Montreal Canadiens boast good mix of skill and grit at minor league level

By David Thicke

Sven Andrighetto - Montreal Canadiens

Photo: Swiss forward Sven Andrighetto is one of several Montreal Canadiens prospects to miss some time to injury this season. Andrighetto is in his first year of professional hockey following two high-scoring years in the QMJHL. (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI)

After finishing the 2012-13 season in last place, the Hamilton Bulldogs, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, are challenging for a playoff spot at the halfway point of the 2013-14 season.

The team has suffered injuries to offensive players such as Christian Thomas, Sven Andrighetto, and Patrick Holland, which may have hurt them in close scoring games. The defense is an improvement over last season despite Magnus Nygren being re-assigned to Sweden early into the year. The goaltending is far more solid than previous seasons and there is competition for nightly spots in the lineup.

Development is still the main focus in Hamilton and the Canadiens management group is willing to be patient with their young prospects on the farm. They have shown a preference for their prospects to play bigger minutes and more substantial roles at the AHL level rather than limited time in the NHL. This approach has been particularly beneficial to many of the prospects who are in their second year of minor-league hockey, as they are improving and becoming better overall players at the professional level.

AHL

Sven Andrighetto, RW, 20

In his rookie pro season, Andrighetto jumped out to a good offensive start at the AHL level with the Bulldogs. He displayed good vision, patience with the puck and excellent hands but at times is easily pushed off the puck against bigger players. On November 15th, the stocky winger suffered a lower-body injury that sidelined him for about a month. His timing and offensive game have been a little off since his return.

Andrighetto is still one of the top point producers for Hamilton, scoring eight goals (one on the power play and one shorthanded) along with seven assists and a solid even rating in 23 games. His offensive skills will be counted on down the stretch in order for the Bulldogs to gain a playoff spot in their conference.

Nathan Beaulieu, D, 21

Since returning to Hamilton from his brief stint at the NHL level to start the season, Beaulieu's offensive game appears to have more maturity and patience, however the young defender is still very much a work in progress in his end of the rink. He gets caught too often out of position due to his offensive nature and eagerness to join the rush. There also is not enough urgency and physicality in his play down low in the defensive zone, though this should change as he adds more strength and size.

Beaulieu is the main puck mover for the Bulldogs' power play and controls the puck distribution in the offensive zone this season. With more time, experience and patience, he might just help the Canadiens power play in the future. He scored both his goals on the power play, collected seven assists with an okay minus-four rating in 29 games. His improvement defensively and offensively over the second half of the season could help Hamilton secure a playoff position.

Darren Dietz, D, 20

Four games into his first pro season at the AHL level with Hamilton, Dietz suffered a wrist injury that sidelined him for little over a month. He struggled with his timing and the speed of the game upon his return to the lineup, but has gradually improved his overall game. The offensively skilled defender has yet to light the lamp as a pro, but picked up four assists and sports an okay minus-one rating in 19 games. He should show more improvement over the second half of the season if he can stay healthy.

Gabriel Dumont, C, 23

After such a good season last year, the expectations for Dumont were to see even more improvement offensively and possibly stick with the Canadiens out of training camp. He was however assigned to the AHL and his appears to be suffering as a result. The feisty centerman is struggling to score and his shooting percentage is down substantially from last season.

Having collected seven goals along with nine assists and a good plus-two rating in 33 games, Dumont needs to bear down and simplify his game. The Bulldogs need Dumont to pick up his play as his experience and offense will be relied upon to get them into the playoffs.

Morgan Ellis, D, 21

After missing the first four games of the season, Ellis is playing a solid, defense-first game and providing some offense when the opportunities arrive. In 28 games, the young defender has managed three goals and four assists while posting a plus-10 rating and only 20 penalty minutes. He is seeing top-four minutes, penalty killing duties and some power play time. His skating speed, consistency, and physicality will need to improve in order to reach the NHL level.

Stefan Fournier, RW, 21

In his rookie pro season, Fournier is providing a physical fourth-line presence but has not been able to add much in the way of offensive production in the first half of the year. He continues to stand up for his teammates by dropping the gloves with anyone. The tough winger missed a few weeks of playing time with an undisclosed injury and has struggled adjusting to the pro level.

In 18 games this season, he has scored one goal and added two assists while recording 60 penalty minutes (four fighting majors) and plus-one rating. If his offensive game does not improve soon, the offensively challenged Bulldogs could re-assign him to the ECHL in order to help him regain his scoring confidence.

Patrick Holland, LW/RW, 21

After his successful call-up in October, Holland was one of the Bulldogs better players. He continues to be defensively responsible and an excellent penalty killer. The playmaking forward quickly developed chemistry with Christian Thomas, scoring four goals (one shorty) along with five assists and a solid plus two rating in 20 games. Holland suffered a lower-body injury in mid-November which forced him to miss nine games.

Holland's offensive production has arguably been slowed by injuries to Christian Thomas. It should pick up in the second half of the season, assuming of course he and Thomas both stay fully healthy. The versatile forward still brings other aspects of the game to the Bulldogs but will be counted on to provide more offense for his team down the stretch drive for a potential playoff position.

Louis Leblanc, C, 22

Leblanc went into the 2013-14 season with high expectations, and while his offensive game has been streaky, his work ethic in practice is far better. Through 32 games, the first round pick is one of the top scorers for the Bulldogs, scoring nine goals along with 10 assists and an okay plus-two rating.

His game-to-game consistency is still a work in progress and his shot needs more velocity for the NHL level, but he is still young and maturing as a pro player. He will likely be the first call-up if there are any more injuries for the Canadiens. Leblanc is back on track and just needs more seasoning on the farm before making the jump back to the NHL level.

Robert Mayer, G, 24

Mayer played well in the first few starts of the season for the Bulldogs but has since struggled with soft goals. His consistency and focus seem to follow his movement in the crease; at times controlled and alert, other times all over the place, out of position, and poorly tracking the puck. The young netminder still needs maturing and constant coaching to help his overall game. He currently has a 3-6-2 record, a 3.05 goals against average, and a poor .896 save percentage in 11 games.

Mayer was made available on December 16th to compete in the Spengler Cup for Geneve-Servette of the Swiss National League. He saw action in two games and played well with a 2.95 goals against average and a solid .918 save percentage. His team won the Spengler Cup by defeating the CSKA Moscow by a score of 5-3. He should be returning to Hamilton soon.

Joonas Nattinen, C, 22

In his third season at the AHL level with Hamilton, Nattinen is playing a good two-way game, but still is not offensively consistent enough to play in the top-six for the team. Last season's shoulder injury slowed his overall development and he is still recovering his lost strength and power. His offense production should pick up in the second half of the season as he becomes more comfortable with the shoulder.

Through 34 games, the big centerman has scored five goals along with six assists and a solid plus-two rating. He does not always get the most talented wingers on his line, but he still needs to be more physical, drive to the net more often, and use his underrated shot with greater frequency. The Finn is not a liability in defensive zone and is positionally sound.

Nattinen is currently in the final year of his entry-level deal and must show the organization more improvement to earn a new contract

Magnus Nygren, D, 23

Nygren seemed to get out to a good start in his AHL rookie season but after just 16 games in Hamilton, the Swede was re-assigned to Färjestad in the SHL. He was playing on the top power play unit and seeing top-four minutes with the Bulldogs. The offensive blueliner put up one goal along with seven assists and a poor minus-nine rating during his brief stint.

Nygren has another year left on his two-year entry-level contract which was signed this past summer. Canadiens fans could see him arrive back for next year's training camp or later this year when Färjestad season is over.

Erik Nystrom, LW, 20

Nystrom was starting to break out offensively and seeing time on the second line in Hamilton. He scored one goal along with four assists and a solid-even rating in 17 AHL games. The young Swede seems to have the game to play the North American style and makes things happen with his speed and determination.

In a surprising move, Nystrom was released early from his professional try-out contract on November 25th and signed a one-year deal with Medvescak Zagreb of the KHL. He is yet to collect a point in 12 KHL games. The Canadiens retain his rights only until this summer. The organization is full of prospects with similar skills but more offensively talented.

Greg Pateryn, D, 23

Since returning from his brief call-up to the Canadiens, Pateryn is leading the Bulldogs' defense corps in scoring and playing top pairing minutes with Jarred Tinordi. He has scored six goals (two on the power play and one shorthanded) along with nine assists and is a team leading plus-11 rating in 28 games. The big defender is using his big point shot well by hitting the net more consistently and getting it through the lanes.

Pateryn is playing better defensively and being physical in all three zones. At times under pressure he is still prone to making bad high risk passes in his end of the rink. He must tighten up these mistakes by being either more patient with the puck or taking the safer play in front of him. Given his solid overall play and right-handed shot, Pateryn should be on the shortlist of players called up in case of injuries to the NHL roster.

Steve Quailer, LW/RW 24

After struggling to get into the Bulldogs lineup to start his second pro season, Quailer finally played his first game on October 15th. The big winger's game appeared to be improving when he suffered an upper-body injury, which has kept him sidelined since the end of November. He is week-to-week at this time.

In 12 AHL games, the two-way forward scored one goal, collected four assists, and posted an excellent plus-seven rating. This is an important year for Quailer as he must remain healthy over the second half and show team management there is more potential to his overall game.

Jarred Tinordi, D, 21

After returning to Hamilton from the NHL, Tinordi struggled to find his physical and defensive game. It seemed his confidence had taken a bit of a hit with the demotion to the AHL level. The big blueliner has since returned to his simple, no-thrills ways and started to be a more punishing hitter. He is improving when he drops the gloves and learning better balance.

Tinordi continues to improve his offensive game and has a goal and four assists through 30 games. He plays on the top pairing with Pateryn, is the number one penalty killer, and the team's leader in blocked shots. The second-year pro is providing good leadership and protects his teammates when necessary. Tinordi should show even more improvement down the stretch in the second half of the season and is another possible injury replacement call-up for the Canadiens.

Christian Thomas, RW, 21

Thomas missed the start of the 2013-14 AHL season with an abdominal problem. He finally returned to the lineup November 15th, but suffered a couple of smaller injuries that sidelined him for a few more games. The skilled scorer is needed in the Bulldogs' lineup in order to help the team's struggling offensive production. His time on the sidelines has also kept him from building chemistry with Holland and other teammates.

Thomas has scored three goals (one on the power play) along with seven assists and an even-rating through 16 AHL games. The hard shooting winger is an important cog in the Bulldogs power play, where he draws a lot of attention at the top of the faceoff circle. His quick release and speed also creates a lot of space and time for his teammates. If he can remain healthy for the whole second half of the season, then Hamilton has an excellent chance at securing a playoff spot.

Dustin Tokarski, G, 24

The season started as a competition between Mayer and Tokarski for the starting job, but Tokarski's stellar play has allowed him to see the majority of minutes. Through 24 starts, he has a 13-7-2 record, a 2.19 goals against average, an excellent .926 save percentage, and one shutout.

The unorthodox goalie finds ways to stop the puck and win games for his team. His compete level and calmness is starting to rub off on Hamilton's young defense corps and the low scoring Bulldogs are winning close games. If Tokarski can keep up his present pace, then the team should make the playoffs and he could be rewarded with a new contract at season's end. He has been the best player on the Hamilton Bulldogs.

ECHL

Mike Condon, G, 23

Condon took control of the starter's job for the ECHL Wheeling Nailers from the beginning of the season. He seemed determined to show that he belonged at the AHL level in Hamilton but he also needed to play instead of sitting as the back-up. The big netminder posted a good record of 10-4-4 with one shutout, a solid 2.33 goals against average, and an excellent .925 in 18 appearances.

On December 16th Condon was re-assigned to the Bulldogs as the replacement for Robert Mayer. He saw game action in three games posting a 1-1 record with a respectable 2.48 goals against average and a solid .909 save percentage. In his short stint, Condon's consistent play, no soft goals given up and his numbers have been better than that of Mayer. He was returned to the ECHL on January 7th and will likely reclaim the starting duties for the Nailers.

Peter Delmas, G, 23

Delmas has bounced around the ECHL this year before ending up on the Gwinnett Gladiators as their starter. He owns a record of 3-6 with a 2.67 goals against average and a .922 save percentage in 10 appearances.

On December 13th, Delmas left the second period of a game against the league leading South Carolina Stingrays with what appears to be an ankle injury. There is no timetable for his return. The goaltender has stood on his head at times just to keep his offensively challenged team in games and is showing better consistency in his play. This unfortunate setback could further reduce his playing time and might make it difficult on him to receive another contract from the Canadiens at year's end.

Other Notes

Though the Canadiens have given several of their prospects an opportunity to play in the NHL, only one, Michael Bournival, has been on the NHL roster all season. Bournival has played mostly on a third or fourth line this season, but has also seen spot duties on both specialty teams. He currently has six goals and five assists through 37 games. He has also recorded 42 hits and 32 blocked shots.

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