Forward depth highlight of minor-league pool for Montreal Canadiens

By Ian Bross
Photo: Goaltender Robert Mayer had an up and down season with Hamilton, eventually losing the starting job to veteran Drew MacIntyre. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning)

The Hamilton Bulldogs, the AHL affiliate for the Montreal Canadiens, finished atop their division this season, posting a 44-27-2-7 record while averaging 2.82 goals per game and allowing the second fewest goals in the league at 2.41 per game. There are 13 forwards, four defensemen, and one goaltender who would all be considered prospects.

Forward

David Desharnais, C, 24

Since the 2008-09 season, Desharnais has been one of, if not the most reliable forward in Hamilton. The undrafted Desharnais starred as a Bulldog, scoring 78 points in 60 games a season ago. He picked up where he left off in 2010-11, again scoring at better than a point-per-game clip. By mid-December, after 35 games, Desharnais had 10 goals and 35 assists. He was then called up by the Canadiens, only to be returned to Hamilton on the same day, without seeing any NHL action.

Almost as quickly as he was assigned and reassigned, he was called upon again — this time for good. Desharnais joined the Canadiens on the final day of 2010. The diminutive forward would spend the remainder of year with the big club in Montreal. The 24-year-old Desharnais finally displayed his ability to stick at the NHL level, eventually totaling eight goals and 14 assists in 43 games. He will be a restricted free agent this summer.

Aaron Palushaj, RW, 21

Palushaj’s second year as a professional, and first full season with the Bulldogs, was a successful one. With a slew of Hamilton’s regulars up front up in Montreal, Palushaj’s importance increased. And he met the demand well, as in addition to his playmaking prowess, Palushaj was able to chip in some goals in 2010-11.

For the second-round pick, his regular season total of 22 goals was a dramatic improvement from his output of eight as a rookie. Also adding 35 assists, Palushaj had 57 points in 68 games. Only latecomer Nigel Dawes, who scored the bulk of his points with the Chicago Wolves, posted higher numbers.

Alexander Avtsin, RW, 20

Avtsin made his debut in North American hockey in 2010-11 as a 19-year-old member of the Hamilton Bulldogs. Along with simply settling in to his new environment, the teenager was faced with nagging injuries this season. It was not until the month of January that Avtsin began to establish himself. Even then, Avtsin remained somewhat in flux. When all was said and done, Avtsin scored five goals and 15 assists in 58 games.

Though the talented Russian’s scoring totals are relatively insubstantial, his accomplishments in light of the circumstances he faced are not to be taken lightly. Without question however, Canadiens brass will hope for (and expect) significant offensive contributions from Avtsin in the coming years.

Ryan White, C, 23

Perhaps the struggle to make the cut in training camp took its toll on White, relatively languid in the early stages of the AHL season. At times, the 23-year-old, who amassed 173 penalty minutes for the Bulldogs in 2009-10, did not appear to be his usual, vibrant self. Injuries were also a factor.

Despite a rocky beginning, White returned to form. He notched three goals and nine assists along with 77 penalty minutes in 33 games for Hamilton. Eventually, the grinder was added to the Canadiens lineup, where he finished the regular season. Appearing in 27 NHL games, he had two goals and three assists along with 38 penalty minutes.

White was returned to Hamilton after the Canadiens’ first-round playoff exit. He had four points in six games, joining the Bulldogs in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Andreas Engqvist, C, 23

Arriving in his first professional season in North America, Engqvist became an instantly integral part of the Bulldog’s North Division-winning success. Engqvist thrived in numerous roles, namely as a go-to penalty killer and defensive forward. A four-year veteran of the SEL, the 23-year-old did not seem to struggle as a rookie in the AHL. As a key bottom-six forward, Engqvist scored a respectable 10 goals and 15 assists. Engqvist appeared in three games with Montreal as well, not registering any points. While his game is not flawless, the hulking Swede has positioned himself well with his 2010-11 performance. On his present course, a spot with the Canadiens in the future is not out of the question.


J.T. Wyman, RW, 25

The 2010-11 season saw more of the same from J.T. Wyman. With the conclusion of his third AHL campaign, one knows what to expect from the 6’2, 203-pound Minnesotan: toughness, durability and reliability, as well as some offense. Wyman, along with captain Alex Henry, appeared in more games than any other Bulldog this season. In 80 contests, Wyman tallied 18 goals and 18 assists, essentially matching his production from last year. He has seven points in 17 postseason games.

With the expiration of his current contract — and pending unrestricted free agent status — the 25-year-old Wyman’s future with the Canadiens is unclear.

Gabriel Dumont, F, 20

In his first full season as a professional, Dumont has not seen an abundance of playing time. His goal total (five) and assist total (13) were each modest as a result. With Hamilton, a team boasting a balanced lineup, the prolific junior scorer has focused on providing energy and checking. Both come naturally for the fifth-round draft pick, whose stats in his final QMJHL campaign misrepresent his other noteworthy attributes. Perhaps the greatest of them all is his competitive streak. So long as Dumont continues to play with his usual determination, he will always be a player to keep an eye on.

Andrew Conboy, LW, 23

When the Bulldogs look to Andrew Conboy, they look for toughness. Conboy has made a name for himself as a difficult player to play against. At 6’4 200 pounds, Conboy loves to throw his weight around, and can punish opponents when dropping the gloves. He has owned his role with Hamilton for two consecutive seasons, however, he is also able to occasionally add his name to the score sheet. In 64 games, the 23-year-old potted 13 goals and assisted on 10 others. He also finished second on the team in penalty minutes behind Jimmy Bonneau with 116.

Olivier Fortier, C, 22

In 2010-11, Fortier was featured as a bottom-six forward for the Bulldogs. As a rookie, he has done an exceptional job at the center position on the team’s third and fourth lines. The recently turned 22-year-old is responsible defensively, has good quickness, and hustles consistently. Rewarded with occasional offensive opportunities — both with a man advantage, and at even strength, skating with the team’s top players — all in all, Fortier has settled in comfortably with Hamilton. Missing time due to injury, the forward appeared in 68 games, and scored nine goals and 11 assists.

Ryan Russell, F, 24

The 24-year-old Russell got off to a slow start in the beginning of the season. He picked up his offense in January, before missing time in February, and cooling off again at the end of the season. Ultimately, Russell’s 65 games played represented his fewest to date in his four-year AHL career, all of which he has spent with Hamilton. As such, he fell short of his previous season’s scoring outputs, with 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points — all of which stand as career lows.

A pending restricted free agent, Russell has straight-ahead speed and grit. Utilizing these talents, he can round out a top-six forward line at the minor league level. He can lineup at different forward positions, and also fits in nicely on the penalty kill.

Hunter Bishop, C, 23

Since entering minor professional hockey, Bishop has not yet been able to earn full time work. Early in the year, Bishop split his time between the AHL and ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers. There, he registered two goals and three assists. The organization apparently thought better than to confine Bishop to the ECHL. Instead, after his initial stint, he has been a depth forward with Hamilton. Dressing in 34 games, he had four goals and four assists. Well traveled in his junior/NCAA career, a little stability may not be a bad thing for Bishop. And yet roster space in Hamilton will continue to be hard to come by.

Ian Schultz, RW, 21

Schultz’s first year pro was relatively uneventful. When healthy, he was primarily cast in a fourth line role with Hamilton. Grit and physicality are the hallmarks of the 20-year-old’s game. He made 45 appearances on the season, all with the Bulldogs, registering three goals, one assist, and 49 penalty minutes. Schultz did not log any time in the ECHL this season, but barring any unforeseen rises in his play, for the benefit of his development, that may not be the case next year.


Dany Masse, LW, 23

Masse has continued to fill a grinding, energy role for the Bulldogs. Unlike last year, when Masse skated in only 25 games with Hamilton as a depth forward, the 23-year-old saw a fair amount of action. Masse split some of his time between the AHL and ECHL. In 29 games with the Wheeling Nailers, he had a goal and eight assists. In the latter portion of the season, Masse was featured more regularly in the Bulldogs’ rotation, appearing in 36 games and registering three goals and six assists. Masse also played in 16 games during the Calder Cup playoffs.

Defense

Yannick Weber, D, 22

In recent years, the majority of Weber’s play has come with the Bulldogs. Set to return in 2010-11, it didn’t take long before what was to be his third year with the club came to an end. Without a doubt, injuries helped pave the way for Weber, but it is debatable whether or not there was much more for the 22-year-old to learn at the AHL level. After only 15 games, Weber had already amassed eight goals and four assists. He remained with the Canadiens since his initial call up. There are areas for Weber’s game to grow, foremost among them is physical strength, which will have to come over time. At this stage in his development, Weber may be better suited to remain in the NHL.

Brendon Nash, D, 24

The Canadiens and Nash agreed to a two-year contract this past March. As an undrafted free agent signing, Nash’s influence with Hamilton has, at the very least, been a pleasant surprise. A mobile, two-way defenseman, the rookie thrived on the Bulldogs powerplay in the beginning of the season. Nash’s rate of offense slowed considerably toward the end of the year, even as far back as the month of January. He nevertheless finished the season with five goals, and 25 assists. In all, he managed to play a complete game. Nash’s plus-22 rating was tied for best on the team along with Aaron Palushaj.

Mathieu Carle, D, 23

The story of each of Mathieu Carle‘s seasons with the Bulldogs has been his health. After being re-signed through this year, Carle has made progress not only on the ice, but in his ability to stay on the ice as well. The 23-year-old skated in 68 regular season games in 2010-11, a career high, and his most since 2007-08. A minor victory perhaps but a victory nonetheless. No Hamilton defenseman scored more goals than Carle. He had 11 goals and 18 assists on the season, making him as effective a point producer as any other blueliner on the team this season. Now with four years of service to the Bulldogs, Carle once again enters free agency this summer.

Kyle Klubertanz, D, 25

While it has taken some time, Klubertanz made a name for himself in the AHL this season. Originally a draft choice of the Anaheim Ducks in 2004, Klubertanz played four seasons with the University of Wisconsin and five games with the Portland Pirates in 2007-08. The Ducks decided not to keep the rights to Klubertanz, a third-round selection; two more years and two seasons playing professionally in Europe, and their loss was the Canadiens’ gain. Or more specifically, the Bulldog’s gain.

With 10 goals and 22 assists, the 25-year-old Klubertanz led Hamilton’s defensive corps in points this season. He got noticeably better as the year progressed and his opportunities increased. Now, Klubertanz is set to become a restricted free agent.


Goaltending

Robert Mayer, G, 21

When the reliable veteran Curtis Sanford was felled by injury at the beginning of the season, the starting goaltending duties fell to the unproven Mayer. The 21-year-old’s AHL experience has not been pleasant thus far in his young career. He struggled heavily with the job. Though the Bulldogs enjoyed success as a team, Mayer posted nine wins and 10 losses on the year, with a 3.06 goals-against average and an .890 save percentage. His last start came on February 27, a 5-2 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins. The following day, Hamilton acquired AHL veteran Drew MacIntyre from the Milwaukee Admirals. The remainder of the season, Mayer made only one more appearance — in relief of MacIntyre. The rookie will have his work cut out for him next season.