Canadiens AHL/ECHL update

By Jason Menard

With a set roster at the NHL level, quality players between the pipes in Montreal, and organizational depth, the Montreal Canadiens’ farm clubs have enjoyed something that’s rare at the minor league level – stability.

And with that stability – especially for the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs — has come success, buoyed in large part by the franchise’s dynamic young prospects.

“[Our young prospects] have been the glue that’s held the team together,” explained Trevor Timmins, Montreal’s Director of Player Recruitment and Development. “They’ve performed well while we’ve been waiting for our veterans to come around. Now that the veterans are playing better, we’re starting to see results.”

Last season, due in large part to injuries at the NHL level and a shared-roster agreement with the Edmonton Oilers, the Bulldogs’ roster would change drastically from day to day. And nowhere was that uncertainty more pronounced than between the pipes. With fairly set rosters throughout the organization this year, it has allowed for a team dynamic to come to the fore.

“What’s important on any team is the development of the team concept and a focus on team building,” Timmins said. “The individual parts have to come together and the players have to figure out how they fit within the team. With more stability that can happen faster and you see the results.”

Following a 5-3 victory over the Toronto Marlies on Dec. 6, 2006, Hamilton has improved to 13-9-0-1 on the season – lofty levels for a club that was mired in mediocrity last season. The club finished the 2005-06 season with a 35-41-0-4 record and out of the playoffs. This season the club is in second place in the North Division and fifth overall in the Western Conference.

The club’s resurgence can, in large part, be attributed to its strength between the pipes. After a hectic season last year that saw six different players set up shop in Hamilton’s crease, this season the club has been able to count on a solid one-two punch in Yann Danis (free agent, 2004) and Jaroslav Halak (9th round, 2003). And while Danis, who enjoyed some success in the NHL last season as a fill-in back-up, entered the season as the favorite to be the club’s starter, the rookie Halak has stepped up and laid a solid claim to the title.

“Halak, his stats tell it all,” Timmins explained. “He’s been really solid for us and the more success he has, the more confident he gets and the better he plays.”

The Slovakian netminder continues to make waves in the league after making a big splash last season. In his first six games last season he earned three shutouts. This season has seen more of the same, with four shutouts earned in only 11 games. In total, Halak has posted a 7-4 record with a 1.46 GAA and .951 save percentage, with the latter two numbers representing league-leading totals. In addition, his four shutouts also represent a league-leading total – and are double that of his closest competitor.

Timmins admitted that he is surprised by this level of performance from Halak – especially based on early returns. “He had a marginal training camp at best, so I really didn’t expect him to be as good as he is,” he said. “But it’s always a good thing when you have players performing better than expected.”

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Danis’ performance this season. Although coming off a win that’s raised his record above the .500 mark, the 25-year-old free-agent signee has struggled this season, posting a pedestrian 3.14 GAA behind a .901 save percentage.

“Yann has been average so far,” Timmins explained, adding that he’s been affected by some changes to his style. “He’s had to make some adjustments to his game, being smaller in stature. But he’s been working hard with [goaltending coach] Rollie Melanson.”

Unfortunately, this is not the season to experience a downturn in performance. With Carey Price (1st round, 2005) knocking at the door and ready to burst through to the professional ranks next season it’s safe to say that this is a make-or-break year for the St-Jerome native.

“This season will answer a lot of questions about Yann and where he’ll play long-term in the organization,” Timmins said. “We have two good goaltenders in Montreal and Yann has to prove that he can be a winning goaltender – the go-to guy – at the AHL level.”

Also adding to an already-crowded goaltending mix which includes Swedish netminder Chris Heino-Lindberg (6th round, 2003) has been Cedrick Desjardins, whom Montreal had Hamilton sign to a contract and is currently playing with the Habs’ ECHL affiliate in Cincinnati. “We needed a fifth goaltender and he’s a guy that we’ve seen a lot over the years, especially with [the] Quebec [Remparts of the QMJHL],” Timmins said. “We thought we’d give him a chance and see if we can help him develop.”

To date, Desjardins has performed admirably, posting a 5-4 record over nine games, with a 2.34 GAA and .930 save percentage. He leads the league in save percentage, particularly impressive as a rookie. He’s also earned two shutout victories and expects to play more now since the signing of the Cyclones starter Dov Grumet-Morris to an AHL contract earlier this week by Portland. While not the exclusive property of the Canadiens, Timmins said Desjardins could fit into the club’s long-term plans. “Anything can happen. He just has to make the most of this opportunity.”

Offensively, nobody on the Bulldogs’ roster is tearing up the league, but an old familiar face suddenly finds himself at the top of the club’s scoring leader board. Duncan Milroy (2nd round, 2001) has enjoyed a bit of a career resurgence this season, pacing Hamilton with 11 goals and 12 assists over 21 games. And while some may think that Milroy’s overachieving based on past performances, Timmins said the 23-year-old forward’s finally getting to where he should be.

“He’s performing to where expectations were of him when he was signed as a second-round draft pick,” Timmins explained. Duncan figured things out over the summer in regards to where he needs to be physically and he’s taken his conditioning to another level.”

This is Milroy’s fourth season in the AHL and he’s on pace to far surpass his previous career highs. After three seasons of 14, 33, and 35 points respectively, the Edmonton native has broken out with 23 points and is already approaching his career high of 16 goals.

Timmins said that the presence of a new crop of much-ballyhooed prospects on the rise may have factored into Milroy’s improved performance. “For sure it’s healthy to have competition within the team – that doesn’t matter at what level you’re playing at,” he said. “When you have young players coming in and performing well, it’s contagious.

“Like I always tell the younger players, you’re going to have to come onto these rosters and take a job away from an older player. And these older guys aren’t going to let you take their spot without a fight.”

One of those younger players who appears to be winning his fight for a roster spot is Andrei Kostitsyn (1st round, 2003). “Andrei’s really come along this year – he’s NHL ready,” Timmins said. “He’s been dominant at the AHL level and he’s improved on the areas of his game that needed to be worked on.”

That fact is evident by Kostitsyn’s improved plus/minus rating. He’s currently amongst the team leaders with a +12. In 18 AHL games he’s scored six goals and nine assists and has already earned one four-game call-up to the big club. While his AHL numbers are good, it’s the NHL numbers game that’s holding him back. For the Belarusian winger to make the jump to Montreal, he needs to have a spot in the top nine forwards – unfortunately, those roster spots are already spoken for. That, combined with the challenges of managing the salary cap, mean that it’s better in terms of playing time for Kostitsyn to stay in Hamilton.

As Kostitsyn readies to bid farewell to Hamilton, another player has been warmly welcomed to the Steel City. Kyle Chipchura (1st round, 2004) has firmly ensconced himself onto the Bulldogs’ roster in all facets of the game.

“Let’s just say it didn’t take him long for the coach to use him in all key defensive situations – that tells you everything you need to know about how well he’s played,” Timmins added.

A former captain of Team Canada’s World Junior Championship Squad, Chipchura continues to display his strong leadership and commitment to two-way play that’s endeared him to fans and management alike. In his rookie AHL season, Chipchura’s posted five goals and 14 points in his 23 games, and owns a +4 rating. The only negative thing about Chipchura’s game is that he runs the risk of being typecast as a checking forward.

“We project him to be in the top nine players at the NHL level, but the thing is that his offensive abilities often go under the radar,” Timmins explained. “He’s a good playmaker. People tend to forget that because he’s so good defensively.”

But performances like his recent two-goal performance against the Marlies will help ensure he breaks free from that mold. “A lot of [the typecasting] is based on opportunity,” Timmins said. “But it’s up to the player to make the most of their other opportunities when they get them.”

Another rookie has joined Chipchura in playing a key role in the Bulldogs’ success. Belarusian winger Mikhail Grabovsky (5th round, 2004) has entered the AHL with a flash and a bang. Displaying impressive speed, the young winger has continued to show the offensive prowess he displayed last season with Moscow Dynamo, netting six goals, 12 assists, and a +8 rating in his first 21 games. He’s also accounted for two power-play goals and has started to adapt to the North American game.

“He was playing an East-West game back in Russia and in the AHL it’s more a North-South style,” Timmins explained. “A couple of times this season he’s come across the ice from side-to-side and got clobbered – he’s learning.

“He’s done very well for himself. He’s an energetic guy who wants to learn both the game and the language.”

Grabovsky entered the league with a reputation for speed, and Timmins said that he hasn’t disappointed. “His speed and his drive really are the most impressive things in his game,” he said. “He wants the puck and he’ll go as hard as he can to get it – he’s a very determined individual.”

At first glance, one could be surprised by the presence of Maxim Lapierre (2nd round, 2003) at the top of Hamilton’s scoring leaders as he’s earned a reputation for solid defensive play.

“Lapierre has produced in the past (three consecutive seasons of 22+ goals in the QMJHL) and you have to remember that he was a rookie last year,” Timmins said. “This year he’s been our leading scorer most of the season. He’s always been a solid two-way player, but this year he’s shown that he can add some offense to his game and not just assume a checking role.”

But Timmins said Lapierre’s dedication to the game is a major reason for his improvement – including his offensive production. “This kid’s a total pro. Off-ice he’s as committed as he is on-ice,” he said.

To illustrate, Timmins recalled Lapierre’s behavior after returning to Hamilton following an NHL call-up. “When he came back from his call-up he raced right to practice and after practice he was up in the weight room working out,” Timmins explained. “A lot of guys wouldn’t do that.”

Rounding out Hamilton’s top five scorers is the enigmatic Corey Locke (4th round, 2003). Again, Locke presents with all the talent in the world. But after a promising beginning to the season, he seems to be lacking the key that unlocks his prodigious gifts.

“I thought he played well in training camp,” Timmins said. “His production just hasn’t been where we expect it to be as a third-year guy in the AHL.” Locke, who is looked upon as an offensive leader on the club, has produced the same numbers as Kostitsyn – only just with five more games at hand. However, whereas Kostitsyn proudly boasts a +12 rating in 18 games, Locke is mired at even after 23 games.

As another player who may be at the make-or-break point, Timmins said the former CHL player of the year holds the key to his own future. “It’s up to him where he goes,” he said. “Corey dictates that.” However, unless the 22-year-old can show some consistency and the drive to dominate, time may be running out on his potential.

Hamilton’s seen the arrival of two former U.S. collegians on their blue line. And while both have performed well, one has been caught up in the numbers game.

Ryan O’Byrne (3rd round, 2003) decided to skip his senior season with Cornell and sign a contract with the Habs organization this year. The hulking blueliner has been quite the presence on the Bulldogs’ blue line, but Timmins said he needs to adjust to the difference in talent between the AHL and U.S. college.

“It’s been a relatively smooth transition for Ryan, but he has to learn that he doesn’t have that extra second that he had in college,” he explained. “Defense is such a difficult position to play – especially in the professional ranks – and when you make a mistake it’s in the back of the net. Forwards can hide those mistakes a little bit more.”

O’Byrne has appeared in 23 games, with four assists and 29 penalty minutes. Most impressively for the rookie blueliner, he’s managed to stay on the right side of the plus/minus ratings at +5.

From time to time, O’Byrne’s been joined on the Bulldogs’ roster by fellow Cornell alumnus Jon Gleed (7th round, 2004). The 6’2 blueliner has split the season between Hamilton and Cincinnati, but that’s not a reflection of the way he’s played.

“Jon’s played well and I feel he can play at the AHL level right now,” Timmins said. “It’s just a numbers game with Jon and we’d rather send him down where he can get ice time.”

Timmins added that’s also the case for Mathieu Aubin (5th round, 2005), who joined the professional ranks following a breakout 2005-06 season with the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the QMJHL. Last season he accounted for 103 points in 70 games. And instead of seeing that offensive potential languish off-ice in Hamilton, the organization has recently sent him down to the ECHL.

“Both of those guys [Gleed and Aubin] will be back in Hamilton,” Timmins confirmed. “It’s just that both of those guys weren’t in every game and we’d rather see them get ice time instead of sitting in the press box.”

The Bulldogs’ blue line expects to get a little more crowded with the imminent arrival of Andrew Archer (7th round, 2001). Archer has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, but none quite as severe as the torn ACL the 6’4, 213-pound blueliner suffered last year. He’s undergone a somewhat experimental procedure called an allograph, which sees the torn ACL replaced with one removed from a cadaver. It’s a procedure similar to that undergone by the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL’s Carson Palmer, and it’s supposed to improve recovery time and quality.

Also worthy of note, Jonathan Ferland (7th round, 2002) has continued his steady progression. This season he’s among Hamilton’s goal-scoring leaders with seven goals to his credit in 23 games. He’s also shown some of the rugged play that complements his two-way game by racking up 44 penalty minutes to date.

Players of note in Cincinnati include Cory Urquhart (2nd round, 2004), who leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and 16 points in 17 games. He’s been particularly proficient on the power play, with over half of his total goals – six – accounted for with the man advantage. Gleed has one goal, two assists and a +4 rating in his eight games with the ECHL club, while Aubin broke through with two assists in his most recent game after two scoreless appearances for the club since being sent down.

Rookie Greg Stewart (8th round, 2004) has made the jump from the junior ranks and has played well for the Cyclones. In 11 games, he’s accounted for two goals and three points. And Jimmy Bonneau (8th round, 2003) has but one goal in 16 games. However, his robust style of play has been on full display with a team-leading 43 minutes in penalties to his credit.

Finally, the one player in the organization who has really impressed Timmins is one about whom little ink is spent. Matt D’Agostini (6th round, 2005) has stepped up to the professional ranks and made a difference in Hamilton.

“He’s a heck of a player and he’s smart,” Timmins said. “He gets overlooked and doesn’t get talked about much, but you have to look at his production.”

And produce he has. In just 19 games, D’Agostini has scored five goals and added eight assists. More impressively, the rookie center has posted a +6 rating to date this season. “We think he can be a solid player in the long term and we look at him in the same way that we look at Mike Johnson in Montreal,” Timmins said. “When you think that this guy only played two years in junior and is making an impact in the AHL, you have to be impressed.”

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