – ranging from high profile veterans and former prospects to the rather obscure – to attend camp on tryouts in the hopes of earning a job with the team.
The first name that stands out is Akim Aliu. The 6’4″ Nigerian winger was a 2nd round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, but the offense to his game never developed as the ‘Hawks had hoped. He has been labelled a head case with a bad attitude throughout his career, but has been able to reinvent his style of play, sliding into a tough guy / enforcer role that saw him appear in seven total games for the Calgary Flames split over the past two seasons. There tend to be far more fights in the AHL than the NHL, and thus most squads carry multiple enforcer-types, something the current Hamilton roster is light on. Thus, Aliu’s size and strengths could appeal to the team’s management enough to earn him a spot if he can show improved off-ice demeanour.
A more familiar name on the list is that of Alex Belzile. The 22-year old’s first pro season was spent largely with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators, but he impressed on a late-season tryout with the Bulldogs, scoring 8 points in 14 games while driving the net with regularity despite his very average 5’11” frame. Belzile frequently dressed on Hamilton’s top scoring line, though with the new bodies on the roster it’s tough to see exactly where he could carve himself a niche for the coming season. Still, he has already shown he can cut it, and so he should be considered one of the favoured tryouts to further stack Montreal’s AHL affiliate with forward depth.
A couple of other QMJHL-bred forwards also received invites. David Laliberte, a 2004 Philadelphia Flyers fourth round pick with 11 games of NHL experience, and Maxime Macenauer, a Anaheim 2007 third rounder who played 29 games for the Ducks in 2011-12, seem like they could bring every bit as much to the table as a Stefan Chaput or Justin Courtnall, but decisions will ultimately have to be made. While Hamilton certainly endeavours to put up better results than last year, they remain primarily a development team and need to leave room for prospects to get some ice time amidst the more experienced veterans.
The rest up front: Andre Bouvet-Morrissette is a 6’3″ 22-year old winger coming off his rookie pro season that was split between two AHL and two ECHL clubs… Kelsey Wilson is a 27-year old 6’1″ forward who has bounced around leagues with time in the AHL, ECHL, Austria, and the U.K… Jordan Owens is a veteran of 300 AHL games with a mediocre stat line who is coming off a year in Denmark… Chad Wiseman is a 32-year old Burlington, Ontario native who played nine NHL games between 2002 and 2006 and was once a top AHL scorer, but has been slowed by injuries (he could fill the homegrown scorer void left by Joey Tenute)… Trevor Bruess is an ECHL veteran who gets limited AHL action annually as a temporary injury replacement.
Dalton Thrower will be a name to watch on defense at this camp. Not turning 20 until December 20th, Thrower would be one of the league’s youngest players if he makes the team. But it’s no coincidence the Canadiens have yet to sign their 2012 second rounder to an entry level contract, as Thrower is also eligible to join the WHL’s Vancouver Giants for the coming campaign. If the Canadiens blueline is fairly healthy and thus Hamilton gets both Beaulieu and Pateryn back immediately, it’s likely Thrower will be sent down for a final junior season rather than sitting in the Copps Coliseum press box or heading to the ECHL. That is, unless he forced management’s hand with a standout effort in camp to begin reversing the effects of a disappointing 2012-13 season.
With Tinordi playing like he wants to stay in Montreal, the Bulldogs may be in the market for an experienced blueliner to round out their group. The inside track has to go to Matt Lashoff due to his appearance at Montreal’s camp, but he underwhelmed there, opening a door for the other invitees.
Given the aforementioned absence of toughness in the roster, Nathan McIver might be Lashoff’s biggest competition to earn a deal on D. McIver was a Vancouver Canucks eighth round pick in 2003, and collected 287 penalty minutes in 62 AHL games last season. He also appeared in 36 NHL games between 2006 and 2009, registering one assist and 95 PIMs.
A final notable is another one-time Canuck pick, 2009 fourth round selection Jeremy Price (no relation to Carey Price). The 22-year old two-way d-man completed his stint with Colgate University and then got a five-game tryout with the Chicago Wolves at the tail end of last season, but didn’t show enough to earn a full-time deal. With the prospect of Tinordi, Pateryn, and Beaulieu graduating to the NHL within the next year, the Bulldogs may look at someone like Price to provide extra insurance in case of injuries, trades, and call-ups.
The rest on D: Pierre Durepos is a 21-year old blueliner and former teammate of Nathan Beaulieu‘s, having spent the past four seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs… Paul Cianfrini is a journeyman whose career took from the OHL to Nipissing University and then to the ECHL for the past two seasons… Jonathan Narbonne is a 21-year old d-man who won a Memorial Cup with Michael Bournival and Morgan Ellis in Shawinigan in 2012.
The first on-ice sessions of camp will be this Saturday, and most practices and scrimmages are open to the public. If you’ll be in the Greater Hamilton Area, stop by and check out some potential future Canadiens. The full schedule can be found here: