BROSSARD – It wasn’t the scenario Frédéric St-Denis envisioned when he embarked on his off-season training. Yet it’s the one he finds himself in and plans to make the most of.
St-Denis, along with the rest of the Canadiens prospects at the Hamilton Bulldogs’ training camp, were expecting to get their legs going along with Montreal’s full-time NHL roster. But with those players locked out until a new collective bargaining agreement can be reached, the AHL is where they’ll ply their trade.
“It’s tough because you’re training hard during the summer, each day going to the gym to reach your goal but you can’t control that,” he said following his physical and medical testing at the Canadiens’ practice facility, where Hamilton held its opening day of camp. “Now I can just control what I can do with the Bulldogs.”
St-Denis finished second among ‘Dogs defencemen in scoring last season, putting up 28 points (three goals, 25 assists) in 58 games. He also made his NHL debut, appearing in 17 games and picking up a goal and two assists.
General manager Marc Bergevin signed him to a one-year, two-way deal over the summer.
“I want to progress all year long, I want to practice hard and I want to get better every game,” St-Denis said of his goals heading into the AHL season. “I know it’s a process, I know I can be better each day. My goal was to go into Canadiens camp and make the team but it’s going to be a good year for me in Hamilton.”
Despite a crowded NHL blue line in Montreal – seven defencemen are on one-way contracts, with P.K. Subban expected to join that group when the lockout ends – the Canadiens clearly like what they have in St-Denis. With waivers required to send him down to Hamilton, the team opted not to risk losing him. Instead, they had the Bulldogs sign him to an AHL contract, which will expire when a new CBA is signed.
That little vote of confidence, he said, “feels good.”
At 26, St-Denis is the oldest member of the Bulldogs’ blue line and, with nearly 200 AHL games under his belt, holds the most pro experience by far. He knows the role of mentor on the back end is now upon him with the arrivals of Nathan Beaulieu (19), Jarred Tinordi (20), Morgan Ellis (20) and Greg Pateryn (22).
He acknowledged being ready to take on that leadership role. But the fresh faces won’t be the only ones learning.
“If I can help other guys, that’s good but I can learn from those guys, too,” St-Denis noted. “They won in the playoffs, they won in the Memorial Cup so it’s fun to exchange with those guys, even if I’m older than them.”
Ellis moves up Canadiens’ prospect depth chart
For Ellis, it’s been nothing but a year of learning and growth.
After three and a half seasons with the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, the 6-foot-2, 204-pound rearguard was traded to the Shawinigan Cataractes for the club’s Memorial Cup run. The Cataractes hopes for a league championship were dashed when they were knocked out in the second round of the playoffs.
As the Memorial Cup hosts, however, the dream of claiming the ultimate prize in Canadian junior hockey was still alive. The team overcame a month-long layoff to win it all, a journey that helped greatly in Ellis’ development.
“It’s huge. It’s not the Stanley Cup but the Memorial Cup is pretty big. To have a chance to compete for it is one thing; to win it is another,” said the 20-year-old, who scored five points in six games in the tournament.
“A lot of people thought we had a month off but it wasn’t. … It was tough but at the end of the day it was well worth it.”
A relative unknown as a fifth-round pick in 2010, Ellis is now considered among the team’s top prospects. He credits the trade to Shawinigan for the boost in his stock, soaking up knowledge both on and off the ice.
It was apparent on the stats sheet. Ellis racked up 27 points in 26 games with the Cataractes (after putting up 25 in 34 games with the Screaming Eagles) and saw his minus-3 with Cape Breton washed away by a plus-21 in Shawinigan.
Eager to get his pro career started, Ellis knows there is always room for improvement. While he wants to get better in all aspects of the game, he says the “big thing” for him is to “get faster, quicker feet.” He’ll aim to do so in a league whose talent-level is getting a tremendous boost courtesy of eligible NHL-calibre youth in the AHL during the lockout.
“It’s going to make it that much tougher and that’s what you want,” Ellis said. “If you’re not playing in the NHL, you want the next best thing and obviously this is it. I’m excited and really looking forward to it.”