Montreal Canadiens deep in youth and talent at minor league level

By David Thicke

Morgan Ellis - Montreal Canadiens

Photo: Defenseman Morgan Ellis is one of several first-year players for the Hamilton Bulldogs. Ellis was selected 117th overall by the Canadiens in 2010. (Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI)

Last season, the Hamilton Bulldogs finished near the bottom of the AHL and failed to make the Calder Cup playoff, a fate similar to their parent club, the Montreal Canadiens. New General Manager, Marc Bergevin decided to bring in a completely new Bulldogs' coaching staff, adding a good mix of NHL and junior experience with head coach Sylvain Lefebvre, assistants Donald Dufresne, Ron Wilson, and goaltending coach Vincent Riendeau.

The Bulldogs have struggled early in the 2012-13 season, with injuries to top forward prospects Louis Leblanc, Blake Geoffrion, and Aaron Palushaj. Consequentially the team has struggled and is now among the bottom-ranked teams in the league.

AHL

Alexander Avtsin, RW, 21

Avtsin was left on the sidelines for the start his third season at the AHL level and finally returned to the Bulldogs' lineup in mid-November. The young Russian has played okay, considering that he hasn't been given the best opportunity to succeed offensively. His linemates have not played well nor has the offensively talented winger been used with the right mix of players. He does not possess the physicality to play the checking game and needs to be given more opportunity on the top-two forward lines where his offensive talent might help the low scoring Bulldogs team.

Alain Berger, RW, 21

Berger started his second season at the AHL level struggling to get into the Bulldogs line-up but was finally given an opportunity when Louis Leblanc went down with an injury. The young Swiss-born winger has worked hard, fore-checked well and even had the chance to kill penalties. The big forward has spent most of his playing time on the third or fourth lines but has failed to find the open ice in order to unload his hard shot. Berger still needs to improve his balance and stride width in order to become a better skater which could increase his offensive upside potential. He also needs to simplify his game, and learn to drive to the net more.

Berger transferred to Bern in the Swiss league in mid-December.

Nathan Beaulieu, D, 20

Beaulieu started his rookie pro season at the AHL level in Hamilton and was given the opportunity to control the team's power play from the back end. The smooth skating defender has shown his puck moving skills from junior but has struggled in the defensive zone with positioning and one on one puck battles along the boards. He can make things happen in the offensive zone but is still picking up the nuances of the pro game.

Beaulieu needs to play with more physicality and have a sense of urgency in the defensive zone. Considering the inexperience on the young Hamilton defense corps this year, the youngest blueliner on the Bulldogs has performed well when given more responsibilities. There should be a gradual improvement in Beaulieu's play over the rest of the season as he grows accustom to the pro game.

Michael Bournival, C, 20

Bournival started his first pro season at the AHL level in Hamilton and has been the Bulldogs' most consistent and reliable centerman. He has played a solid two-way game, brought energy to every shift and game this year. The versatile forward has seen plenty of time on the penalty kill as well as some action on the Bulldogs' power play. The 20-year-old has shown lots of character, a never quit attitude, and a motor that never stop running for the full sixty minutes of every game.

Peter Delmas, G, 22

Delmas spent the beginning of the season in the AHL in a backup role, managing three starts and an 0-2 record, but has since been returned to Wheeling of the ECHL, where he spent the bulk of the last two seasons.

In Wheeling Delmas has a 4-1-1 record through six starts. He has split time with Scott Darling and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Patrick Killeen.

Gabriel Dumont, C, 22

Dumont is playing his third AHL season and has shown real leadership to the young prospects in Hamilton this year. He has been the most consistent veteran forward for the Bulldogs and assumed a bigger role offensively with the injuries to Leblanc and Geoffrion. With his strong work ethic and team-first attitude, the young centerman has set an excellent example for the rookies to follow both on and off the ice.

The two-way center started playing on the fourth line in an energy role while providing solid physical play and trying to provide a spark for his team. He has also played on both special teams. Dumont can bring more offensive to the Bulldogs as his young teammates get more acclimated to the pro game and their offensive talents should only elevate his game to a higher level.

Morgan Ellis, D, 20

Ellis started his first pro season at the AHL level in Hamilton on the sidelines with a groin injury through training camp and missing three games to start the year. He was timid, unsure, and out of position in his first five games as he adjusted to the size and speed of the pro game. The all-round defenseman has slowly found his way back onto the power play and penalty killing units. It has been a learning experience for the puck moving blueliner on how quickly to move the puck out of his zone and when to be more patient for the play to evolve in front of him.

The rookie blueliner's skating speed has quickened as the injury fades but he needs to play with more urgency and physicality down low in the defensive zone to be a more effective shutdown defenseman. As the season progresses, Ellis should raise the level of his overall game and become an important piece of the back end group for the Bulldogs.

Brendan Gallagher, RW, 20

Gallagher started his rookie season at the AHL level in Hamilton and took some time getting untracked offensively as he adjusted to the speed and size of the pro game. He has brought a spark to the Bulldogs' offense along with his never-quit attitude and his excellent work ethic to every game. The gritty winger has shown really good hands and a very quick, accurate release on his shot. His never quit character has been one of the catalysts for his young teammates' bounce back capabilities after tough losses so far this season.

The tough little winger has quickly become an important cog in Hamilton's offense and the heart of this rookie laden squad. If the 20-year-old can stay healthy for the whole year then it's likely that Gallagher will improve significantly on his offense numbers and his importance to his team.

Blake Geoffrion, LW/C, 24

Geoffrion started his first full season with the Canadiens at the AHL level on the team's top forward line and was an important leader for this young Hamilton squad. On November 9th however, Geoffrion suffered a depressed skull fracture when his head came down on the point of the defender's skate. He survived a very close call at the hospital and has since arrived home in order to commence his healing process. The two-way forward is out indefinitely but is expected to make a full recovery. He was expected to compete for a roster spot in Montreal if or when the NHL lockout was settled but at this time his own health is far more important than his hockey career. Canadiens fans should not be surprised if the tough Geoffrion returns to game action sooner than expected; it is in the family genes.

Patrick Holland, LW/RW, 20

Holland has had a streaky start to the 2012-13 season. He has shown good playmaking skills and offensive vision, but is not shooting enough when the opportunities present themselves. The lanky forward has a high hockey IQ which allows him to think the game at high speed and read the plays quickly in order to get to the right place on the ice. He has seen plenty of time on the Bulldogs' power play and the top-two forward lines.

The versatile forward is playing his off-wing for most games and had the same issues when he played his first WHL season for the Tri-City Americans. It is highly likely that he will improve as the season progresses and his confidence grows at the pro level.

Louis Leblanc, C, 21

Leblanc started his second season at the AHL level playing on the top-two forwards lines in Hamilton. His game was just starting to click when the young center suffered a high ankle sprain on October 20th, in a game against their division rivals, the Toronto Marlies. The smart, gritty forward would be out of the Bulldogs line-up for a month and the offensively starved Bulldogs missed his scoring presence.

Leblanc is the most NHL-ready player on the Bulldogs roster. The two-way center will probably be converted to the wing position at the NHL level and could still get the opportunity to compete for a spot in the Canadiens' lineup if the lockout ends.

Robert Mayer, G, 23

Robert Mayer has playing extremely well in his third season in the AHL with the Bulldogs. Despite a rough month of November, that saw him go 1-6-1 through nine starts, the young netminder has been one of the most consistent and perhaps the best Bulldog player for the first part of the AHL season.

He has held the young Bulldogs in many games so far this season while starter Cedrick Desjardins was out with a lower-body injury and firmly placed himself in the backup role. 

Brendon Nash, D, 25

After missing all of last season with a shoulder injury, Nash started his second season at the AHL level by being moved in and out of the Bulldogs' lineup. He has played the mentor role to the rookie defenseman this season. The solid all-round defenseman has seen time on both of the specialty units but has been switched around with different partners.

Joonas Nattinen, C, 21

Nattinen is playing his second year in Hamilton and North America but has at times been a healthy scratch. The two-way center has played all of the forward position so far this season but is struggling offensively along with the rest of the Bulldogs. He has only shown flashes of his game from the end of last season but it is still early and he needs to stay on the top-two lines to produce better results. The young Finnish-born forward was out of Hamilton's line-up for the second game in Abbotsford with an upper-body injury and he needs to stay healthy if the team is going to improve their offensive game.

Nattinen has scored only three goals along with two assists but a good plus four rating in 15 games this season. The smooth skating center has adjusted nicely to the AHL game and should bring more offense due to playing with more offensively talented wingers this year. He definitely can help players like Avtsin, Gallagher, Leblanc and Palushaj score more goals and put up better offensive numbers with his playmaking skills. The Bulldogs are definitely a better team with Nattinen in their starting lineup this year.

Aaron Palushaj, RW, 23

Aaron Palushaj has been very inconsistent in his third full season with the Bulldogs and was expected to provide offensive leadership to the young Hamilton team. He didn't step up his game when the team lost Leblanc and Geoffrion to injury nor has the veteran forward set a good example for the rookies. The offensively skilled winger has made poor decisions with the puck; blind passes, head scratching shot selections, and bad give-aways in both ends of the rink. There have been too many games so far this season where the speedy forward failed to show-up until it was too late for his young team. The 23-year-old has a better game than he has shown this season but needs to stop repeating the same mistakes and trying to do too much himself.

Palushaj suffered a separated shoulder in mid-December and is expected to miss about another month of play.

Greg Pateryn, D, 22

Pateryn played well to start his first pro season at the AHL level in Hamilton and showed a steady, calming presence on the back end. He has a solid work ethic, grit, character, and leadership skills which set a good example for the younger prospects on the Bulldogs. The big defenseman played on the shutdown pairing with Jarred Tinordi and on both specialty team units. The physical defender dished out some punishing hits but does not go out of position to deliver the bodychecks.

Unfortunately on November 2nd, Pateryn suffered a fractured elbow which required immediate surgery and put him out of action for 10 to 12 weeks, maybe more. His loss has been felt on the defense corps as his steady game was really starting to improve as he adjusted to the pro game. Hopefully the physical defenseman can return to the Bulldogs' lineup soon and remain healthy for the rest of the year because the team could use his strong presence in their defensive zone, especially in front of their net.

Steve Quailer, LW/RW 23

Quailer has played fairly well in his rookie AHL season. He has brought character and energy, but has sometimes lacked consistency in his overall play. The big forward has not used his size and physicality enough when playing along the boards or in the corners. He has very good hands around the net and can make space for him and his linemates but needs to be push more by the coaching staff to plant his large frame in front of the opposition's goalie.

The rookie forward should surprise a lot of people with his solid offensive play as he learns from his mistakes and gains more experience playing in Hamilton this year.

Jarred Tinordi, D, 20

Tinordi has played better than expected in his first pro season at the AHL level and has carried the puck up the ice more while remaining solid in the defensive zone. He has played big minutes against the oppositions' best forwards and on the penalty killing unit. The big blueliner has kept his game simply with good positioning, filling the shooting lanes, an active stick and smart shot-blocking skills. The young defenseman has shown a quiet confidence along with his character, leadership and physicality. The first round pick has been one of Hamilton's better and most consistent defenseman so far this season.

The rookie blueliner's game has slowly improved as he adjusted to the speed and size of AHL and the simplicity of his game has limited his mistakes in all three zones. Expect to see him in more important situations as the season progresses.

ECHL

Philippe Lefebvre, LW, 21

In his sophomore season, Lefebvre was assigned to the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL and will have a fight to return to the AHL level in Hamilton. He needs to bring his two-way game more consistently while showing some offensive upside in order to play for the Bulldogs. The lanky winger has played more minutes this season and is one of the offensive leaders for the struggling Nailers. His confidence should grow the more the young forward plays in Wheeling.

He needs to shoot the puck more often instead of forcing bad pass when the opportunity is not there. Unless Hamilton suffers many more injuries to their forwards, it is likely that Lefebvre spends this whole season at the ECHL level.

Ian Schultz, RW, 22

Schultz started his third pro season at the ECHL level with Wheeling after the team's management sent Schultz down in the first round of player cuts. They were hoping the young player would get the message. He was supposed to compete for a starting lineup job after solid improvement in his overall play at the end of last season but showed up to Hamilton's training camp overweight and out of shape.

On November 30th, the tough forward was loaned by the Canadiens to the ECHL Utah Grizzlies, the Calgary Flames' affiliate to hopefully get his overall game back on track. Schultz really needs to turn his season around and get his act together or the tough winger might not be re-signed at the end of the year.

Joe Stejskal, D, 24

Joe Stejskal was sent down to the ECHL Wheeling Nailers for the start of his second pro season to play a regular shift and regain his confidence after a difficult season last year. The big defender has played a steady game for the Nailers, seeing big shutdown minutes as well as time killing penalties. He also saw four games at the AHL level this season.