by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
Raise your hand if you thought, at the beginning of the playoffs, that the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens would still be standing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
There probably aren’t many hands going up.
But no one who has seen the work done by the Canadiens organization developing young talent at the American Hockey League level should be completely surprised.
In authoring their magical run this spring, the Canadiens owe significant gratitude to the work put in with their top affiliate in southern Ontario.
Hamilton head coach Guy Boucher, winner of the AHL’s Louis A.R. Pieri Award as coach of the year in 2009-10, has watched 17 players earn recalls from his Bulldogs to Montreal this season, and several of those players are still up making contributions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Despite that impressive graduation rate, the Bulldogs’ postseason run is also still alive as they battle the Texas Stars in the Calder Cup Playoffs’ Western Conference Finals, making Montreal and Hamilton one of the rare sets of NHL/AHL affiliates to both reach their respective leagues’ final four in the same season.
The 17 recalled players is an astounding number for an organization which still has both its NHL and AHL squads competing in the playoffs.
“What it translated into was the fact that we have a common vision about how we want to do things, and about the work ethic and the attitude and discipline that we try to instill in our players,” Boucher said. “The fact that our players were able to contribute fills the primary role that the American League has – which is not only to develop players for the future, but in the short-term, to be able to get on the ice and contribute in different kind of roles.”
First Team AHL All-Star and AHL All-Rookie defenseman P.K. Subban has been the most ballyhooed recall from Hamilton to Montreal this postseason, and for good reason.
After leading the Bulldogs with nine points in their first-round AHL playoff series, he jumped right into a heavy-minute workload for Montreal and looked as if he’d been in the NHL for years.
“It’s the same game that you play in the AHL, the same game that you play in juniors,” Subban said. “Other than a few things in terms of the skill level, and the speed and the size, it’s the same hockey game. There’s not a huge change, but there are still some adjustments that you need to make.”
But numerous other players have also suited up in both Steeltown and for the bleu, blanc et rouge this season, names ranging from postseason contributors Mathieu Darche and Tom Pyatt, to veterans Marc-Andre Bergeron, Benoit Pouliot and Sergei Kostitsyn, to the seven players who made their NHL debuts in 2009-10 – Subban, Pyatt, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Mathieu Carle, J.T. Wyman and Brock Trotter.
As Boucher noted, the players recalled to Montreal typically brought different skill sets to the table, which highlighted the synergy between the NHL club and the AHL affiliate.
“There have been defensive defensemen (going up), offensive defensemen, all types of players,” Boucher said. “And you look at forwards, White’s a very grinding type of kid, a guy like (Ben) Maxwell is a skill guy, a guy like Darche likes to crash the net, and then there’s David Desharnais, who helped them with the power play, and Subban is a shooting sort of defenseman.
“What it says about the organization is that we’re on the same page.”
Along those lines, Montreal and Hamilton developed a philosophy that a player would not be recalled to the NHL unless he specifically deserved it at that point in time, regardless of draft status or any other factors.
But when a certain player deserved a look at the NHL through hard work and excelling at his AHL role, the Canadiens typically granted that look.
“What that did is instill a feeling of fairness,” Boucher said, “and it gives real hope that if you work hard and follow what you’re supposed to, that anybody has a chance to go up there.”
Each time a player made to the NHL and was then subsequently reassigned to Hamilton, he brought with him some positives, as well.
“It’s been great for us because first of all, a lot of our guys went and got some experience and brought it back,” Boucher said. “They got a sense of what you needed to get up there, so it inspires them and gives them extra direction on what they need to do and not to do, and it gives everybody hope.”
The organizational mindset of not recalling a player unless he deserved it also related to the way Boucher was able to coach the Bulldogs over the course of the season.
From the beginning, Montreal never told him who to play and who not to play in Hamilton. Quite the opposite, the parent club gave its rookie AHL head coach plenty of leeway in terms of who should get minutes in various situations.
It translated into remarkable success for the Bulldogs, who, despite the seemingly-constant player movement, set franchise records for wins (52) and points (115) en route to finishing with the AHL’s second-best regular-season record.
“The players have to earn it,” Boucher said. “For me, a first-liner can end up on the fourth line in two seconds, and vice versa, within a game or from one game to another. What it did is it made me put in the values of work ethic, the attitude, and the discipline standards that are crucial to success but also crucial to developing guys, and them finding out how to earn something rather than being given something.”
On a team which has consistently lost important personnel to the NHL at various points, the Bulldogs have needed players to elevate their games and step into new roles in order to keep winning.
That dynamic of receiving increased contributions from everyone has allowed Hamilton to advance in these Calder Cup Playoffs without Darche, Maxwell and Pyatt, and without Subban for all but the first round.
How long will the ride last? Time will certainly tell, but the Habs and ’Dogs are bidding to become the first set of NHL and AHL affiliates to win their respective championships in the same year since the 1995 New Jersey Devils and Albany River Rats accomplished the feat.
Regardless of what happens, though, the Canadiens certainly have to be pleased about a year which has allowed them to get a glimpse into their prospective future.
“It gave the Canadiens a look at different players in different roles, and it was good for the Canadiens to be able to evaluate some of the players,” Boucher said of his 17 recalled charges. “Some of these players aren’t going to be ready for the next year or two, but it still gives you an overview of what the guys might be able to do eventually.”