Thursday, June 23, 2011

Player Spotlight: Alain Berger

As most Habs fans were gearing up for what they hoped to be a lengthy playoff run, the Canadiens made a move that went mostly unnoticed because it wouldn't affect their chances of a deep drive in the 2011 playoffs.

On April 8, 2011, general manager Pierre Gauthier announced the signing of an unheralded forward from the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, Alain Berger. But who is this man of mystery? After last week's player spotlight on Alexei Yemelin garnered a strong response, today we look at one of three (and the only forward) Swiss-born youngsters in the Canadiens organization.

Berger, 20, was born in Burgsdorf, Switzerland, and bounced around Swiss A and B leagues for a few years before making the decision to continue his junior hockey in Canada. Despite going undrafted, Berger put up seasons of 33 and 52 points in the OHL, earning him a 3 year deal with Montreal. He would go on to record 5 goals and 8 points in 10 post-season games this year.

Habs fans got a first look at Berger at the early June development camp, where he clearly stood out due to his size and physical maturity. Whereas size is a weakness for his countryman Yannick Weber, it may be Berger's biggest strength, standing 6'4" and weighing in at 209 lbs. Thus, though his offensive numbers aren't blowing anyone out of the water, he is showing good progress, and as a bigger guy, may take more time to reach his full potential, as the Canadiens are hoping.

The biggest concern with Berger is his skating, as the rest of his game is quite well rounded. He plays a gritty, two-way game, charging the net, screening goalies, and even dropping the gloves when necessary, as witnessed in the 142 penalties he's amassed the last two seasons. He's described as a hard-worker, which is important as he will need to put in the time and effort if he is to improve his footspeed. The Habs brass likely sees in Berger the player they thought they were getting from St. Louis in Ian Schultz, whose development at the pro level took a little detour with a lack of playing time in Hamilton this past season. In any case, it never hurts to have a few extra big bodies around the organization. Ask the Detroit Red Wings if they find it redundant having Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, AND Todd Bertuzzi.

Don't take that as a hype machine, because the Habs would be very lucky if either Schultz or Berger ever produces anywhere close to the output of those guys, but the point remains that they play the same brand of hockey. The majority of his goals were scored on the powerplay, and those mainly from right in front of the net - the type of player Montreal lacks at the NHL level right now. And having a player of that style means it will be very interesting to watch Berger's adjustment and development in the AHL in 2011-12.

Given that tomorrow is the NHL's Entry Draft, it is also important to note that Berger was a teammate of highly rated prospect Boone Jenner in Oshawa. Jenner would appear to be a good fit for the Canadiens, and it is certain that they would have seen plenty of him while scouting Berger, so look for him as a strong possibility as the Habs' pick in the first round. If he is available and they should pass on him, however, we'll know for certain that he was well evaluated and it was on good information that they opted for somebody else.

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