Canadiens AHL/ECHL prospects update

By Jason Menard

One look at the standings and one would presume that the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs are suffering from a post-championship hangover – but that would be an unfair assumption as the team that’s competing this year looks little like the club that captured last year’s Calder Cup.

Several key contributors to that championship run are no longer with the franchise, with the biggest loss being between the pipes as wunderkind netminder Carey Price broke camp with the Habs. Two-way stalwart Kyle Chipchura, offensive sparkplugs Andrei Kostitsyn and Mikhail Grabovski, and – most recently – bruising blueliner Ryan O’Byrne, have all spent significant parts of the season (and in some cases, the whole season), at the NHL level.

What that’s done is test the depth that the Canadiens have built – and the results have been mixed, to say the least. The Bulldogs are tied for last in the AHL’s North division of the Western conference. The club has only one player in the league’s top 50 in scoring (Sergei Kostitsyn, 45th) and he has recently been called up to the big club.

Things aren’t much better between the pipes, as Jaroslav Halak and Yann Danis both are experiencing uncharacteristically bad seasons. Halak’s 2.66 GAA is good for 21st in the league, while Danis’ 2.94 GAA ranks him 28th overall.

The ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones have enjoyed a more successful start to the season than their AHL parent club. They currently find themselves in second place in the American North division, just four points behind the division-leading Elmira Jackals.

Maxim Lapierre, C (2nd round, 2003) – Many were surprised by Lapierre’s exclusion from the Habs starting roster. There was some concern about his lack of focus and drive. However, the young center appears to have learned his lesson well, playing effectively for the Bulldogs and recently earning a call-up to Habs.

Lapierre’s has played, on average between 11 and 15 minutes per game with the big club and has displayed the tenacity and two-way play that made him a fan favorite last season. While he hasn’t had a huge impact on the score sheet (one assist in five games), Lapierre remains a plus player and displays the attitude needed to stick long term with the club.

The St-Leonard, QC native handled his demotion well, scoring seven goals and seven assists in 19 games, ending up plus-2 on the woeful Bulldogs. That all-around effort earned him a call-up again to the Habs and he’s expected to continue to be a valued member of the club’s youth movement.

Sergei Kostitsyn, LW (7th round, 2005) – While no one’s comparing Sergei and his older brother Andrei to the Rocket and the Pocket Rocket, the Kostitsyn brothers recently (on Dec. 13) joined a dozen other siblings who have suited up for the Habs. And Kostitsyn earned his call-up due to a solid effort throughout the season in Hamilton.

Kostitsyn leads the Bulldogs in scoring to date, with six goals and 16 assists in 22 games. Those totals are good for third among rookies throughout the AHL. And with a plus-2 rating, the young Belarusian has shown the all-around play that had him so highly regarded coming off of two superlative seasons in the OHL.

Jaroslav Halak, G (9th round, 2003)
– Halak powered the Habs’ late-season surge towards an eventually unsuccessful playoff spot, and much was expected from the Slovakian netminder this season. Unfortunately for Halak, Price stole much of his thunder and – arguably – his roster spot.

Halak recently joined the Habs for a cup of coffee as an injury replacement for Cristobal Huet. He played in one third of a game, allowing one goal on six shots. That’s a far cry from last season’s heroics, when he posted a 10-6 record in 16 games with a 2.89 GAA and .906 save percentage.

The Habs just sent Halak back down to the minors, where he’ll continue to try to recapture that lightning in a bottle. Considering the plight of the team, he’s played passably, posting an even 4-4-2 record behind a 2.66 GAA and .910 save percentage. He’s split the duties with Danis so far this season and unless someone gets hot, it appears that an even distribution of goaltending minutes will continue in Hamilton.

Mikhail Grabovski, LW (5th round, 2004) – Unfortunately for Grabovski, his past two forays into the NHL ranks have not been fruitful. He’s displayed speed, creativity, and dynamism in his game. Yet all that flash and dash hasn’t translated into much on the score sheet.

Grabovski has been recently sent down to Hamilton after a 12-game sojourn in the NHL. He bounced back and forth between the bench and the press box, and only scored one goal and one assist this year, combining that with a minus-5 rating. In fact, that goal and assist are Grabovski’s sole points in two seasons.

Perhaps a return to the AHL will give Grabovski the confidence he so badly needs. In just his first game back in the Steel City, the German-born forward set up a goal and finished the game plus-1. He currently has been shelved with an ankle injury.

Ryan O’Byrne, D (3rd round, 2003) – Many predicted that the 6’6 towering blueliner would break camp with the club, but a few roster moves, not the least of which was the free-agent addition of Patrice Brisebois, delayed the Victoria, BC native’s ascension to the NHL ranks.

That said, now that he’s arrived, O’Byrne’s doing his best to show that he deserves to stick around for the long haul. In addition to providing the smallish Habs with a physical presence in front of the net, O’Byrne has also chipped in with a bit of offense in his five-game stint to date. He’s accounted for two assists, although his minus-2 ranking is uncharacteristic for this defensive defenseman.

The 23-year-old blueliner has displayed more of an offensive flair this season, having scored two goals and adding six assists in 18 AHL games prior to his call-up.

Corey Locke, C (4th round, 2003) – The diminutive center recently earned an honor that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. He tied Tomas Plekanec for second place on the team’s all-time scoring list, which is a testament to both his offensive talent and his inability to progress past the AHL ranks.

As is becoming an annual tradition in Hamilton, Locke finds himself among the leaders in team scoring. The 5’9 center is second on the club – behind Sergei Kostitsyn – with 19 points in 25 games. He’s also posting a healthy plus-3 rating, which is a positive sign for a player whose commitment to conditioning and two-way play has often been called into question.

Matt D’Agostini, RW (6th round, 2005)
– The 22-year-old winger turned a few heads as a rookie last season – especially with his outstanding playoff performance. And this year he was expected to continue to grow into an all-around role.

It’s been a mediocre season for the Sault Ste. Marie, ON native so far. His offensive numbers are good, with 16 points in 24 games, including six goals. However, his defensive play has been lacking. D’Agostini, who traditionally has made a name for himself with his two-way play, currently is a –11. That’s a number the young forward will be expected to improve over the next few weeks.

Jon Gleed, D (7th round, 2004)
– The 23-year-old blueliner has spent some time in the ECHL this season, but currently finds himself back in the AHL ranks. The challenge for Gleed is that while he’s a defensive defenseman, his –12 rating is betraying his role on the team.

His brief demotion to Cincinnati seemed to help him regain some confidence as he accounted for two assists and threw his weight around to the tune of 18 penalty minutes in just eight games. In Hamilton, Gleed has two assists in 13 games.

Duncan Milroy, RW (2nd round, 2001)
– After many seasons of promise, last year it appeared that Milroy finally got it and was on track to take the next step in his professional career.

This year, obviously impacted by the fortunes of the team, he appears to have regressed. Last year, with 58 points in 64 games, Milroy was an offensive leader for the club. This year, his offensive production has slipped with 14 points in 24 games, with only five goals to his name.

Milroy, like Locke before him, may be running out of time to chase his NHL dreams. Despite a brief flash last year, he may soon be defined as a career AHLer.

Jonathan Ferland, RW (7th round, 2002) – The 24-year-old Quebec City native has picked up some of the offensive slack left behind by the aforementioned player departures. Last year Ferland scored 23 goals and is well on his way to that total again with eight goals and four assists in 25 games.

The 6’2 winger has struggled a bit with his defensive responsibilities, much like the rest of his team. But his minus-five rating is passable in relation to his teammates. Ferland has also been key to the club’s success on the power play, with five of his eight goals coming with the man advantage.

Pavel Valentenko, D (5th round, 2006) – Many people were excited to see what the Moscow native would bring to the league in his rookie season. And in his first 19 games, the rugged 6’2 blueliner has shown a willingness to get his nose dirty while acclimatizing to the North American game.

Valentenko hasn’t torn up the score sheets, with only one point in his 19 games, but his minus-one rating shows he’s finding his way in the defensive scheme, while his 20 penalty minutes shows he’s no stranger to the penalty box.

The Habs were delighted that Valentenko was able to come to North America this season to further his development and deal with all the social, cultural, and language-related issues that can impede a European or Russian-born player’s development. And if he continues along this path, they’ll be thrilled with his rookie AHL season.

Mathieu Carle, D (2nd round, 2006)
– The Canadiens drafted the Gatineau, QC native with the idea that he exemplified the blueliner of the future. Offensively gifted, mobile, and a solid puck-moving defenseman, Carle is expected to be a power-play quarterback.

In his rookie season, Carle has shown he’s been able to transfer the offensive prowess that he displayed in the junior ranks to the professional stage. In 13 games to date, Carle has two goals and four assists to his name. More impressively, he’s been able to maintain a plus-1 rating.

The best news of all, however, is that Carle’s been able to bounce back from a pre-season knee injury and play at a relatively high level. The fact that he’s successfully navigated a steep learning curve bodes well for his future development.

Mathieu Aubin, C (5th round, 2005) – Aubin has all the physical gifts needed to be a solid offensive force, however, he’s been unable to crack the Hamilton roster. Over the past couple of years he’s bounced back and forth between the AHL and ECHL ranks, with consistency and defensive play holding him back.

In 22 games this year with the Cyclones, Aubin has scored 11 goals and added eight assists. He’s always been consistently a point-per-game-type player, but he’s yet to refine the rest of his game to the point where he can be a key contributor to the Hamilton franchise.