Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Around the League: 5 Guys You Didn't Know Were Former Habs

Regular readers of this site may have come to the sneaky realization that my weekly "non-Habs" piece, Around the League, often ties back to the Canadiens in some way. Well, today I'm being a little less secretive about it, purposely focusing in on 5 players who were Montreal Canadiens but have made names for themselves elsewhere - so much so that few remember they were once Habs. We'll focus just on current NHL'ers (with 1 fun fact exception) for this edition and tried to leave out the most recently departed; if we were to do this piece again in 5 years time, perhaps we'd include guys like Francois Beauchemin and Ron Hainsey, or even Mark Streit and Mikhail Grabovsky. But for today, we will try to stump the memory of the more casual or newer fan with some guys you might not remember wearing the CH crest.

5) Martin Gelinas

The hockey historians in the room may object to Gelinas's inclusion as the only inactive NHL'er on the list. "I know for a fact that he has never played for the Canadiens," they might affirm. They aren't wrong - Gelinas played for 7 teams in his NHL career, 4 of which were in Canada (including the Quebec Nordiques), but never did he dress for Montreal. How, then, does the two-time 30 goal scorer crack this list? Let's just say the Canadiens were desperate when trying to piece together a roster for the Old Timers Alumni Game at this past season's heritage classic in Calgary. So much so that they turned to the Shawinigan native, gave him a jersey, and let him suit up as a "former Hab." (see the pic above) This will forever be a fun fact sure to frustrate and stump knowledgeable hockey fans everywhere.

4) Tomas Vokoun

Vokoun made noise this summer when he signed a UFA deal in Washington for well below his true value on the open market. The 35-year old netminder has established himself as one of the league's top goalies over the past few seasons despite playing for a cellar-dweller club in Florida. But long before his days as a Panther - heck, even before his breakout days as a Nashville Predator - Vokoun was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens (9th round, 226th overall in 1994). During his rookie season in the American Hockey League (1996-97), the Canadiens found themselves in a bit of a slump, and to shake up the club, they called the then-highly touted Vokoun up. Unfortunately, it wasn't his best outing, allowing 4 goals in the first period before being pulled and then returned to Fredericton. In the summer of 1998, Montreal was left in a tough spot with the Nashville Predators entering the league and an expansion draft to take place. The club had acquired Andy Moog to fill the hole in goal, and also had to protect Jocelyn Thibault. Down in the American League, Jose Theodore was developing as well and the team certainly didn't want to lose him, even without knowing he would someday put up a Hart Trophy-worth performance in the NHL. Thus, Vokoun was one of 5 goaltenders selected by the Predators and would become their starter within a year, robbing the Habs of a top asset who managed to play only 20 minutes for the team.

3) Brett Clark

A 6th round pick of the Canadiens in 1996, Clark joined the team during the beginning of "the dark ages" in the late 1990s when rosters were turning over rapidly and talent was being shuffled out. After splitting two seasons between the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate (and scoring 3 goals for Montreal at the NHL level), like Vokoun, Clark was selected in an expansion draft, his being in 1999 to the Atlanta Thrashers. It seemed the defenseman's career was in jeopardy at the turn of the century, relegated to an American League role for a few years, but much to his credit, as a player who had never put up big numbers, Clark reinvented himself as an offensive puck-mover which earned him six seasons with the Colorado Avalanche (where his career high was 39 points), and then a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning as an unrestricted free agent last summer.

2) Michael Leighton

Like Gelinas, Leighton never actually played a game for the Canadiens. Habs fans will remember him as the fringe goaltender who got hot enough to shut down the team's 2010 playoff run in the Conference Finals. But did you know that could have been prevented? In February of 2007, Leighton was put on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers and claimed by Montreal for added goaltending depth down the stretch due to injuries and inconsistencies of Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer combined with the inexperience of a young Jaroslav Halak. However, in a year that would see a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs cost the team a playoff spot in their final regular season contest, Leighton would never get any ice time for the Habs, and his rights were traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in the off-season for a 7th round pick. Of course we could say we now all know he would end up back in Philly and the rest is history... but think for a moment what could have happened if Montreal had held on to Leighton or moved him elsewhere. Perhaps he'd have never been a Flyer again, and just maybe a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals would have been in the cards for the Canadiens.

1) Aaron Asham

The last few seasons, whenever Asham's name has come up as being available, it seems there are many who point to him as the kind of player the Canadiens lack. While not particularly big, he plays a tough, hardnosed game, and can chip in 6-12 goals from a third or fourth line while dropping the gloves to defend a teammate in need. But do these fans remember that Asham did once play for Montreal? Selected 71st overall by the Habs in 1996, after a cup of coffee with the team in 1998-99, Asham played his rookie season with the team in 99-00, registering 6 points and 55 penalty minutes in 33 games. He bounced between the AHL and NHL for the next 2 seasons, but with the Canadiens searching for more offense, during the summer of 2002, he was dealt along with a draft pick to the New York Islanders for winger Mariusz Czerkawski. In an ironic twist, the move backfired in a big way for Montreal, as Czerkawski scored only 14 points in 43 games the following season before being demoted to the Hamilton Bulldogs, while Asham immediately established himself as a full-time NHL'er in New York and scored 34 points in 78 games that same season in Long Island. Oops!

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