Montreal Canadiens minor-league system highlighted by diverse depth and talent

By Ian Bross
Photo: In his third full season of AHL play, Ben Maxwell was expected to make continued progression in his game. He has yet to do so however this season, posting only five goals and 14 assist through 23 games, and has played streaky hockey. (Photo courtesy of

The Hamilton Bulldogs, the AHL affiliate for the Montreal Canadiens, currently sit first among a competitive North division with a record of 19-9-1-3.. The team boasts the third best defense in the league along with the 6th ranked powerplay and penalty kill.

David Desharnais, C, 24

For the second year in a row, Desharnais is leading the way offensively for the Bulldogs. With a total of 10 goals and 30 assists, appearing in all 32 games for Hamilton, he is the team’s top point scorer. Currently, with Max Pacioretty called up to Montreal, he is also the team’s top goal scorer.

Desharnais has been unable to parlay his success at the AHL level into an extended stay in the NHL. This season, the 24-year-old was recalled once by Montreal, only to be returned to Hamilton the same day without seeing any action. Desharnais’ nifty hands and passing ability haven’t been enough to sufficiently impress the Canadiens yet.

Aaron Palushaj, RW, 21

After a belated start, Palushaj opened his first full season with Hamilton on an eight-game point streak. During that span, the 21-year-old scored 13 points. Since then, Palushaj has cooled off, with a total of five goals and 16 assists in his 25 games played. He is second in Bulldogs’ scoring, bettered only by Desharnais, with Max Pacioretty dressing for the Canadiens.

Palushaj’s combination of hockey intelligence, speed, and work ethic have him on track for an NHL opportunity in the not-too-distant future. If not this year as a call-up, he could debut with Montreal in 2011-12.

Ben Maxwell, C, 22

Through the first quarter of 2010-11, Maxwell has not yet taken the steps forward in his development that the Montreal organization has likely expected. With five goals (four on the powerplay) and 14 assists in 23 games, the former second-round pick has been solid overall, but certainly not dominant. A streaky performer, Maxwell hasn’t emerged as a prolific scorer at the AHL level. After a drought in early to mid-November, the 22-year-old seemed to find his scoring touch again before being sidelined by injury. In a recent return to the lineup, he has found a way to pick up where he left off. The bar for Maxwell, however, will continue to remain high.

J.T. Wyman, RW, 24

A year ago, Wyman was an able contributor to the Bulldogs. His numbers climbed significantly in his second complete professional campaign. This season, Wyman remains both durable and reliable on the wing. He brings size, toughness, and veteran play. Statistically, however, he has not contributed as much on the offense as a year ago. To his name, Wyman has four goals and nine assists in 32 games. A former fourth-round pick, the 24-year-old is one of the senior Bulldogs up front, in the last year of his current contract.

Alexander Avtsin, F, 19

The youngest player in the Bulldogs’ lineup, the 19-year-old Russian import is adjusting to hockey in North America. A Canadiens’ fourth-round pick, Avtsin skated last season at the highest level in his home country, with the KHL’s Moscow Dynamo. With Hamilton, Avtsin has been skating on the team’s bottom lines, when not sidelined by nagging injuries. He has thus far put together a respectable four goals and four assists in 22 games. Despite a modest statistical output, Avtsin has displayed his high talent level at times during the year. With a 6’2 frame, as Avtsin matures physically and acclimates to his new locale, he should increasingly fulfill his potential.

Ryan White, F, 22

Noted for his energy, feistiness, grit, and work ethic, White forced the Canadiens to take a long, hard look at him during training camp this past fall. The 22-year-old narrowly failed to make the cut, returning for his third go-around with the Bulldogs. The season hasn’t gone according to White’s wishes, however. His 2010-11 point totals have paled in comparison to last year’s. White posted two goals and five assists before being forced out of action by a knee injury in November. He returned on December 19th.

Andreas Engqvist, C, 23

Since crossing over to North America after four seasons in his native Sweden, the big forward’s responsibility has been defense. Engqvist has been utilized primarily as a shutdown center by the Bulldogs’. Engqvist logs as many minutes as anyone on the penalty kill. All things considered, he has transitioned well to his new environment. With four goals and six assists in 32 games, whether Engqvist possesses additional latent offensive capability remains to be seen.

Andrew Conboy, LW, 22

Though far from the most skilled member of the team, Conboy is an integral part of the Bulldogs’ lineup due to his toughness. The 22-year-old is characterized by physicality, unafraid to drop the gloves, with a penchant for play on the boards, and the capability to grind out goals with his presence around the net. With 10 points (eight goals and two assists) Conboy has equaled his goal total from a year ago through 26 games played. In the absence of Max Pacioretty and Yannick Weber to the Canadiens, Conboy stands second on the team in goals. He is also third in penalty minutes behind team captain Alex Henry and pugilist Jimmy Bonneau.

Gabriel Dumont, F, 20

Dumont made his professional debut for Hamilton in the AHL playoffs following an explosive QMJHL finale season. A 50-goal scorer for the Drummondville Voltigeurs, Dumont found the back of the net twice in 11 postseason games before the Bulldogs were eliminated by the Texas Stars.

This season, the fifth-round pick in 2009 has primarily seen bottom-six playing time. Utilizing many of the qualities that enabled him to be a prolific scorer in junior, Dumont has contributed to Hamilton’s North Division-leading success as a checking forward. After not registering a multi-point game all season — in fact, tallying two points in both the mo
nths of October and November — Dumont had three assists on December 19 in a 5-4 loss. In all, Dumont has two goals and six assists in 27 games.

Olivier Fortier, C, 21

Fortier has found a spot in the Bulldogs lineup as a bottom-six forward. The 21-year-old, in his first full professional season after appearing in one game last year, has fit in well as a fourth-line center. Fortier has seven points on the season through 27 games, the definite peak of his production coming on December 12. In that contest, against the Toronto Marlies, he had three of his five goals, and one of his two assists. A former third-round pick, what Fortier brings most is relentless hustle and energy.

Ryan Russell, F, 23

Thus far, Russell has seen a sharp drop off in his offensive production. Following consecutive seasons of slightly fewer than 40 points, Russell is scoring on pace for less than half of that total in 2010-11. In 31 games, the 23-year-old has scored four goals and four assists. A former seventh-round pick, whether his name is penciled into the scoresheet or not, Russell is always providing energy for his team. A speedy north-south skater, the fourth-year Bulldog hounds the opposition on the forecheck and provides a gritty presence.

Ian Schultz, F, 20

One of the players acquired in exchange for Jaroslav Halak along with Lars Eller, Schultz has had a relatively quiet first professional season. The 20-year-old has been bounced in and out of the Bulldogs lineup in a fourth-line role, and is without a point through 19 contests. When on his game, Schultz plays with grit and physicality. He has also been credited with a minus-three rating and 16 penalty minutes, including two fighting majors. Schultz received a two-game suspension as a result of his actions during one of those altercations on November 24th.

Hunter Bishop, LW, 23

Bishop arrived with the Hamilton Bulldogs late last season. Playing in nine games, he managed a respectable five points. He has appeared in 16 minor professional games this season, primarily with the ECHL‘s Wheeling Nailers. In nine games with the Nailers, he registered two goals and three assists. Bishop had a seven-game stint with Hamilton in late November, and early to mid-December. He did not register any points. He is still on the roster, but no longer in the lineup.

Dany Masse, LW, 22

The 22-year-old Masse was a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs last season, his first since being signed as a free agent out of major junior. After amassing 110 points in his final campaign in the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs, Masse entered a grinding role in the AHL in which he saw sporadic playing time.

Masse has skated in one AHL game this season, registering only a minor penalty. He has instead spent the majority of his time in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers. In 18 games, he has struggled to discover a scoring touch, managing one goal and six assists.

Yannick Weber, D, 22

Entering his third season with the Bulldogs, the 22-year-old earned three assists on opening night. He followed that strong performance with goals in four consecutive games, lighting the lamp in six of eight games in the month of October. With a total of eight goals and four assists in 15 games, Weber surpassed his goal total from a season ago, and established a pace to set new season-highs.

Weber was eventually called upon by Montreal, and has not been back in the AHL since. After joining the Canadiens in mid-November, the Swiss defender has suited up in six games with the club and has two assists.

Brendon Nash, D, 23

The older brother of Riley Nash (CAR), the 2010-11 season is Nash’s first as a professional. After two seasons in the BCHL, Nash played out his four years of NCAA eligibility with Cornell University. The Canadiens signed Nash to a two-year contract this past March.

Nash plays a heads-up, two-way game from the back end. Early on, the 23-year-old saw ample time anchoring the Bulldogs powerplay. He leads all Hamilton defensemen in points with two goals and 12 assists, and owns a plus-12 rating through 31 games.

Mathieu Carle, D, 23

Carle is in his fourth tour of duty with the Bulldogs. Carle receives top-four minutes and powerplay time. Carle is not overly physical, but has made strides shoring up his defensive zone play and has displayed an excellent shot from the point. Through 28 games, Carle has six goals and six assists.

Carle’s ongoing struggle has been to stave off injury. The 23-year-old, a Canadiens’ second-round pick, is coming off a season shortened by injury. He was limited to 31 games in 2009-10. Currently, Carle is sidelined again. He has missed the last three games (his first of the year). Among Bulldogs defensemen, Carle boasts the second best plus/minus rating (plus-10).

Kyle Klubertanz, D, 25

Klubertanz has been well traveled in his hockey career. After two seasons in the USHL, Klubertanz advanced to the University of Wisconsin for four seasons, and after graduation played in five games for the Portland Pirates in 2007-08. From there, the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin native spent a season in Finland and a season as a teammate of Andreas Engqvist in Sweden with Djurgardens.

At the age of 25, Klubertanz has finally arrived on the minor professional circuit on a full-time basis for the first time. Through 28 games, he has scored two goals and assisted on five others. Though it has been a long, somewhat convoluted journey for Klubertanz in pursuit of an NHL job, he still has a ways to go.

Robert Mayer, G, 21

With veteran Curtis Sanford injured at the start of the year, Mayer was thrust into the role of starter with only two games of prior AHL experience. The 21-year-old Mayer managed a handful of solid outings, but will continue as Sanford’s backup for the foreseeable future. In 13 appearances this season, Mayer has a win-loss record of 6-5-2, a 3.08 goals-against average, and an .886 save percentage.