Canadiens 2007 training camp update

By Jason Menard

The Price is still right for the Montreal Canadiens as the Habs prepare to move into the second phase of their training camp with their goaltender of the future coming along for the ride.

The young netminder Carey Price was one of 26 players who survived the cuts in advance of the club’s three-day Mont-Tremblant excursion. But he’s not the only prospect who remains to fight for a coveted roster spot.

The Habs were relatively quiet during the free agent season, but while the club failed to lure its biggest fish – former Buffalo Sabres forward Daniel Brière – its relative lack of action should not be mistaken for acceptance of the status quo, but rather an acknowledgement that some home-grown talent is ready to take a more prominent role in the Canadiens’ future.

In total, 62 players reported for the first day of physicals on Sept. 13. Seven players were shed on Sept. 14 as they were returned to their junior squad. On Sept. 24, 2007 that number was whittled down by 29 more, leaving just a handful of extra bodies on hand before camp breaks on Oct. 2. And considering the players that remain, don’t be surprised to see a few new faces on the NHL roster.

Forwards


While the Habs parted with some forwards from last year’s roster, subsequent moves appear to have been designed to fill those gaps. Gone from last year’s NHL roster are Sergei Samsonov, Radek Bonk, and Mike Johnson, but the club added veterans Bryan Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos, ostensibly to fill the latter’s two roles.

That leaves an opening for dynamic forward Andrei Kostitsyn (1st round, 2003), who remains with the club. He has a pristine opportunity to come in and assume the role that Samsonov was supposed to have – and was paid handsomely – to fill. Kostitsyn has played 34 games over the past two seasons, with only three goals to his name. However, last year he enjoyed a breakout season in Hamilton, averaging just over a point per game, with 52 points in 50 games, paced by 21 goals. More importantly, Kostitsyn showed an understanding about how to play without the puck – something that the coaching staff had been trying to impress upon the young Belarusian. With a powerful shot and offensive creativity, Kostitsyn could be the type of player who makes a better NHLer than AHLer, simply because his offensive abilities will be better utilized by players of a higher caliber. The question is whether he can show enough this camp to earn a spot on the top two lines, in order to make the most of his talents.

Montreal’s second-round selection in 2003, Maxim Lapierre, also appears to have locked up a roster spot, as his energy, effort, and grit has impressed everyone. He appeared in 46 NHL games last season, scoring six goals and adding six assists. But more important than his offensive numbers are the intangibles he brings to the squad. He is a consistent, energy forward who is not afraid to stick his nose in places where he probably shouldn’t.

Two other players have the potential to crack the roster and managed to survive the first two rounds of cuts: Mikhail Grabovski (5th round, 2004) and Kyle Chipchura (1st round, 2004). In his first season on North American soil, Grabovski impressed the Canadiens’ brass so much that he earned a three-game NHL call-up last season. While he was held pointless with the Canadiens, he showed the offensive creativity, dazzling skills, and offensive potential that the club would so dearly love to have. In 66 AHL games, Grabovski scored 17 goals and 54 points, but would appear to be hard-pressed to crack the NHL roster this season. Another year in Hamilton could be in the German-born center’s future.

Chipchura was on the bubble – especially considering the off-season acquisition of Finnish forward Janne Lahti. However, Lahti was sent down to the AHL ranks and Chipchura, who is considered by many to be future captain material for the Habs, is building upon the key role he played in leading Hamilton to the AHL championship. He continued to refine his already-strong two-way game and with 13 points in 22 playoff games, he showed that he was capable of delivering in the clutch.

With their latest round of cuts, the Habs are running the risk of losing some long-term forward prospects, who have yet to pan out. Jonathan Ferland, Corey Locke, and Duncan Milroy all were sent down and must clear waivers. With Locke’s offensive potential – albeit wrapped in a small package – and Milroy’s breakthrough season last year, someone may be willing to take a chance on two players who have long frustrated the Habs with their inconsistency. The difference now, Milroy gets it and has put in the effort; Locke is still an enigma whose potential has far outstripped his dedication to off-ice improvement.

Defensemen

Again, the Habs dealt with free agent losses by acquiring proven veterans to fill the roles, thereby leaving few roster spots open for contention. When it became clear that Sheldon Souray would not be returning to the fold, the club acquired Roman Hamrlik from Calgary. In addition, they attempted to shore up their blue line by signing former Hab (and former whipping boy) Patrice Brisebois as a free agent.

But the best-laid plans don’t always work out. Brisebois failed his Sept. 13 physical, reportedly dealing with a pre-existing groin injury. Since then he has been working out, often on his own, rehabbing the injury. That coupled with rumblings that Mathieu Dandenault’s roster spot may not be a lock has opened up two, if not three potential blue line openings.

Head coach Guy Carbonneau has stated that he intends to keep eight defensemen on the roster, but that number undoubtedly includes Swiss utilityman Mark Streit. By keeping Streit, who has seen significant time as a forward, on the roster the club enjoys a little more roster flexibility.

It would appear that four players are vying for the two or three spaces that are available on the back end of the blueline. Hamrlik, Mike Komisarek (1st round, 2001), Andrei Markov (6th round, 1998), and Francis Bouillon have the first four spots locked up, while the aforementioned Streit will probably serve as the eighth defenseman. That said, it would appear that Dandenault, Brisebois, Ryan O’Byrne (3rd round, 2003) and Josh Gorges are left to battle it out for the last blue line spots.

Before the acquisition of Brisebois, the general consensus amongst Montreal watchers was that the 6’5 O’Byrne would make the jump to the NHL to provide the Habs back end with a little extra beef. The product of Cornell University acquitted himself nicely during his first professional season. He started off slow, but by the end of the year was a rock on the Bulldogs’ blue line. Not known for his offense, O’Byrne did show an aptitude for making the smart first pass, and actually ended the season with a dozen assists to his name. Most importantly, he has the size that the club lost with Souray’s departure – but, unlike Souray, he’s shown more willingness to actually use it.

The Habs would also love to earn an even greater return on their investment from last year’s Craig Rivet trade by seeing Gorges step up and stake a claim on a roster spot. The 23-year-old played parts of two seasons with the Sharks and showed a capability of being a competent fifth or sixth defenseman.

Goaltenders

This could, arguably, be the most interesting battle in all of camp from the Habs’ perspective all because of one man – Price. Most observers would agree that Price was the best goaltender not in the NHL last year, and the native from the tiny hamlet of Williams Lake, BC would like to start working towards becoming the best goalie IN the NHL this year.

Price had a season for the ages last year, taking the Canadian World Junior MVP crown, along with the gold medal with Team Canada. He then left the junior ranks upon the completion of his Tri-City Americans’ season for the AHL ranks, where he stepped between the pipes and backstopped the Bulldogs to the Calder Cup championship. Sources indicate that the Habs wanted to see how he performed at the AHL level before considering a jump to the NHL ranks – and Price passed that test with flying colors.

It’s no longer a question of if, for Price, but rather when. Cristobal Huet is the incumbent starter, but had an up-and-down season last year, hampered by injuries. Former backup David Aebischer was peddled to the Phoenix Coyotes to make room for last year’s shining star Jaroslav Halak (9th round, 2003). Price’s performance in camp this year will determine where he plays – however, wherever he is, he will be the starter as the club would prefer to have him play every day in the AHL as a starter rather than sitting on the bench at the NHL level.

Halak has been a pleasant surprise in that he’s rocketed up the Habs’ depth chart. Considering he started the 2005-06 season in the ECHL and ended the 2006-07 season leading the Habs’ ultimately unsuccessful charge to the playoffs, he has surpassed the expectations of many. Halak has been phenomenal wherever he’s played, posting a 2.89 GAA in 16 NHL games after a stellar 2.00 GAA in 28 AHL games. While the talk is between Price and Huet, don’t be surprised if Halak’s name pops up in the conversation. After all, all he’s done to date is defy expectations.

The Habs have a couple of other goalies at training camp that represent the incredible depth this club has acquired between the pipes. Although they’re in danger of losing some of that depth. While Yann Danis re-signed with the club, most likely to spend another year in Hamilton, he must clear waivers before he can join the team in the AHL. He has enjoyed success in his limited NHL exposure and is a valuable insurance player for the franchise – yet those very factors could make him an attractive, low-cost acquisition, for a team looking to shore up their goaltending ranks.

Cedrick Desjardins, signed to an AHL contract last year following a Memorial Cup season in Quebec, is working for a roster spot and has impressed the club’s brass to date, but is caught in a numbers game, as the club is pressed up against the 50-player limit. He was among the most recent cuts.

With three goaltenders still battling it out, the Habs future in the net still may play itself out and show some surprises. One way or the other, Price will start – whether that’s in Hamilton or Montreal is to be decided. Both Halak and Huet have been the subject of trade rumors, yet both remain with the team. Oct. 2 is not too far away, yet it may seem like a lifetime to those young players looking to crack the roster.

2007-08 Training Camp roster

Remaining Forwards (14)

Steve Bégin
Kyle Chipchura
Mikhail Grabovski
Christopher Higgins
Saku Koivu
Andrei Kostitsyn
Tom Kostopoulos
Alex Kovalev
Maxim Lapierre
Guillaume Latendresse
Garth Murray
Tomas Plekanec
Michael Ryder
Bryan Smolinski

Defensemen (9)

Francis Bouillon
Patrice Brisebois
Mathieu Dandenault
Josh Gorges
Roman Hamrlik
Mike Komisarek
Andrei Markov
Ryan O’Byrne
Mark Streit

Goaltenders (3)
Jaroslav Halak
Cristobal Huet
Carey Price

Remaining preseason schedule

Sept. 27th – Boston Bruins at Montreal, 19:30
Sept. 29th – Montreal at Ottawa Senators, 19:00

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.