Habs make minor league shake-up

By Jason Menard

Recent changes to Montreal’s minor-league system have the team hoping that more space will result in a net gain for the Canadiens franchise for now and long into the future.

Blessed by a cache of riches in the system, the Montreal Canadiens have decided that they need more room to house this bevy of bodies, and have retained sole affiliation with the Hamilton Bulldogs’ AHL franchise.

“We had the option to go 50/50, but we have too many prospects, so we’ve decided to operate Hamilton on our own,” explained Trevor Timmins, the Montreal Canadiens’ director of player personnel.

One of the factors that may have weighed heavily in the organization’s decision-making process was the crowded cage situation the organization is facing. With arguably two starting-caliber NHL goalies signed, the team didn’t want to before share precious time between the pipes.

“It’s always difficult when you have two goaltenders that you want to develop,” Timmins explained. “With two goalies, you can run into the situation where one’s on top of his game and the other’s not – but if you have to share time, that’s when you have a problem.”

Timmins pointed to a previous experience in the organization where Habs prospect Yann Danis started the season on fire and couldn’t lose a game, while Dallas Stars goaltending hopeful Dan Ellis couldn’t buy a win – losing several straight. With two solid netminding prospects in Danis and Jaroslav Halak projected for Hamilton – any sort of shared arrangement wouldn’t work.

And, barring a trade, the long-term logjam doesn’t look like it’s about to get any less congested. The 23-year-old Olivier Michaud remains in the organization, and he’s being challenged or will soon be challenged by young draftees such as 2004 sixth-rounder Loic Lacasse, 2003 sixth-round selection Christopher Heino-Lindberg, and the fifth-overall pick in 2005, Carey Price. Obviously the real estate in the crease is valuable now and will continue to be at a premium for a number of years, so sole proprietorship of Hamilton simply makes sense.

“It’s definitely a good decision for the organization,” Bulldogs’ head coach Don Lever added. “The Canadiens have quite a few prospects in the organization and right now with Danis and Halak we’re sitting pretty with goaltenders.”

This the second straight season that the Bulldogs’ roster will undergo a substantial overhaul not caused by the normal graduation and attrition issues that all AHL squads face. In 2004-05, the Bulldogs featured players from Montreal and the Dallas Stars. Last year, the Stars’ prospects left and were replaced by a selection of Edmonton Oilers’ draftees and free agents. That one-year experiment is now over and Lever said he believes that the one-team format with contribute to player development and continuity – not to mention being able to ice a regular line-up.

“Last year was kind of a freak season after the lockout and with all the injuries,” he said. “It’ll be easier this year because you won’t have two teams pulling at you – there were a couple of times we went under [a minimum roster size] because there were emergency call-ups for Edmonton and Montreal and it takes a while to get people from Long Beach [the club’s previous ECHL franchise.]

“Cross your fingers and knock on wood that Montreal stays healthy.”

Having only one master makes it easier for the team to keep everyone happy. Due to shared agreements, Coach Lever had to juggle lineups to ensure that all players were getting a certain amount of ice time. And while the players remained professional, it wasn’t always the easiest situation.

“It doesn’t make it comfortable for anybody when you’re trying to keep two franchises happy,” Lever said. “Someone’s always going to be sour and that’s not conducive to good development.

“I just tried to be fair and honest with the guys and explain whether they were not playing because of performance or for other reasons – and I told them up front what it was going to be like.”

Montreal has also entered into an agreement with the newly restarted Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, based in southern Ohio, effectively ending their association with the Long Beach Ice Dogs franchise.

“Cincinnati is our Hamilton farm team,” Timmins explained. “We simply needed some place closer to Hamilton for our prospects. Long Beach [California] was just too far.”

The Cyclones entered the ECHL in 2001, but obtained a voluntary suspension of operations in April 2004. In April of this season, the team announced plans to participate in the upcoming season and Montreal’s affiliation with the squad was announced on July 18, 2006.

“It’s nice to have that affiliate closer because it means that when a guy’s not playing well, we can send him down and get him in game shape,” Lever explained. “And if there’s a guy playing well down there, then our scouts can go and watch him – that wasn’t so easy in Long Beach.”

That ability to send struggling players to the ECHL more conveniently can be key to a player’s development, Lever added. “There’s no reason that a young guy should not be playing – he’s got to get on the ice somewhere,” he explained. “Last year, [Jeff Drouin-] Deslauriers couldn’t be sent down to the ECHL, so when we had (Ty) Conklin and (Cristobal) Huet down with injuries, he couldn’t get on the ice – and a guy needs a net.”

Despite losing a number of players from the Oilers franchise, Lever said he’s optimistic about how the team will fare this season. “Really, we’d like to make the playoffs and I believe we’re going to be a better organization,” he said. “We’re adding Kyle Chipchura to the roster and players like [Maxim] Lapierre and [Francis] Lemieux are going to have another year of experience under their belt. We’ll see how [James] Sanford and [André] Benoit have developed, and we’ve got experience with [Andrew Archer] and [Jean-Phillipe] Cote.”

Lever said that the team would like to add a little more veteran presence to the roster, not to compete for ice time with the young guns, but rather to help them steady their aim.

“We’re hoping to get a couple of depth guys,” he said. “You’d like to sign some veterans so that you can have a solid core to help teach those kids.

“But the biggest thing about having a farm team is to have the young guys play. In the end, [having one affiliation and a closer ECHL franchise] will make it easier to develop the team and foster that team concept.”

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