MONTREAL, QC — The Montreal Canadiens’ organization will be competing for a Cup during the 2012-2013 season. Am I a crazy “homer” of a Habs fan? Have I been drinking the Kool-Aid on the Brandon Prust and Francis Bouillon signings? No, I’ve been pretty straightforward with my expectation of another potentially difficult and long season in Montreal, barring a succession of 2-3 significant trades (unlikely.) However, that won’t deprive Habs fans of following what looks to be a promising and highly intriguing playoff drive next Spring.
Your 2012-13 Hamilton Bulldogs – the Habs’ AHL affiliate – are absolutely stacked. Combine a high-profile incoming class with the likes of Brendan Gallagher, Jarred Tinordi, and Nathan Beaulieu with some established AHL stars such as Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion, and Frederic St. Denis, and you have the recipe for the best American Hockey League team the organization has iced since their last Carey Price-led Calder Cup conquest in 2007.
While there is much to be decided during this Fall’s training camp (assuming the CBA issues are resolved on time for an October start), we do have a picture of – as of today – the players who will make up the Bulldogs’ roster. NHL teams cannot carry more than 23 healthy players, and barring injuries, the Canadiens already have 13 forwards, eight defensemen (once P.K. Subban is signed), and two goaltenders on one-way deals. That’s not to say that a Petteri Nokelainen couldn’t be waived and sent down if beaten for a roster spot, but it’s unlikely out of the gate, meaning we’re looking at something like the following in Hamilton barring spots created by Marc Bergevin moves:
Blake Geoffrion – Louis Leblanc – Aaron Palushaj
Patrick Holland – Joonas Nattinen – Brendan Gallagher
Alexander Avtsin – Michael Bournival – Steve Quailer
Ian Schultz – Gabriel Dumont – Mike Blunden
Jarred Tinordi - Frederic St. Denis
Brendon Nash - Morgan Ellis
Greg Pateryn – Nathan Beaulieu
The top trio centered by Louis Leblanc was utterly dominant when together in short spurts last season. Ideally, Leblanc would line up at right wing, where he projects in the NHL, but the club both lacks scoring depth at the center position and has an abundance of right wingers already, so it’s likely he fills this role when not in Montreal. And before anyone asks in the comments, no I don’t expect him to swap places with Scott Gomez.
Blake Geoffrion is in a final season of not needing to clear waivers to be sent down, while Aaron Palushaj will need to be passed over by all 29 other clubs to join the ‘Dogs, but I do believe that to be possible. Both make little enough money once in Hamilton to not require waivers to be called back up to the Canadiens. Coach Sylvain Lefebvre may choose to sprinkle these known quantities throughout his lineup, but alternatively, keeping them together would give him a line he can depend on, meaning he wouldn’t have to rely on rookies for production at all times.
Joonas Nattinen will get a chance to improve on an inconsistent rookie season, but one which showed promise as he adapted to the North American game, also using his 6-foot-2 frame to make room for smaller wingers. On his wings, Patrick Holland may be a quality set-up man for sniper Brendan Gallagher, with Holland’s set-up game looking easier to translate to the left side from his natural right than Gallagher’s to me.
A third scoring unit has Michael Bournival between two big bodies in Alexander Avtsin and Steve Quailer. For Avtsin, this season may be a final chance to prove that he can consistently play in an offensive role in a professional league, or else his fate may include a return to his native Russia. Quailer’s size and physicality should work nicely with Bournival’s grind-and-cycle style game.
Don’t consider that “fourth line” a true bottom trio, as there will undoubtedly by games and situations where they play more than either the second or third lines. Part energy line, part shutdown unit, the experience and physicality of all three of Ian Schultz, Gabriel Dumont, and Mike Blunden are what truly cements the ‘Dogs as a serious threat for a championship drive, beyond the skill players and exciting rookies on the roster.
Another key improvement over last year’s Bulldogs is the depth this team has. If injuries or call-ups should take their course – which they will at some point – the club can still count on Alain Berger (likely to battle hard for a top 12 job in training camp) and Philippe Lefebvre (likely to start with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers) before having to dip into tryouts and others who may be signed to AHL contracts.
On defense last year, the ‘Dogs were a patchwork group of career AHL’er types. While the team may miss the experience of Alex Henry, Garrett Stafford, and Joe Callahan at times this coming season, they’ve upped both the skill quotient and depth considerably.
While it’s possible Jarred Tinordi will require the same time and adjustment period as he did in transitioning to the OHL, he is a natural to pair with a veteran like Frederic St. Denis as a shutdown duo, even if it means sticking two lefties together. Many see Morgan Ellis as one of the more complete, NHL-ready defensive prospects on the team, so playing him with a veteran as well – in this case Brendon Nash - might help fast-track his transition to the pro game.
There is a lot to like about the skill and skating of Nathan Beaulieu, but he also has clear areas where his game needs improvement. His defensive prowess, mental game, and maturity have all been called into question at times, so I’d see him starting on a bottom duo, while getting plenty of extra work on the top powerplay unit. This will take the pressure off, as he has been known to also try to do too much at times, while he works closely with staff like Sylvain Lefebvre and Patrice Brisebois to make the leap on and off the ice.
Competition for Beaulieu’s partner will be between Greg Pateryn, Joe Stejskal, and Kyle Hagel. Hagel may dress as a 7th defenseman at times in place of a forward due to his talents as a pugilist, something generally required more frequently in the AHL than in the NHL.
The organization has been pretty honest about its “empty” goaltending pipeline, with neither Robert Mayer or Peter Delmas projecting as future NHL’ers. Repatriating Cedric Desjardins serves as a fine starter fill-in for Nathan Lawson who struggled with injury issues much of last year. Desjardins had his best two seasons wearing Bulldog colours back in 2008-09 and 2009-10, and is coming off a year with even better numbers, posting a sparkling .932 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average for the Lake Erie Monsters.
All in all, this group should easily be on par with any other team in the American Hockey League. It has everything one could want, with a mix of veterans and rookies, skill and grit, and offense and defense. During the regular season, Bulldog and Hab fans will have to hope for fewer injuries than a year ago to avoid decimating the roster, but a bit of good news is that further reinforcements could join the club come playoff time. Assuming that either (or both) of Danny Kristo and/or Alex Galchenyuk‘s college and junior seasons respectively come to an end before Hamilton’s, they would be eligible to join the ‘Dogs on Amateur Tryout Agreements for the stretch run. That added scoring should be sufficient to put this team over the top and make them favourites to bring a Cup to the Canadiens’ organization in 2013.