Across the American Hockey League, attention is focused on top talent being sent back to wait out the NHL lockout.
That’s not the case with the Hamilton Bulldogs, where most of the interest is directed at a promising group of young prospects in the Montreal Canadiens system who graduated from junior hockey this year.
Defencemen Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Morgan Ellis and forwards Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher and Patrick Holland have all left stellar junior careers behind to turn pro this season in Hamilton.
“It’s exiting, everyone wants to turn pro,” said Ellis, who along with Bournival ended his junior days by winning a Memorial Cup with the Shawinigan Cataractes in May. They beat Tinordi’s London Knights in the final, while Beaulieu’s Saint John Sea Dogs lost in the semifinals.
“It was a good summer coming off the Memorial Cup,” he added. “There were a lot of things to work on to turn pro. It’s bigger, faster, stronger guys and I have to be physically and mentally stronger.”
The players took physical exams and tests at the Canadiens’ suburban training centre on Friday and will begin the on-ice part of camp Saturday in Sherbrooke, Que.
Only Holland, who had travel delays, was not on hand among the 42 players invited to camp.
Forwards Louis Leblanc and Aaron Palushaj, who spent time in Montreal last season, were shipped back to Hamilton. So was 25-year-old defenceman Frederic St-Denis, who played a few NHL games.
If the NHL lockout drags into the season, they will be part of an unprecedented flood of talent to hockey’s top development league. That includes Edmonton’s young stars Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the Oklahoma City Barons, and many more.
It will provide a stiffer test for players coming out of junior hockey.
“There’s going to be a lot of good players,” said Palushaj. “The AHL’s going to be a great league.
“At 23, I’m one of the older guys on the team. It’ll be fun. There are young guys who look up to you and we have to set the example right from the first practice.”
The Canadiens finished last in the Eastern Conference last season, but the mood on the club is optimistic because of the prospects they’ve accumulated through trades and the draft. Already former Hamilton players Carey Price, Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban are playing key roles on the team.
The team’s revamped front office under new general manager Marc Bergevin, who is also GM of the Bulldogs, feels more is on the way, especially from this year’s group as well as their 2012 third overall draft pick Alex Galchenyuk who is still with the junior Sarnia Sting.
The six-foot-one Beaulieu, taken 17th overall in 2011, is a skilled puck-moving defenceman who was a key player on Saint John’s 2011 Memorial Cup team.
Six-foot-seven Tinordi, taken 22nd overall in 2010, is expected to become a rugged, defensive rearguard, as is the six-foot-two Ellis, a third rounder in 2010.
Gallagher, taken 147th in 2010, is a feisty small forward who was a scoring star with Vancouver in the Western Hockey League, while Bournival, who was Colorado’s third rounder in 2010, brings speed and a remarkable work rate. Holland, a Calgary pick in 2010, was a prolific junior scorer.
“There’s a lot of great guys and a lot of young guys coming up,” said Ellis. “You all want to be a big part of the team.
“You take it day by day and battle. You see names getting sent back like Eberle and them and to play against them would be pretty nice just to experience. And then there are guys on our team who were sent back. It’ll be tough but it will be fun.”
First they will have to impress new Hamilton coach Sylvain Lefebvre, who will be aided by former NHL players who have been added in player development, Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois.
The team does not have a lot of older players, but they have 26-year-old St-Denis and tough 27-year-old winger Zack Stortini. They also repatriated 26-year-old goalie Cedric Desjardins from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
St-Denis, Palushaj and Desjardins were signed to temporary AHL contracts to ensure they would not be claimed on waivers when assigned to Hamilton. Montreal lost a top defence prospect, Francois Beauchemin, during the last lockout in 2004-05 by failing to shield him from waivers.
St-Denis had hoped to take a crack at sticking with the NHL club, but is resigned to another season in the AHL if it comes to that.
“It’s tough because you’re training hard in the summer to reach your goal,” he said. “But you can’t control that.
“It’s sad, but it’s part of the business. I think i’ll be a good veteran this year with the young guys coming in like Beaulieu and Tinordi. I think it’ll be a great thing for us.”
The Bulldogs also have 25-year-old defenceman Brendon Nash, who played two games for Montreal in 2010-11 but missed all of last season with a torn shoulder muscle. The Kamloops, B.C. native is a promising power play point man.
“Not playing will only hurt me if I let it,” Nash said. “I’m prepared to play.”