(***NOTE: This post was followed up on September 2.***)
Okay, after dealing with the Canadiens' unsigned players whose rights were about to expire, and then the players who were about to become free agents, we have a better idea of what the roster(s) will be next season.
Let's deal with what the Hamilton Bulldogs roster will look like for the most part at training camp, making educated guesses along the way. We did this last season, and it helped frame the discussion.
The team will once again be a young but talented team, and should benefit from the trial-by-fire season they just endured. The main goal for next season's squad should again be one of development rather than competitiveness, to get the youngsters some experience and continue their progression, but it should aspire to take a step forward in the standings, and learn how to win. Another season of crushing losses can damage the psyche of such young players, it's important that they see improvement in their game and their team. Finishing dead last again won't do, the team has to realistically challenge for a playoff spot, the battle will do them some good.
To achieve this, while the heavier workload should still be borne by the Morgan Ellises and the Michaël Bournivals, it may be wise to add a few quality veteran AHL'ers to the team so they can impart some experience and steadiness. These vets may not necessarily be the most talented players, or the ones we'll want on the ice during crucial faceoffs, but they'll calm the waters on the bench and in the dressing room just with their presence. In effect, I envision their use being a 'reverse Galchenyuk': whereas young Alex was sheltered by Coach Therrien this season, in terms of the quantity of minutes he received, as well as the situations he was placed in, these Bulldog vets would pull their weight but step aside during key faceoffs, special teams, end of game situations, etc. The kids would get the lion's share of minutes, their apprenticeship would enter its second phase, but they'd have someone to lean on.
In nets, we're set with Dustin Tokarski to be the starter. His backup will probably be Robert Mayer, depending on his state of mind or whether the long arm of the law will collar and drag him back to Biel, Switzerland. Robert Condon and Peter Delmas will compete for a spot, but will likely end up in Wheeling. It's doubtful a draftee muddles this picture, unless it's an overager from Europe or some such scenario.
On defence, I expect that both Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, despite making a good account of themselves when called up to Montréal this season, will at least start the season in Hamilton. It's important to remember Marc Bergevin's statement that you rarely regret leaving a player in the minors too long, but often regret bringing them up too soon. This will affect Jarred Tinordi more, in that there is a hole on the roster and a crying need for a physical defensive-minded player on the blueline with the Grand Club, especially with Alexei Emelin being injured and unavailable until Christmas. It would appear that Jarred could slot in there nicely, except that it would be unfair to ask him to fill this role while his apprenticeship is not near complete. Better to let him continue logging heavy minutes in Hamilton, and sign some plugs for the Canadiens as short-term solutions, even at the cost of a few losses. Short-term pain for long-term gain.
Add to these guys incumbents Greg Pateryn and Morgan Ellis, joined by newcomers Darren Dietz and Magnus Nygren, and that's a packed d-corps, with not a lot of room or icetime for anyone else. Because of this, I strongly suspect that Dalton Thrower will be asked to make amends for his poor season in Saskatoon with an overager season with the Vancouver Giants. He needs to put things together. Also, Mac Bennett stays at Michigan for another season, if there was any doubt. He didn't have a dominant season in the NCAA, he might benefit from another at that level anyway. Expect Antoine Corbin to be pushed down to Wheeling.
So with six young, inexperienced defencemen, we can see how a tough veteran or two will help out. I don't know if Frédéric St-Denis fits that bill, while he's smart and has skills, he lacks the size to 'protect' his younger charges. In any case, he may not even want the job, preferring to go to an organization with a better opportunity for him to crack the big league roster. We wish him well.
At forward, there is no infusion of talent expected from the recent draftees. Daniel Prybil might join the team, but it's a remote possibility at this point, he's not even signed yet, and the clock is winding down in his case. Dustin Walsh might be offered an AHL contract, he has some size and skill, but based on his production at Dartmouth it's doubtful he's a likely prospect. Sebastian Collberg will be playing with Frolunda for at least one more season.
So we're going to have to make do with the guys currently on the roster. Danny Kristo was, at long last, brought into the fold late in the season, so that's an upgrade of scoring talent, he'll join the current crop of forwards. We can expect that Michael Blunden and Gabriel Dumont, who were called up late in the season, will at least start in Hamilton as well.
Based on what we know, we can assume that Blake Geoffrion will retire, which is unfortunate since he'd started last season very well, showing leadership and playing strong hockey on a line with Louis Leblanc. We wish him all the best in his future endeavours.
Stopgaps like Phillippe Lefebvre and Joey Tenute don't bring our organization any benefits, and should be phased out in favour of depth and experience. We can have a longshot or two to make it at forward in Hamilton, not five or six.
Since there isn't an overabundance of prospects at forward, there is a good opportunity to add the AHL veteran players we discussed earlier. The thing is, these veterans are prized by AHL teams, they're in demand, so it's easier said than done to acquire them, but that's where the Canadiens' financial resources can be brought to bear. While other teams run their minor leagues on a shoestring, we can spend more in this area than they can, and can attract some minor leaguers with a good offer that others can't or won't match.
As far as coaching goes, Sylvain Lefebvre took some hits for some of his decisions by observers who followed the Bulldogs, and lost assistant coach Ron Wilson along the way for nebulous reasons. He needs veteran help, a trusty coach who's seen it rain, and can help with the offence and powerplay. Whether that means Clément Jodoin heads back to Hamilton or not, it's clear that another assistant beside Donald Dufresne is needed.
So the roster would look like this:
Spare forward 1, spare forward 2
Spare AHL Veteran
1) The forwards aren't matched up to indicate preferred line combinations. Some issues we have are that while we have three prospect RW's and four C, there is not a single LW prospect in Hamilton. Since Michaël Bournival is a lefty, I put him on LW on the second line.
2) I could have put Louis Leblanc on the wing, since that seems to be where he is projected to go, but he's a right-handed shot and we needed left wings, so I left him at centre.
3) I expect that some of Olivier Fortier, Alex Belzile, Stefan Chaput or Phillippe Lefebvre will be retained, but I don't know enough about them to guess which one, and suspect they're interchangeable in the grand scheme of things. Plunk any one or two of them in the slots assigned to 'AHL Veteran' or 'Spare Forward' if you want.
4) Messrs. Stortini and Hagel remain, since we have room on this conjured roster and have already stated we need a little bit of veteran protection for our youngsters. If we can upgrade in that area, then obviously we do so.
5) Aside from Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, all our defencemen are right-handed shots. I'd noticed in previous drafts how many righty D's we'd snapped up, and I know they're relatively harder to find, but we now have a bit of an imbalance in that regard. I know that's a hard thing to control, whenever you think you're set an injury happens, so you can't get too caught up in that, but we also have Dalton Thrower, Colin Sullivan and Josiah Didier in the organization as righties. That's an advantage for leftie Mac Bennett in 2014, and another nail in the coffin for rightie Joe Stejskal in the present.