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Canadiens prospect Hudon shines in first AHL season

by Kinsey Janke

The Montreal Canadiens have made 50 fifth-round draft selections in their franchise history.

Mike Busniuk won a record five Calder Cups playing in the American Hockey League and a sixth as an assistant coach. Bill Nyrop won the Stanley Cup three years in a row during the Canadiens dynasty in the 1970s. Mikhail Grabovski was a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs' 2007 Calder Cup title team who has played more than 450 NHL games. And current Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher has become a rising star in the League.

Charles Hudon joined that impressively productive group as pick No. 122 in the 2012 NHL Draft, and after four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he is quickly making a mark as a professional rookie with Hamilton.

Montreal Canadiens prospect Charles Hudon is quickly making a mark as a professional rookie with Hamilton of the American Hockey League despite a position change from wing to center. (Photo: Brandon Taylor)

"It's tough to really follow [players after they're drafted], especially during the season, other than going on the Internet and see how they're doing. Maybe give their coach a call once in a while," Bulldogs coach Sylvain Lefebvre said. "But I knew of Charles, and I knew what he could do on the ice."

A native of Alma, Quebec, Hudon's junior career was covered in points, putting up 104 goals and 169 assists in 235 games with Chicoutimi and Baie-Comeau. And while production levels almost always go down once players make the jump from junior to professional hockey, with the notably increased speed, size and skill of every player on the ice around them, Hudon's transition had an extra wrinkle: a natural winger, he was now being asked to play center.

"This is the first time I've played center in my life. I'm playing with some good players here, so that's definitely helped a lot," Hudon said. "When I came [to] camp, I was a winger, and now I'm [not]. It's been a good switch, but I'm concentrating on my defense and entering that zone."

Centers have the added responsibility of a 200-foot defensive game on top of their offensive duties, and play a different, more expanded role on the ice than the two forwards flanking them. But if the position change is affecting Hudon's game at all, it hasn't shown.

Heading into the weekend, the 20-year-old leads the entire AHL in scoring with 27 points and is fourth in assists (18). He has seven multipoint efforts in 25 games, and has three separate point streaks of three games or more already this season. Among AHL rookies, he's built a seven-point lead over the next-best scorer, Providence's David Pastrnak.

Hudon leads Hamilton in points (27), assists (18), game-winning goals (3), and plus/minus (plus-9), and is tied for the club lead in goals (nine) and power-play goals (three).

"He's adjusted really well. He's got some things to work on, but he's doing really well," Lefebvre said. "We knew he could make plays, we knew he could score goals. But we wanted him to get more scoring chances and more offense out of his game. But having said that, the adjustment he had to make, not only in his first pro season, but also switching positions, the way he's going now is remarkable."

Like the AHL as a whole, most of the Bulldogs roster is under the age of 24, though a strong veteran presence from players like forward T.J. Hensick and goaltender Joey MacDonald has helped shape Hudon's first full professional season.

"We're for sure a young team, but we've got a good veteran group," he said. "We've got good chemistry when we're all together and good leadership. It's good for us to have that."

Many players who cut their teeth in major junior and excel far and above their peers can have trouble adjusting to the pro game and difficulty understanding why what worked in juniors doesn't translate as seamlessly in the AHL or NHL. Producing on the ice attracts attention, and Lefebvre notes Hudon's hot start to the season has every possibility of overwhelming the young forward. But the potential is there.

"He's not a selfish player. His stats kind of speak for themselves. He can make plays, he can dish the puck. It doesn't matter. If he has to score, he's going to score," Lefebvre said. "He wants the puck in those situations and he wants to be the guy that makes the play and turns it into a win for the team."

Told to always be prepared and at 100 percent in every situation, from practice to a Friday night game to a Tuesday morning game full of screaming kids, Hudon's goal of one day reaching the NHL hasn't interfered with the team-first mentality that's caught the eye of his coaches.

"I didn't expect [this start]. My goal is not to get some personal stats, but to get some team stats," Hudon said. "It's good for me right now, but we need to bring the team into the playoffs. It's good to be here [in Hamilton]."

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