Canadiens CHL season review

By Jason Menard

The NHL Entry Draft and the stock market have a number of parallels, including the definition of success. In general, an investor can be satisfied with their year if their known commodities perform to expectations, and they enjoy a couple of unexpected surprises from some riskier stocks.

For the Montreal Canadiens, looking back on the now-winding-down seasons for their Canadian Hockey League prospects, one could say that – based on the aforementioned criteria – they enjoyed a bull market. And they’re hoping that their investments will continue to reap dividends long into the future.

In his final year as an overager with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, center Kyle Chipchura was able to break free of the injury bug that’s plagued him over the past couple of years and enjoy a personally satisfying campaign. While his efforts were not enough to propel the Raiders into the playoffs, Chipchura was able to demonstrate the leadership and all-around play that led the Habs to choosing the 6’3 center with their first pick in the 2004 Entry Draft.

The highlight of Chipchura’s season was his captaining of the Canadian squad to a gold medal performance in the World Junior Hockey Championship, alongside of fellow Habs prospect Guillaume Latendresse. Symbolically ending the tournament with an empty-net goal in the final game against the Russian squad, Chipchura displayed the grit, two-way play, and leadership which has him projected to be a solid, if not spectacular, NHLer in the future.

Finishing the season with 19 goals and 34 assists in 57 games, Chipchura led the squad in short-handed goals (3) and maintained a respectable –6 rating considering his team finished 25-36-1-10 and in 18th place out of 20 teams in the WHL. With no more junior eligibility, Chipchura looks to crack the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs roster. And he may get a little head-start on the competition as the fact that the Raiders are out of the playoff frees Chipchura to sign on with the AHL franchise for this year’s stretch run. For a player who embodies the known, a little more experience and knowledge seems to be in the cards.

On the other end of the spectrum is London Knight Sergei Kostitsyn. The rookie winger came into this season as a question mark for teammates, coaches, and Habs’ brass alike. No one knew what they were going to get from this young 18-year-old winger at the beginning of the year, but he’s exceeded all expectations en route to a season that sees him challenging for the Ontario Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year award.

Encouraged to come to London as a direct result of his brother’s challenges acclimatizing to the North American game in Hamilton, the younger Kostitsyn fit in well with the defending Memorial Cup champs. Almost immediately he stepped into the breach and into a top-six forward role and a spot manning the point in London’s much-ballyhooed five-forward power play unit, helping to power the high-flying Knights to a third-straight OHL regular season title.

The 18-year-old Belarussian, who was picked in the seventh round, 200th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, has attracted the notice and recognition of the OHL’s brass, winning Rookie of the Month honors in both October and November, before handing off to John Tavares’ three-month stranglehold on the honor. The Rookie of the Year battle looks to be a tight one between Kostitsyn and the highly-touted Tavares. Kostitsyn enters the playoffs coming off a season with 26 goals and 50 assists. He displayed an unexpected rugged streak, matching his point total with 76 penalty minutes.

But it wasn’t just on OHL rinks that Kostitsyn showed off his potential. He led his Belarus squad to a victory over Kazakhstan in the World Junior Pool B Championships, earning his country an invite to the big dance in 2007. For his four-goal, five-assist performance, Kostitsyn earned tournament MVP and top forward honors.

Sure to earn an invite to the Habs’ rookie camp next year, Kostitsyn will probably find his way back to The Forest City to refine his defensive game and assume more of a leadership role with the upcoming losses of Buffalo Sabres prospect Dylan Hunter and Edmonton Oilers first-rounder Rob Schremp. But wherever his laces up next year, the element of surprise is long gone.

Two 2005 Entry Draft picks appear to be on the road to paying off in the future for the Habs.

Thanks to a healthy dose of luck in the NHL entry draft lottery, the Canadiens ended up with the fifth pick overall. And, despite appearing to be goaltender-rich, the Habs stepped to the podium to lay claim to Carey Price, the Tri-City Americans’ starting goaltender. The pundits in la belle province were still buzzing when the club followed up that pick with some deft maneuvering to move up the draft board to select Drummondville Voltigeurs winger Latendresse.

Price spent another busy year as the Americans’ starting goaltender. The son of former Philadelphia Flyers draftee Jerry Price, Carey has spent the past two years between the pipes for the less than stellar Tri-City club, posting a 21-25-3-3 record with a 2.87 GAA, good for just 19th in the league. His .908 was only 18th-best. However, Price will get a taste of playoff action, as the Americans finished fourth in the five-team U.S. division.

The 18-year-old native of Williams Lake, B.C. may find himself back in Tri-City next year with a log-jam of prospects in the Habs system. Another year in the WHL could be his best bet for playing time.

On the other hand, Latendresse made a strong case for himself earlier this year in the Habs preseason camp. The team, which continues its search for a power-forward presence in the line-up took a good, long look at Latendresse before making him one of the final cuts back to Drummondville in the QMJHL. Despite displaying evidence of his displeasure early in the season, Latendresse rebounded for another solid campaign. With 43 goals and 38 assists in just 50 games, the 18-year-old winger displayed his strength, soft hands, and determination that drew the Habs attention in the first place.

In addition, the Ste-Catherine, QC native improved his defensive prowess, ending the season with a more than respectable +18 rating for the Voltigeurs, as he helped lead them to a 36-28-3-2 record and a sixth-place finish in the league’s Western Division.

Of course, Latendresse wasn’t alone in Drummondville’s play. He was joined by the suddenly well-travelled Loic Lacasse. Starting the season with Baie-Comeau, he was traded, along with another Habs prospect, Alexandre Dulac-Lemelin, to Acadie-Bathurst. Lacasse was then flipped on the same day to man the pipes for the Voltigeurs.

Lacasse ended the season with 11 wins and 15 losses behind a 4.41 GAA. The Granby, QC native had a difficult season, battling back from a knee injury, then getting stuck on the bench during the team’s lengthy post-Christmas winning streak.

But, while Latendresse may have enjoyed the early name value, Mathieu Aubin, a forward for the Lewiston MAINEiacs scored 45 goals and 53 assists in 69 games to take the unofficial Habs prospect scoring title in the QMJHL. Aubin, a fifth rounder in 2005 from Sorel, QC was tied for 17th overall in league scoring. The 19-year-old, who has remained relatively unheralded since his fifth-round selection in 2005, enjoyed a breakout season with the MAINEiacs, even being named to the top prospects game before having to pull out due to injury.

Dulac-Lemelin, an overage defenseman from Lévis, QC, arrived in Acadie-Bathurst with Lacasse, but made a home for himself on the blue line. The imposing 6’4 rearguard helped to lead the team to a second place finish in the eastern conference, chipping in with eight goals and 13 assists en route to a respectable +11 rating in a league not known for its defensive prowess.

Finally, Matt D’Agostini, a 19-year-old winger for the Guelph Storm, enjoyed a quietly productive season, matching his 2004-05 production with 24 goals, but more than doubling his proficiency with the pass, adding 54 assists for a total of 78 points in 65 games. D’Agostini, led the Storm to an 84-point performance this year. Unfortunately, with the red-hot Knights and Kitchener Rangers ahead of them, that was only good enough for a third-place finish in the Mid-west Division of the OHL’s Western Conference.

So, with the CHL regular season now behind us, the Habs have to be pleased with how their investments have done in the short-term. And thanks to institutional depth at a number of positions, the team has the luxury of letting these resources mature at their own time.

Looking ahead to next year, it won’t be a shock to see names like Latendresse, Kostitsyn, Price, D’Agostini, and Aubin at the top of their respective lists, while solid performers like Chipchura and Dulac-Lemelin should be able to grow as investments in either Hamilton or Long Beach.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.