Back-to-back championships are rare in the American Hockey League but the Hamilton Bulldogs feel they at least have a chance to pull it off.
The return of 16 players from the team that won the Calder Cup in the spring, along with talented newcomers like forward Sergei Kostitsyn and defencemen Pavel Valentenko and Mathieu Carle, should keep them near the top in 2007-08.
The Bulldogs begin the defence of their title on the road Sunday in their regular season opener against the Rochester Americans.
"We still have a team we expect to be very competitive," said Julien BriseBois, who takes over as general manager from Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey, who oversaw both the NHL and AHL clubs last season.
"We have some very good prospects and the team benefited from the experience of winning the Calder Cup last year, and they'll bring that experience to the team this year."
Goaltender Carey Price, who starred in the AHL playoffs, centre Kyle Chipchura and centre Mikhail Grabovski all made the jump to the Canadiens out of camp, but could find themselves back in Hamilton if they falter in the NHL.
No team has repeated as AHL champion since the Springfield Indians in 1989-90 and 1990-91. The last Canadiens farm team to do it was the Nova Scotia Voyageurs in 1975-76 and 1976-77.
The Bulldogs start the campaign with injuries on defence.
Mathieu Biron (hip surgery) and Carle (knee) are out for the long term, but Andrew Archer is expected back soon from a facial bone fracture suffered in an NHL pre-season fight with Pittsburgh heavyweight Georges Laraque.
The club also suspended blue-line veteran Jamie Rivers, who did not report to Hamilton after his failed bid to make the Canadiens. He has taken time off to ponder his future in hockey, BriseBois said.
This has all given a reprieve to defencemen Jon Gleed and Gerard Miller, who were in danger of assignment to the ECHL.
Centre Ajay Baines is also out for month with a knee injury.
Returning from last season are goalies Halak and Yann Danis, defencemen Biron, Ryan O'Byrne, Archer and Jean-Philippe Cote, and forwards Duncan Milroy, Matt d'Agostini, Baines, Maxim Lapierre, Corey Locke, Jimmy Bonneau, Jonathan Ferland, Eric Manlow, Cory Urquhart and Francis Lemieux.
Also back are head coach Don Lever and his assistant Ron Wilson.
Lapierre played 46 games at centre for Montreal last season after two mid-season call-ups, but returned to the Bulldogs for the playoffs. He is expected to spend time on right wing to become more versatile.
The team's strength is in goal.
Halak earned a spot in the mid-season AHL all-star game last winter and then went an impressive 10-6 with the Canadiens during their failed late-season playoff drive. Danis also has NHL experience.
On defence, the six-foot-five O'Byrne was one of Montreal's last cuts and the team feels he needs only a little more seasoning before making the jump to the NHL. The burly Cote looked ready to make the Canadiens last season before his progress was stalled by a knee injury.
But the most-watched defenceman could be 19-year-old Valentenko, who was impressive in Montreal's camp but didn't see much action in pre-season games.
"He brings a good set of skills to the table and a big, booming shot," BriseBois said of the 2006 fifth-round draft pick. "And he's a strong, physical skater.
"We hope he'll be in the NHL in the not-too-distant future. He has to get used to the culture here and the smaller rinks."
Kostitsyn, younger brother of Canadiens winger Andrei Kostitsyn, has the advantage of two years with the junior London Knights, for whom he had 131 points last season on a line with high draft picks Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner.
Sergei Kostitsyn was impressive in the Montreal camp as well.
Another newcomer is 25-year-old Janne Lahti, a solidly built left-winger from Finland who signed as a free agent.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he played some games in the NHL this year," said BriseBois.
The offensive leader of the squad is Locke, the five-foot-nine centre who was Canadian junior player of the year in 2003 with the Ottawa 67s.
The 23-year-old, who is entering his fourth season with the Bulldogs, was the team's playoff scoring leader in the spring. He had a strong camp in Montreal, but couldn't crack the NHL lineup.
"He's one of the guys who brought his game up a notch during the Calder Cup playoffs," added BriseBois.
Newcomers include 20-year-old centre Ryan Russell, who was obtained in a trade with the New York Rangers, and big left-winger Greg Stewart, who spent last season in the ECHL. Defenceman Marvin Degon signed as a free agent from AHL Hartford.