Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Around the League: Catching Up With Old Friends

As diehard hockey fans, Habs fans develop what feel like close personal relationships with the players on the team. It is not uncommon for Montrealers to feel like their mood is defined at least in part by the club's successes, so it is normal to feel an emotional bond with the players who determine the team's fate.

Unfortunately, between following the current Canadiens, Hamilton Bulldogs, junior prospects, and everything else, we don't always have time to continue following former Habs once they leave the city. Thus, today we look around the league at the starts of some who once wore the blue, blanc, et rouge. Note that the intent is not to lament over the fact that they were traded or allowed to leave, but just to provide an update on some of the athletes we used to love (or hate) watching.

Matt D'Agostini -RW, St. Louis Blues
In his first full season with the Blues last year, D'Agostini set career highs in goals (21) and points (46). He is off to a similar pace start to this campaign with 4 goals and 6 points through the first 11 games. I've always been a fan of D'Ags since watching him speed down the wing in Canadiens' development camp, so I'm glad he has found a home on a scoring line in St. Louis, averaging between 14 and 17 minutes a night.

Jaroslav Halak - G, St. Louis Blues
After being the Canadiens' playoff hero in 2010, Halak had a very average first season as the #1 in St. Louis (.910 save percentage and 2.48 GAA). He is off to an even shakier start this year, with his starting job in question as he has split time with Brian Elliott (who has outperformed him to date). At the moment, Halak's numbers come in at an atrocious .843 save percentage and 3.58 GAA with a 1-5 record.

Kyle Chipchura - C, Phoenix Coyotes
Chipchura has played only 1 game for the Coyotes this season before being assigned to the AHL's Portland Pirates. The former first rounder hadn't played in the American League since being a Hamilton Bulldog in 2008-09, when he scored 35 points in 51 games. In Portland, the awkward skating two-way center has 4 goals and 6 points through the first 8 games.

Sergei Kostitsyn - RW, Nashville Predators
The younger Kostitsyn brother continues to impress offensively, following up on a 2010-11 season where he hit the 50 point plateau. On a team that lacks in the forward ranks, Sergei plays 18+ minutes on most nights, though he was recently sidelined with a minor injury. Through 9 games played, he has picked up 3 goals and 8 points, one assist more than brother Andrei's output thus far.

Chris Higgins -LW, Vancouver Canucks
After leaving the Canadiens in the ill-fated Scott Gomez deal, Higgins' career took a tailspin. In Montreal, Higgins felt he was a deserving top 6 winger, capable of topping the 30 goal mark (and his career high of 27 didn't disagree). But with stops in New York, Calgary, and Florida over the next two seasons, he seemed penciled into a third line defensive forward role. Since joining the Canucks at last year's trade deadline, he has rejuvenated his career, playing an important role on the team's run to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and now starting the current campaign on an offensive tear. In 12 games, Higgins has scored 6 goals and added a pair of helpers, well on pace to smash last season's 13 goals and 28 points.

Maxim Lapierre - C, Vancouver Canucks
The Canadiens decided Lapierre wasn't in the long-term plans last season, resulting in his requesting a trade. The Anaheim Ducks also couldn't get the best out of Max, and so, like Higgins, he was moved to the Canucks at the trade deadline. Playing alongside Higgins, Lapierre was a valuable roleplayer during last season's playoff run, and has had a productive start to the year with 3 goals and 5 points in 12 games, numbers that would beat his highs of 15 goals and 28 points averaged out over a full season. Laps could have been a quality fourth line center for the Habs this year, averaging 11:46 of ice a night and going 51% in the face-off circle.

Pavel Valentenko -D, New York Rangers
Valentenko never played a game for the Canadiens, but was considered a top prospect when they brought him over from Russia. After a first season in the AHL, the tough defensive defenseman decided he could not support his family back home on an American League salary, and left back to Russia. He was tossed in as an incentivizer in the Scott Gomez deal, and the Rangers convinced him to give North America another shot. With a solid season back in the AHL under his belt, Rangers fans expected him to challenge for a job this year, but despite injuries on the back end, a disappointing training camp (and his own injury) has him playing for the Connecticut Whale, collecting 1 assist through 3 games.

Ryan McDonagh - D, New York Rangers
This one's still a sore spot for Habs fans, so I'll keep it brief. A first round pick in 2007, McDonagh was the central piece sacrificed by the Habs to acquire Gomez, amidst rumours of a slowed development and even one story claiming he didn't want to play for a Canadian team (very unconfirmed). He made his pro debut last year, playing 38 games in the AHL and 40 for the Rangers, and has gradually taken on a bigger and bigger role, being one of the team's top blueliners in the absence of the injured Marc Staal this season. McDonagh is second to only Dan Girardi in ice time on the team, averaging 24:49 per game, and despite traditionally being a defense-first player, has scored 3 goals and 5 points in 10 games. I don't think I need to tell anyone how much of a welcome addition he'd be to the Canadiens right now.

David Fischer - D, Florida Everblades
Speaking of first round picks, Fischer also never played a game for the Habs, and the team even decided they'd rathe rnot sign him and instead take the compensatory 2nd round pick. So what ever happened to the skinny 6'3" d-man? He signed with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, scoring 29 points and a +12 rating over 63 games in a successful rookie season in which he saw action on both the penalty kill and powerplay. He re-signed with the club in September to spend a second season in the ECHL, where he is off to a 2 goal and 6 point start through 8 games. Should he continue at such a pace, an AHL club may take notice and his hockey career may be prolonged.

Mikhail Grabovski - C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Habs fans knew that Grabovski would be a solid offensive contributor when he was dealt away, but it was his off-ice issues and attitude that led to the trade. In Toronto, he has fit in well with Nikolai Kulemin in a top 6 forward role, being a 20+ goal and 50+ point contributor. After a slow start to this season, he has picked it back up, now with 4 goals and 7 points in 11 games. Many Canadiens fans get frustrated that the team "gave Grabovski away for nothing," but let's keep in mind there was a reasonable return at the time. The Habs received prospect defenseman Greg Pateryn and a 2nd round pick. Pateryn continued to develop nicely at the college level, while the 2nd rounder was traded to Chicago for Robert Lang, who was proving to be a nice addition prior to a season-ending injury.

Francis Bouillon - D, Nashville Predators
Bouillon fans will be happy to know that the 5'8" defenseman has made a full recovery from the concussion that limited him to 44 games last season. In 4 games this year, the 36-year old has played between 15 and 19 minutes, but has no points and a -3 rating thus far.

Tom Kostopoulos - RW, Calgary Flames
Canadiens fans were sad to see Kostopoulos go, as he was a quality fourth line energy guy in Montreal. After a year and a half in Carolina, the 6'0" winger now fills the same roll in Calgary where he averages just over 10 minutes a game, including 1:20 on the penalty kill. In 9 games this year, he has 2 points and a fight.

Jeff Halpern - C, Washington Capitals
Halpern's face-off stats are off the charts in Washington, which makes one wonder why Jacques Martin was so insistent to play him on the wing. He lacks Petteri Nokelainen's right-handedness, but has won draws at a 65.2% clip while posting 3 assists and a +2 rating in 9 games. He is averaging 11:50 per game, including 1:41 shorthanded and 0:40 on the powerplay.

Roman Hamrlik - D, Washington Capitals
Staying with the Caps, a guy I was really sad to see leave this summer was Roman Hamrlik. Sure, he's getting older and has lost a step or two, but he is a dependable defensive d-man who could have thrived with reduced minutes. His 1 goal and -2 rating in Washington may not be impressive, but the tough minutes he continues to log are, leading the team in total minutes played and second in average per game to Mike Green. His nightly average of 21:52 includes 1:47 shorthanded and 1:49 on the powerplay. If only there had been a way to retain Hamrlik's services for one final season instead of Jaroslav Spacek's.

Craig Rivet - D, Elmira Jackals
Many were surprised at Rivet's decision to sign a one-way ECHL contract this year after playing 14 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. The fact is, certainly he could have gotten an AHL contract, but by signing an ECHL only deal for now, he will be free to sign a try-out with a club that may need his services dearly later into the season, such as one depleted by injuries at the NHL level. In 6 ECHL games, Rivet has collected 4 assists and 20 penalty minutes.

Guillaume Latendresse - RW, Minnesota Wild
Much like Benoit Pouliot in Montreal, Latendresse was on fire immediately following the deal that sent him to the Wild. While Pouliot's play trailed off after that first season, Latendresse's problems were conditioning and injury, playing only 11 games over the 2010-11 season in which he scored 3 goals and 6 points. Healthy again, he has been amongst Minnesota's best forwards in several of the first 10 games, though he has just 1 goal and 5 points to show for it. To his credit, while averaging over 16 minutes a night, he is a team-leading +4.

Benoit Pouliot - LW, Boston Bruins
There was a fear amongst Habs fans when this signing was announced that somehow Pouliot would put it all together in Boston. Well Canadiens faithful, you can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Pouliot has played 8 of Boston's 11 games, averaging just 9:43 a night. He has yet to pick up his first point, to go along with a -3 rating on the struggling Bruins.

Tom Pyatt - C/W, Tampa Bay Lightning
I was a big Tom Pyatt fan as a safe, penalty-killing fourth liner, though it was a fair assessment that the 4th line in Montreal needed to be bigger and tougher. I'm glad he has gotten a shot in Tampa, dressing on the wing in 7 of the team's first 12 games and playing just under 12 minutes a night in those appearances. Amongst T-Bay forwards, only Adam Hall and Nate Thompson have averaged more shorthanded minutes per game played than Pyatt, who has 1 assist and a -1 rating.

Marc-Andre Bergeron - D, Tampa Bay Lightning
After leaving Montreal, Bergeron split the 2010-11 season between the Tampa Bay Lightning and their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, with identical 2 goals and 8 points production in each league. He was in Tampa for their run to the conference finals, appearing in 14 post-season games. He was solid there... but no one saw this start to the 2011-12 season coming! Through 12 games, Bergeron is tied with Erik Karlsson for the NHL's defenseman scoring lead with 13 points. Though he doesn't play on the penalty kill, his 18:59 on ice per game are fourth most on the Tampa back end, and he has maintained a +2 rating. Of course, he leads all Lightning d-men in powerplay time with an average of 2:23 a game.

Alexandre Picard - D, Pittsburgh Penguins
After playing 43 games for the Canadiens last season, Picard started this campaign with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL. In 9 games, he collected 3 points while showing a +7 rating, enough to earn him a call-up today as an injury fill-in with the Penguins.

James Wisniewski - D, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets started the season off horribly, and their modest turnaround has coincided with Wisniewski's return from an 8 game suspension. With The Wizz in the line-up, the Jackets are an even 2-2, and though I still don't consider him a legitimate #1 defenseman, Wisniewski has averaged an astounding 28:20 of ice time per game, including 5:47 on the powerplay and 2:32 shorthanded. He seems to be handling the time fairly well, with 4 assists and a +2 rating to show for it thus far. Still hate the contract, but can't argue with the numbers to date.

Alexei Kovalev - RW, Moscow Oblast Atlant
Injuries have limited the 38-year old winger to just 5 of his KHL team's 16 games thus far, but he has produced well, with a goal and 4 points. For those that don't follow the Russian league closely, some of his teammates you may be familiar with include Nikolai Zherdev, Branko Radivojevic, and Janne Niskala.

Saku Koivu - C, Anaheim Ducks
Of course, I save my all-time favourite Hab for last. I was heartbroken when the Canadiens chose to let Saku go, but even I can acknowledge he is in the late stages of his career (though I would take him back in a heartbeat). Koivu found a home on the Ducks' second line with fellow Finn Teemu Selanne and veteran Jason Blake, though his output dropped from 52 points in 2009-10 to 45 in 2010-11. He had his first big game of 2011-12 last night with a goal and an assist, but still has just 5 points through 12 contests (while the ageless Selanne is up to an amazing 14 points). 36-year old Koivu unfortunately still takes the occasional undisciplined penalty that saw his time in Montreal cut short, but he plays big minutes in Anaheim, averaging 18:02 a game and winning 52.4% of his face-offs. With an average of 1:24 on the penalty kill a night, he is the only one of Anaheim's top 6 forwards to take a regular shift when down a man.

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