We talked about the need for next season's team to be still focused on developing young players, but that there should be a more concerted effort made to make it more competitive to at least challenge for a playoff spot, as two seasons of losing can shell-shock youngsters. They're not in the AHL to learn how to lose. We need them to apprentice at how to compete and how to win.
To achieve this, we felt that the team needed some talent upgrades in general, with AHL veterans to help support the youth and shoulder the load, as well as some tougher players so that our kids aren't left exposed to intimidation tactics by older, rougher teams. We also wanted a coaching veteran to come to the aid of rookie coach Sylvain Lefebvre, who had never acted in a head coaching capacity before, only as an assistant.
One assumption which wasn't spelled out was that the team would improve organically, by virtue of all the kids having one more year of experience. The kids would be more skilled and confident and would win more. Simple, right? But it has been brought to our attention that the Bulldogs desperately needed offence, goal-scoring, if we ever wanted to win more. The goals wouldn't just appear out of thin air from the same crew, we needed to add some playmakers and snipers.
This was the roster as we understood it then, with some needed positions to be filled denoted generically:
Spare forward 1, spare forward 2
Spare AHL Veteran
Since then, the Canadiens have added a lot of players who will reinforce the troops in Hamilton. First, chronologically at least, there was the drafting of Sven Andrighetto, an overage Junior player who can play in the AHL straightaway and kills two birds with one stone, with his offensive skills and the fact that he's a natural left winger, of which we had none. He is now signed to an Entry Level Contract.
Then, at the Prospect Development Camp in early July, the Canadiens invited a raft of free agents, and ended up signing three of them. Halifax Moosehead co-captain and Memorial Cup champion Stefan Fournier was signed to an ELC to culminate his dream season. He's a big tough kid with decent hands who'll bring grit and energy to the lineup, and try to play the role of an Yvon Lambert or Mike McPhee with the 'Dogs.
Ben Duffy and Stephen MacAulay were signed to AHL-ECHL contracts, and will each bring a set of skills that will be welcome. Mr. Duffy is last season's scoring champion in the LHJMQ, while Mr. MacAulay is a former Blues draft pick who also finished his junior career winning a Memorial Cup with the Mooseheads, and projects to be more of a bottom-6 grinder in Hamilton.
Around the same time, the Canadiens signed 28 year-old AHL veteran Martin St. Pierre as an Unrestricted Free Agent to an NHL-AHL deal. Mr. St. Pierre has played a few games in the NHL and a season in Europe, and has put up a lot of points in the AHL, often playing in the AHL All-Star Game. He'll bring offence and experience to a lineup that can certainly use both.
In a different vein, veteran pugilist Nick Tarnasky was also signed, as an upgrade on Zach Stortini and Kyle Hagel who were not retained. Mr. Tarnasky, another 28-year old AHL'er, is a more respected enforcer, and is able to play a more competent fourth-line role.
Internally, the Canadiens re-signed Gabriel Dumont, and traded organization veteran Danny Kristo to the Rangers for Christian Thomas. While the trade itself is a bit of a stumper, in that we traded a slender offensively-gifted right winger for a more under-sized offensively-gifted right winger, in effect it doesn't really affect the team makeup in Hamilton, we can expect Mr. Thomas to slot in where Danny Kristo was destined to be.
Later in July, more depth was added. Stéphane Chaput, who started last season in Wheeling, worked his way up to Hamilton and was one of the more effective players there on an AHL contract, was re-signed for another year to add a little size and experience.
Erik Nystrom, a Canadiens 6th-round pick last season, was given a 25-game tryout contract with the Bulldogs. He brings speed and some offensive skill and high effort reputedly, but will have to prove himself in the AHL if he wants to earn an NHL ELC.
To round out the depth and add some veteran help and experience, the Bulldogs recently added 24-year old Justin Courtnall, a left winger with a bit of size at 6'03" and 210 lbs, along with 24-year old blueliner Drew Schiestel, and 23-year old Joël Chouinard, another d-man.
Finally, to add a splash of size on the blue line, Matt Grassi was signed to an AHL deal also, and while his point totals are not awe-inspiring, the brass must have felt he was worth giving another opportunity after the 6'3" 220 pounder finished the previous season in Hamilton.
So as we can see, lots of reinforcements to help the incumbent kids in Hamilton along, and a lot of the stated needs met. Veteranship, AHL experience? Check. Scoring, offensive ability? Check. Size, toughness? Check. Oh, did you bring some lefties? Roger, got some of those.
So if we take another crack at the lineup, we see that we've filled the positions we needed to fill, and improved the team.
AHL Veteran forwards: Martin St. Pierre, Nick Tarnasky, Stéphane Chaput, Justin Courtnall
AHL Veteran defencemen: Drew Schiestel, Joël Chouinard, ***Matt Lashoff
Newcomers: Sven Andrighetto, Stefan Fournier, Ben Duffy, Stephen MacAulay, Erik Nystrom, Matt Grassi
Spare (ECHL): Nystrom-Duffy-Quailer
Spares (ECHL): Schiestel, Chouinard, ***Lashoff, Grassi
As far as the coaching side, we didn't get the crusty veteran coach I was expecting, instead hiring former Canadien forward Stéphan Lebeau as Assistant Coach to help out with the forwards. While we were surprised that he was the choice with his relatively meager coaching résumé (no pro experience, most recently coaching high school kids at Bishop's College), he seems to have some fresh ideas and a positive, enthusiastic approach to his players. I would expect that the Canadiens brain trust will also be available to support Sylvain Lefebvre, there are enough different people there with various experience and abilities that he can draw on them when needed. Last season, Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois spent a lot of time helping out at Bulldogs practice, so there seems to be a team approach with the management group, a willingness to cross-pollinate as opposed to remaining in separate silos.
In closing, let's offer a few notes on the roster presented above:
1) Again, there is no attempt to present line combinations as preferable to any other. We've simply plopped down centres and matched them up with wingers with roughly the same styles and inclination.
2) Well, maybe the fourth line of Nick Tarnasky centring Stephen MacAulay and Stefan Fournier is too much of a natural.
3) You'll notice that Gabriel Dumont is not listed among the forwards in the most recent 'roster', and that's because we have a hunch that he'll start the season in Montréal. Local kid, can play a lot of different roles, some snarl to his game, a coach's favourite, we think he'll win a spot to centre the fourth line.
4) We still have a bit of an imbalance on the left and right wings. With Louis Leblanc and Patrick Holland both righties, I put Louis in at centre and Michaël Bournival on his natural left side at wing, although he projects maybe more as a centre than Louis does. Decisions, decisions...
5) Steve Quailer had better pull up his socks and come in in great shape and ready to go, he's got a fight on his hands to stay in the roster. He didn't quite disappoint last season, exactly, being a rookie and all, but a big improvement will be needed this year.
6) With the defencemen, the pairings are also based on left-right shooters for the Top 4, maybe Morgan Ellis who has a bit more offence to his game is a better partner for Jarred Tinordi, while Greg Pateryn's defensive game complements Nathan Beaulieu better. Or maybe we'll want to go powerplay pair, shutdown pair, I don't know. As for the new guys Darren Dietz and Magnus Nygren, they are both righties, so there's no way around that, they'll have to figure it out.
7) Of the other new defencemen, Joël Chouinard is a leftie, but the others are right-handed shooters. So what's the deal with the Canadiens and rightie D's? We're hoarding them like Cee Lo with Twinkies. If lefties Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu are promoted, it won't be pretty on the farm. Davis Drewiske, one of our superfluous lefties in the bigs, would probably have to go down to pitch in.
The Canadiens have invited Matt Lashoff to training camp. We can surmise that he will also be competing for a spot on the Bulldogs. Like Joël Chouinard and Drew Schiestel, he's an AHL veteran and has comparable size to them, being listed at 6'2" and 205 lbs. He played a few games in the NHL, and last season played in Europe. He alleviates somewhat our stated concern about having too many righties on the blue line, since he shoots left.