Canadiens 2008-09 AHL/ECHL review

By Jason Menard

Despite personnel upheaval, growing pains were few and far between for the Canadiens’ top farm club as the Hamilton Bulldogs enjoyed a 21-point improvement over last season, and finished the year third in the AHL Western Conference.

Although the season ended in the North Division semi-finals with a 4-2 series loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins, the club that finished four points behind them in the North Division. And while the club said goodbye in the off-season with the departures of long-time Bulldogs Corey Locke and Duncan Milroy, the new additions this year have settled in nicely and have set the club up for success next season.

It wasn’t all stability, however. There was upheaval in the coaching ranks and some of the club’s top players were shuttled back and forth between Montreal to help off-set the rash of injuries the main club suffered through.

The Bulldogs finished strong after a game of coaching dominoes left the club with Ron Wilson as the interim head coach. When the Canadiens fired Guy Carbonneau, then-Hamilton head coach Don Lever was called up to assist Bob Gainey behind the Habs’ bench. Lever is in the option year of his contract, but it’s a club option, so he’s waiting to hear whether he’ll be retained — and in what capacity. The Canadiens have given him permission to seek other employment, while the Habs’ president has already stated that the Canadiens’ next head coach will be a francophone (Lever does not speak fluent French). Whether Lever returns to the Habs’ bench as an assistant, or reclaims the head role in Hamilton is still up in the air.

The Habs’ ECHL franchise the Cincinnati Cyclones fared a little better, reaching the semi-finals of the ECHL championship race, before bowing out to the South Carolina Stingrays in four straight games. The Cyclones, which has an affiliation with both the Habs and the Nashville Predators, only featured a trio of Canadiens prospects — J.T. Wyman, Loic Lacasse, and Olivier Latendresse.

Forwards

Hamilton was led up front by a pair of highly-touted prospects in their inaugural pro campaigns — Ben Maxwell and Brock Trotter. The two finished third and fifth in team scoring, respectively. Maxwell accounted for 58 points in 73 games, scoring 22 goals. Trotter added 18 goals to the Bulldogs’ cause. Maxwell’s solid overall play also earned him call-ups to the NHL club, where he saw action in seven games and was held pointless.

And while Yanick Lehoux ended up leading the club in scoring, it was Max Pacioretty who made the greatest impression. Also in his first year, the New Canaan-bred left winger made a successful jump from the collegiate level — where he spent just one season with the University of Michigan before signing a pro contract — and was dominant in his limited time with the Bulldogs. In the 37 games with the club, he scored 29 points (six goals, 23 assists). He was called up mid-season to the Canadiens and spent the remainder of the season with the club, seeing action in 34 games.

The forward depth in Hamilton had a dual benefit for the Habs this past season — they were able to successfully cover for injuries, while also feeling comfortable sending players down for punitive reasons, knowing that the talent returning from Hamilton was capable of fitting in. Kyle Chipchura (13 games), Matt D’Agostini (53 games), and Greg Stewart (20 games) all joined Pacioretty with the big club, while underachieving forwards like Sergei Kostitsyn spent 16 games in Hamilton to rediscover his game.

Chipchura, again caught in a numbers game, enjoyed a stellar season with the Bulldogs, showing his two-way value for the franchise by leading the club in plus/minus despite only playing in 51 games. He finished the year at plus-28, while contributing 14 goals and 21 assists. A restricted free agent, it’s likely that the Habs will extend a qualifying offer to the young forward.

This year, the Habs’ impressive depth finally started to work their way through the system. Ryan White, also in his first full professional season, finished the year participating in 80 games, registering 29 points, and finishing the year plus-10. Ryan Russell, a trade acquisition thought to be a depth player, surprised many with an unexpected scoring touch (20 goals), while playing the hard-checking, defensively responsible role for which he’s been known. And Mathieu Aubin, the lanky offensively gifted center, was finally providing a return on his investment (seven goals in 32 games) when injuries derailed his campaign.

Before a separated shoulder ended his season early, Olivier Latendresse was putting together a solid campaign. In 23 games at the ECHL level, he scored 18 goals and 15 assists. And while the pucks weren’t going in the net at the same rate in Hamilton, he did finish with one goal and 13 assists in 20 games in Hamilton.

The club has few decisions to make this season: there’s the aforementioned status for Chipchura and Aubin, Olivier Latendresse, Shawn Belle, and Stewart join him as RFAs. No prospects are UFAs, but some of the club’s older veterans (Lehoux, Steve Gainey) have reached that level. It’s likely the Habs will retain their drafted prospects, while using the room gained by not tendering contracts to the veterans for the next wave of drafted juniors and collegiate players.

Defense

The Habs got a couple of glimpses of their power-play quarterback of the future in Yannick Weber. In 68 games with the Bulldogs, he scored 16 goals (10 on the power play) and added 28 assists. He stepped right in and showed the poise and puck-moving skills that the NHL club has been looking for to eventually replace the departed Mark Streit. Weber was also called up at the end of the season to fill in for the injured Mathieu Schneider on the power play.

The Bulldogs’ defense was an area of strength, but also one of controversy. Mathieu Carle, in his second professional campaign, has requested a trade out of the organization; and Pavel Valentenko, the Canadiens’ highly-touted, hard-hitting blueline prospect returned to Russia and signed a contract with Moscow Dynamo of the KHL. Carle, potentially bypassed by Weber and up-and-coming prospect P.K. Subban, is looking for a more direct route to the NHL, but will need to improve upon his seven-goal, 22-assist in 59-game AHL output to attract more suitors.

Shawn Belle, the player returned in the off-season trade of Locke (who finished seventh overall in league scoring this season), had a solid, yet, unspectacular season. Belle finished the year at plus-19, but only contributed 13 points (three goals) in 60 games.

One prospect who had an interesting season was J.T. Wyman. Although he played in 52 games and added 11 assists, finishing plus-16 for the season. He displayed solid versatility, playing both forward and defense as needed, and could be looking at a full-time move to the blueline next season. He also participated in 15 games at the ECHL level, adding eight assists.

Goal

With the club’s two best young goaltenders splitting time at the NHL level, the organization brought in Marc Denis to add a veteran presence to the AHL franchise (and to provide injury insurance). But Denis’ addition to the club came at the expense of on-ice time for Cedrick Desjardins. The Edmunston, NB native saw action in 30 games, finishing with a 16-12 record, with a 2.55 GAA and a .919 save percentage. Loic Lacasse, whose contract is up at the end of this season, also got into seven games.

In Cincinnati, the club played a game of musical goalies, and Lacasse was able to suit up for 21 games. He posted a 11-6-0-1 record, with at 2.71 GAA and .899 save percentage. Lacasse also split netminding duties with the oft-travelled (three teams just in this season alone) Ryan Nie during the playoffs. Lacasse played in 11 playoff games with the Cyclones, but his play suffered — he finished with a 3.25 GAA and a .890 save percentage.

Desjardins’ future will likely remain in Hamilton. With Denis’ contract up, the club could choose to give Desjardins the reins of the Hamilton franchise. Lacasse may be signed to an AHL contract and used as a depth netminder in the system next year.