While the Montreal Canadiens sit idle through the NHL lockout, some of the top prospects in their organization will be taking their first strides as professionals with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League.
The Bulldogs, who finished last in their division and out of the playoffs last season, open their AHL campaign Saturday at Grand Rapids.
Much of the attention will focus on a group of young skaters, most freshly graduated from junior hockey, who are among the Canadiens’ brightest hopes for the future.
Forwards Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Patrick Holland and Steve Quailer as well as defencemen Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, Morgan Ellis and Greg Pateryn are expected to be NHL players one day. But the process begins in Hamilton.
”We have a lot of young guys, but there’s lots of intensity,” coach Sylvain Lefebvre said this week. ”Sometimes when you have young, skilled guys they think it will be easy, but these guys play hard. That’s refreshing.”
Lefebvre was part of a management overhaul that began in the spring after the injury-wracked Canadiens finished last in the NHL Eastern Conference. New general manager Marc Bergevin not only named a new coaching staff led by Michel Therrien in Montreal, he also brought Lefebvre in from the Colorado organization to take his first head coaching job with the Bulldogs.
The former NHL defenceman, whose career began with the Canadiens, is Hamilton’s fourth head coach in as many years, succeeding Clement Jodoin, Randy Cunneyworth and Guy Boucher. His assistants are veteran Ron Wilson and Lefebvre’s former Montreal defence mate Donald Dufresne.
He said the young players will get a chance to show what they can do, but they won’t have ice time handed to them.
”We’re here to develop players and we’ll do what it takes to make sure these guys get better,” said Lefebvre. ”Sometimes they need more ice time and sometimes we have to cut it down to help them succeed. We’ll have to monitor that. But you have to earn your ice time.”
Five players who spent time in Montreal last season are back in Hamilton for the lockout. They include defenceman Frederic St-Denis and forwards Louis Leblanc, Aaron Palushaj, Michael Blunden and Blake Geoffrion.
How many might be called up if and when NHL play resumes depends on the status of the 21 players on the Canadiens’ roster. However, while they are in the AHL, they should be key players on a young team.
The Bulldogs also signed 28-year-old centre Darryl Boyce from the Columbus Blue Jackets to add experience to the roster, as they did in bringing 27-year-old goaltender Cedric Desjardins back to the organization and signing veteran tough guy Zack Stortini.
The Hamilton roster has 25 players, including five forward lines, seven defencemen and three goalies.
Lefebvre said lines aren’t set in stone, but his three top units to start will have Geoffrion between Quailer and Gallagher, Bournival centring Palushaj and Holland and the hard-skating but low-scoring Boyce between Blunden and Leblanc.
The five-foot-eight Gallagher, a scoring star with the junior Vancouver Giants, was a standout at Montreal’s camp last season. The six-foot-four Quailer, 23, had 25 points in 26 games last season at Northeastern University.
Bournival, a tireless skater, was captain and first-line centre for the Memorial Cup champion Shawinigan Cataractes, where Ellis played on the top defence pair. Holland, a former Calgary prospect, had 109 points in junior with Tri-City last season.
The six-foot-seven Tinordi was Montreal’s first-round pick in 2010 from the London Knights while their 2011 first-rounder, six-foot-three Beaulieu, starred on defence for the powerhouse Saint John Sea Dogs. The 22-year-old Pateryn, a former Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, joined Hamilton from the University of Michigan.
The team also signed undrafted 20-year-old defenceman Antoine Corbin from the Prince Albert Raiders.
The Bulldogs also look forward to the return of defenceman Brendon Nash, who played two games for Montreal in 2010-11 but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. The 25-year-old excels at playing the point on power plays.
St. Denis, who signed an AHL contract to avoid exposing him to waivers, will be looked to for leadership on a young blue-line.
”My goal for the year was to go to Montreal and get a spot on the team, but it should be a great year in Hamilton,” he said. ”I want to get to the NHL too, but if I can help other guys like Beaulieu and Tinordi that’s good too.”
Other returning players include forwards Alain Berger, Alexander Avtsin, Gabriel Dumont, Joonas Nittanen and goalies Peter Delmas and Robert Mayer.
Part of the organizational changes saw former NHL players Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois hired to work on player development, and they should be spending some of their time in Hamilton.
The Bulldogs will be under the microscope with no NHL action to distract Canadiens fans. Hamilton’s games will be broadcast on radio in Montreal and TVA Sports has signed to televise an as-yet undetermined number of games.