TORONTO, ON – The release of the Montreal Canadiens’ Rookie Camp roster every August triggers a sigh of relief among Habs fans worldwide. We’ve made it. We’ve survived the lengthy off-season, and now 2013-14’s opening puckdrop is in sight.
If we’re to be honest, however, Rookie Camp – which gets underway this Thursday in Brossard – will tell us a lot more about this year’s Hamilton Bulldogs than it will the Canadiens, given the age and inexperience of those attending, and the crowded one-way NHL roster rendered even tighter with the most recent addition of Douglas Murray.
Murray’s presence means there are six veterans lined up to start the season on Montreal’s blueline until Alexei Emelin is ready to return from injury, leaving Davis Drewiske in the press box as a reservist. Thus, barring exceptional training camp performances or further injury troubles, both Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi – two players who are very familiar with this pre-main camp week of drills – are likely to start the season continuing their development in the AHL.
Rookie Camp, then, will be a look at the group of six prospect blueliners likely to form the nucleus of Hamilton’s back end – Beaulieu, Tinordi, Greg Pateryn, Darren Dietz, Morgan Ellis, and Magnus Nygren. While it’ll be a rookie pro season for Dietz, the only one of the group for whom this will be a new experience is Nygren, one of camp’s older prospects at 23 (free agent signings aside), ready to make his North American debut after a strong season in Sweden’s Men’s League saw him named top Swedish defenseman. The 6’1″ import has a blistering point shot that will provide a second weapon (after Beaulieu) to a Hamilton powerplay that struggled mightily last season.
The week will be a first opportunity for a number of challengers for AHL ice time to prove their worth. Dalton Thrower is perhaps the man to watch on D, as he would be one of the AHL’s younger players, still eligible to return to the WHL for an overage season. Thrower had a tough season last year on and off the ice, but is looking to put that behind him in regaining the form that had the Canadiens (and many impartial observers) believing it a steal to nab him in the second round in 2012. Thrower would be a member of the Vancouver Giants, having been dealt there following Saskatoon’s disappointing Memorail Cup exit, and has suited up in one of Vancouver’s two preseason games prior to making his way to Montreal. In that contest, he served as the team’s captain and registered two assists in a 4-2 victory. Thrower is a thick 6’0″ d-man who is an able puck mover and also never shy to engage physically, but must work on his consistency and positioning, indicating he could still benefit from a season under the experienced coaching and conditioning staff of the Giants.
A trio of Bulldog UFA signings also have an opportunity to display their skills beneath the watchful eyes of the Montreal brass. Drew Schiestel, 24, is the most likely to see significant action for Sylvain Lefebvre‘s troop, he who never lived up to his billing as a 2007 second round pick by the Buffalo Sabres, but is a sound two-way defender with 191 games of AHL experience to his name.
Matt Grassi, 24, only appeared in three games on a tryout contract with the Bulldogs last season due to academic commitments while completing his degree from Michigan State University, but showed enough to earn a full season AHL/ECHL deal for the coming year. Grassi has an imposing 6’3″, 220 lbs frame, but is more of a smart defensive player than a physical specimen. The numbers game means he most likely serves as a replacement for Joe Stejskal, a reservist who will see time if and when injuries and call-ups press him into duty.
Lastly, 23-year old Joel Chouinard will attend camp along with his brother, netminder Jacob Gervais-Chouinard (on a tryout). The brothers played against one another late last season while Jacob was on a tryout in Hamilton, and Joel – a veteran of 98 AHL contests – clearly impressed the ‘Dogs staff in attendance enough to earn a deal as a depth d-man for the coming season. Like Grassi, the 6’1″ Chouinard is likely to serve as mere depth, potentially starting the season with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.
A pair of unaffiliated defensemen will also attend camp. 18-year old Maxime Gravel attended Montreal’s Development Camp in July after going undrafted in June. The two-way 6’1″ rearguard will be returning to the QMJHL this season, though the club he spent last season with – the Rimouski Oceanic – traded him to the Val d’Or Foreurs in August. He has suited up for two Foreurs preseason games, being held pointless with a -2 rating.
Among forwards, it’s no surprise that Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher were left out of this camp as full-time NHL’ers, while Gabriel Dumont as not invited as a prospect who has completed his Entry Level Contract. The head-scratcher, then, was the exclusion of 2009 first round pick Louis Leblanc from the roster.
When the roster was first released, many were remembering July’s Development Camp, a time when two eligible players – Danny Kristo and Philippe Lefevbre – were inexplicably missing from the list. Kristo was dealt moments following the publishing of the camp’s line-up, and Lefebvre in the coming days. Does this mean Leblanc’s time with the organization is nearing an end?
Not necessarily. The NHL CBA’s rules governing rookie camps are fairly vague (at least, on paper), but it may be a technicality that excludes Leblanc from camp eligibility. For players with less than 50 games on an NHL roster the prior season (which would include Leblanc), training camp may last up to 27 days, while for those with 50 or more games, it’s limited to 20 days. This is where it gets confusing. In 2011-12, Leblanc suited up for 42 contests with the Canadiens and was a healthy scratch for two others. In 2013, Leblanc didn’t play any games in Montreal, but once Hamilton’s season ended, he was a black ace healthy scratch for three regular season and all five playoff matchups. Given the laws of mathematics, nobody played 50 regular season games during the lockout-shortened 48-game calendar of 2013, so clearly some non-publicly announced amendment to the rule must have been made, most likely combining experience over the past two seasons, and it is probably this that is keeping Leblanc away from the group. A Montreal native, Leblanc has been most recently seen spending time with alleged flame Aleksandra Wozniak in the region, while completing his preparation for what will be a pivotal bounce back season to shape the rest of his career.
The forward group who will be in camp is far less exciting that that which took to the ice in July, due to the absence of young European stars Sebastian Collberg, Artturi Lehkonen (who skipped drills due to injury during the last camp), and Jacob De La Rose, all currently participating in preseason action with their home squads. Second year pros Patrick Holland, Michael Bournival, and newly acquired Christian Thomas will be expected to lead the up-and-coming charge in Hamilton this season, while battling the likes of Leblanc and veterans Michael Blunden, Martin St. Pierre, and Nick Tarnasky (all not attending this camp due to their significant pro experience) for first call-up honours. If those in attendance should pay attention to Thrower among the d-men, Thomas in particular will be one to watch from the forward group, with his explosiveness and rocket-powered shots unfamiliar to most of the Montreal faithful having just come over from the New York Rangers’ organization.
For Charles Hudon, Tim Bozon, and Brady Vail, this represents a first training camp with the Canadiens due to last season’s late start. In truth, the skill set of each is advanced enough that they would likely be able to hold their own in the American League, but age restrictions mean all three return to the CHL (QMJHL, WHL, and OHL respectively) as leaders on their squads for one final season before going pro.
Also naturally in their first training camp is the 2013 entry draft crop. First round pick Mike McCarron scored a goal and dropped the gloves in his preseason debut with the London Knights, and could stand to see action in an NHL exhibition match to see where he stacks up from physical and conditioning standpoints. Third round pick pugilist Connor Crisp has been turning heads at Erie’s training camp with his goal-scoring abilities, and will take to the ice with fellow prospects for the first time after an injury limited his activity during July’s Development Camp. Montreal’s other 2013 third rounder, Sven Andrighetto, should be taking the camp seriously as he’ll be in a tough battle for AHL ice time as a 20 year old, and is at his best when skating alongside other high skill players.
In a similar position to Andrighetto is 2012 sixth rounder Erik Nystrom, a skilled winger who has come over from Sweden on a 25-game tryout with the Bulldogs rather than a full ELC. Nystrom found chemistry in July on a line with fellow Swede Sebastian Collberg – whom he won’t have the luxury of coat tailing this time around – and center Ben Duffy, who will be in competition for a fourth line job in Hamilton after signing an AHL deal. It will be tough for Andrighetto and Nystrom to displace veterans like Blunden and Tarnasky for ice time, so they’ll need to show either top end skill or versatility in their games right from day one.
Rounding out the group are other 2013 picks Martin Reway and Jeremy Gregoire, both off to productive preseason starts in the QMJHL, returning Bulldogs Steve Quailer and Joonas Nattinen, both coming off season-ending injuries, and a smattering of players on AHL deals (likely to start in the ECHL) or tryout agreements. It should be noted that there is an error on the official camp list, with both Tanner Eberle and Justin Courtnall listed as being under contract with the Canadiens, though the former is an unsigned tryout and the latter is under contract only with Hamilton. On the flip side, Mike McCarron is listed as unsigned, though he inked his entry-level deal with the Canadiens prior to joining London.
In goal, the Bulldogs’ tandem of Dustin Tokarski and Robert Mayer is absent from this camp due to having completed their rookie deals. The eyes of most will be on 2013 second rounder Zachary Fucale, who has been shaky in preseason action with the star-depleted Halifax Moosehead, allowing six goals on 29 shots in parts of two games. Before overreacting, however, keep in mind it’s only preseason, and in the words of one Carey Price, “Chill out.”
This will also be a first pro training camp for Michael Condon, who signed with the Canadiens out of Princeton University last May. Condon was impressive in brief late-season stints with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign and AHL’s Houston Aeros, and thus his full first year as a professional will be interesting to follow to see if there is true potential there.
So while it may be the Montreal Canadiens’ Rookie Camp in name, what begins this week in Brossard will truly be more of a coming together of the 2013-14 Hamilton Bulldogs’ nucleus, a group looking to rebound from a disappointing last place finish last season. Those anxious to see the players who will defend the Bell Centre this year will have to wait one additional week for the team’s actual training camp to kick into full swing.