Canadiens AHL prospects season review

By Jason Menard

It’s the nature of the beast for American Hockey League Teams – your best players are frequently taken away from you at the most inopportune times. But you’ll forgive the Hamilton Bulldogs for feeling that their revolving door was spinning out of control at times this season.

“That’s part of the process,” head coach Don Lever said. “Our lineup did not stay the same very much over the course of the season. We’d have two or three guys go to Edmonton, two or three more go to Montreal and we’d have to deal with it.”

Most AHL affiliates only have to deal with one team recalling players at any given time. But this year, the Montreal Canadiens entered into an agreement to share the Bulldogs’ roster with the Edmonton Oilers. While it was expected that it would mean dealing with multiple recalls, compounding the challenge before Lever and the coaching staff was the necessity to get injured players back into playing shape through the process of rehabilitation stints.

“It’s just part of the job description that when [NHL clubs] send down their injured players, you have to play them,” Lever explained. “It isn’t fair for us or the players, but you have to do your best and get them in game shape. After all, that’s what we’re here for.”

The Bulldogs entered the season with lowered expectations because the team was comprised of such a young roster. The team lost its top three scorers from the 2004-05 season when Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins cracked the NHL roster and former captain Jason Ward was released by the organization. In addition, notable players like Steve Ott, Trevor Daley, and Antti Miettinen left the roster when the roster-sharing agreement with Dallas expired. In all, only two of the top 10 scorers (Corey Locke and Duncan Milroy) remained from the previous year’s squad.

With a host of fresh new faces imported from the Oilers organization and the uncertainty of their younger players to step up and fill the void left behind by organizational departures, the Bulldogs were looking to their goaltending to be the strong foundation upon which they could build any success. Unfortunately, their best-laid plans went awry due to injuries and trades.

In all, six men tended the net for the Bulldogs over the season and the players were challenged to deal with the roster uncertainty and adjustments from player to player. And the fallout from this complex season played out in the team’s 35-41-0-4 record that left them out of the playoffs and third from the bottom in the league’s Western Conference.

“As a whole, we’re disappointed that we were out of the playoffs, but you have to understand the type of team we had,” Lever added. “With the youth on the roster we knew it would be a challenge.”

In the end, standings are secondary to development, and in that regard the Hamilton Bulldogs see significant hope for the future thanks to the development of their young players and anticipated stability between the pipes.

Goaltending was supposed to be a strong point for the Bulldogs. However, frequent call-ups and demotions, injury rehab stints, and scheduling challenges wreaked havoc with the position and may have contributed to a less-than-stellar season from anticipated starter Yann Danis.

“Yann had a tough time mentally this season,” Lever explained. “He dominated early in the year, then the trade happened [Montreal’s injured netminder Jose Theodore was shipped to Colorado for David Aebischer, forcing Danis to relinquish his back-up role] and he was up and down so much that it was really tough.”

The Montreal Canadiens’ Director of Player Personnel said that the frequent recalls and player movement doesn’t allow the natural transition to take place. “It’s more of a mental game and all the up-and-down movement was hard on him,” he said. “We find with most players that it takes them up to 10 games to settle in and feel comfortable with the team.”

Unfortunately, Danis didn’t have that luxury. He would go from one week at the big club as a back-up to riding the pine in Hamilton behind a rehabbing goaltender. That uncertainty reflected in his overall results. “The first three games that Yann was here [following his NHL debut] we were saying, ‘Wow, we got him!’” Lever added. “Then he was called back up. When he finally came back he was not as sharp.”

Danis ended up playing 39 games for the Bulldogs, posting a 17-17-3 record and a 2.97 GAA behind a .902 save percentage. And not only did Danis have to fight the internal battles, he was being pushed by a late call-up to the roster.

Jaroslav Halak made the jump from junior to the Canadiens’ ECHL affiliate in Long Beach. After battling through some injuries that stunted his early development, he was called up to the Bulldogs and made quite an impression on the club.

“Jaro walked in here, after being hurt all year, and threw three shutouts in only six games,” Lever said. “He played very well and proved he belonged.” Halak ended up seeing action in 13 games, posting a 7-6 record. More impressively, he registered a .927 save percentage leading to a 2.29 GAA.

Lever also had to balance the needs of Jeff Deslauriers, the Oilers’ netminding prospect, who also saw action in 13 games, but enjoyed limited success posting a 4-7 record. Olivier Michaud started the season in Hamilton and played in 14 games, posting a respectable 6-5-1 record and 3.29 GAA before being demoted. And Ty Conklin (3 games) and Cristobal Huet (4 games) also hit the ice for the Bulldogs on injury rehab stints.

Despite all the goaltending fluctuations, Lever said he’s excited about the team’s netminding prospects next season. “If we have Danis and Halak sharing the duties next season I think our goaltending will be one of the strongest in the league.”

Up front, questions abounded as to who would step up into the wake left by the departing players. Two people that were tagged early to step up their production were Corey Locke and Andrei Kostitsyn. And, after some early challenges, they both picked up their games in the second half of the season and started to meet those expectations.

“We never really had any dominant players on the roster this season,” Lever explained. “Our dominant player was probably Corey Locke and he had to learn how to play D and score us a lot of points at the same time.”

Locke enjoyed a productive rookie season last year and showed flashes of the potential that he displayed in the junior ranks en route to being named the CHL player of the year. Locke delivered during the season, leading the team in scoring with 59 points in 77 games, paced by 40 assists. More encouraging than the statistics was the fact that Locke was starting to get what the team was expecting out of him off the ice.

“[Assistant to the Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager] André [Savard] said that Corey worked so hard in junior, but before this season we never saw that out of him,” Lever said. “When you see what he did in junior and then you look at how he didn’t see those numbers in the American Hockey League we started asking ourselves why and we thought it was work ethic.”

Locke has made efforts to improve that area of his game and it’s shown by his increased focus on the defensive aspect of his game. Locke entered the New Year at -14 and ended the second half of the season at -15.

“He definitely made strides to play in his own end during the latter part of the year,” Lever said. “Over the last three weeks of the season, he and Andrei worked well together.

“Corey has wonderful vision, but he needs to battle for every inch and near the end of the year he started to find out what he needs to do.”

Kostitsyn was another question mark coming into the year. Blessed with offensive upside and a wonderful shot, language challenges and a penchant for individual play was hampering his development. However, he too picked up his play at the end of the season.

“Andrei’s one of those guys who were up and down, up and down this year,” he said. “Overall, you see how he really improved his game over the past two or three weeks of the season.”

The Belarusian ended the season with 18 goals and 29 assists in 64 games. He also saw action in 12 games at the NHL level, potting one goal and adding a pair of assists. “He’s learning more of a team game instead of trying to go end-to-end every time,” Lever said, adding that Kostitsyn may end up being a better NHLer than an AHLer. “He could very well be one of those players that play better when they’re surrounded by better players.”

Lever explained that although Kostitsyn has a big league shot, he still needs someone to feed him the puck. The next level, where elite passes are the norm, could provide him the support he needs. However, Lever said he was impressed with how Kostitsyn learned how to diversify himself. “He learned that he needs to actually go and get the puck once in a while,” he added.

Other players made an impression this season on both the coach and the organization as a whole. Maxim Lapierre enjoyed a solid rookie season with 13 goals and 23 assists and an even plus/minus rating. He displayed wonderful speed and Lever added that he developed a better understanding of how the game should be played. Lapierre also earned a one-game call-up to the NHL for his efforts.

Francis Lemieux, another rookie AHL, enjoyed a breakthrough campaign scoring 40 points in just 67 games. More impressively, on a team that gave up more goals than it scored, Lemieux posted a team-high +11 rating. “He was really a pleasant surprise considering he was a guy who wasn’t even drafted,” Lever said.

Injuries affected other players. Jonathan Ferland was injured all year and only appeared in 39 games, scoring seven goals and adding eight assists. Jean-Phillipe Cote may have got in 61 games, but the fact that he was battling an ankle injury all year slowed his development process. Andrew Archer also got hurt early in the season and only saw action in 42 games.

On the flip side, players like Duncan Milroy and Pierre Dagenais had solid seasons, but did little to set them apart from the new breed of prospects filtering through the system. Milroy enjoyed another solid season, with 16 goals and 19 assists in 77 games. It’s the same steady production and commitment to defense that’s been a hallmark of Milroy’s career to date. Dagenais, after being sent down by Montreal, only appeared in 38 games, but was able to find the net 12 times en route to 25 points.

Lever also had to blend in the Oilers prospects onto the roster and saw some success doing so. Marc-Antoine Pouliot ended the season with 45 points paced by 30 assists, and the Oilers gave the Bulldogs two 20+ goal scorers in Jean-Francois Jacques (24) and Brad Winchester (26 in only 40 games.) Add to that the solid offensive production from the blue line provided by Danny Syvret (20 assists in 62 games), and it’s obvious the players meshed into the team dynamic well.

The coach added that two different affiliations meant nothing as soon as the Bulldogs’ sweater was on their chest. “Once the games started that part of the equation – it wasn’t even an issue,” Lever said. “The Edmonton Oilers were fantastic with me – and the players got along great. In fact, Lapierre and Jacques were best buddies.”

A late-season addition also opened some eyes and brought some hope for next year. As soon as the door closed on Kyle Chipchura’s junior career he walked into his first AHL dressing room and certainly didn’t look out of place. In just eight games, Chipchura scored a goal and two assists and posted a +4 plus/minus.

“Honestly, the most impressive thing this year was Chipchura and him playing here was a real valuable experience for him,” he said. “The thing for most kids is that it takes them a while to know they’re playing against men and that they push back, but he got that right away.

“[Kyle] has a very sharp hockey mind and he’s really a good team guy. He was very impressive.”

One Habs prospect of note who had a couple of cups of coffee with the AHL club was Cory Urquhart, who enjoyed a solid season with Long Beach in the ECHL. In 67 games, Urquhart split his goals and assists evenly en route to a 52-point performance. The 6’3 Jimmy Bonneau also enjoyed a season of throwing his weight around in Long Beach. Although only scoring one goal in 65 games, the 2003 eighth-round pick frequently found his way onto the scorer’s sheet with a team-leading 137 minutes in penalties. His 19 majors ranked second among ECHL rookies.

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