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Habs' playoff run getting boost from AHL team

by A.J. Atchue
Raise your hand if you thought, at the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens would still be standing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

There probably aren't many hands going up.

But no one who has seen the work done by the Canadiens' organization developing young talent at the American Hockey League level should be completely surprised. After all, it was just three years ago that the Hamilton Bulldogs won the Calder Cup in a season when Jaroslav Halak and Andrei Kostitsyn were AHL All-Stars and Carey Price was the playoff MVP.

In authoring their magical run this spring, the Canadiens owe significant gratitude to the work put in with their top affiliate.

Hamilton coach Guy Boucher, winner of the AHL's Louis A.R. Pieri Award as coach of the year in 2009-10, has watched 17 players earn recalls from his Bulldogs to Montreal this season -- and several of those players are making contributions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Despite that impressive graduation rate, the Bulldogs' postseason run is also still alive as they battle the Texas Stars in the AHL Western Conference Finals. Montreal and Hamilton are one of the rare sets of NHL/AHL affiliates to reach their respective leagues' final four in the same season -- no team has won the NHL/AHL championship double since New Jersey and the Albany River Rats in 1995.

"What it translated into was the fact that we have a common vision about how we want to do things, and about the work ethic and the attitude and discipline that we try to instill in our players," Boucher said. "The fact that our players were able to contribute fills the primary role that the American League has -- which is not only to develop players for the future, but in the short-term, to be able to get on the ice and contribute in different kind of roles."

First-Team AHL All-Star and All-Rookie defenseman P.K. Subban has been the most ballyhooed recall from Hamilton to Montreal this postseason. After leading the Bulldogs with nine points in their first-round AHL playoff series, he jumped right into a heavy workload for Montreal -- and has looked as if he's been in the NHL for years.

"It's the same game that you play in the AHL, the same game that you play in juniors," Subban said. "Other than a few things in terms of the skill level, and the speed and the size, it's the same hockey game. There's not a huge change, but there are still some adjustments that you need to make."

But numerous other players have also suited up in Hamilton and for the bleu, blanc et rouge this season, names ranging from postseason contributors Mathieu Darche and Tom Pyatt, to veterans Marc-Andre Bergeron, Benoit Pouliot and Sergei Kostitsyn, to the seven players who made their NHL debuts in 2009-10: Subban, Pyatt, Ryan White, David Desharnais, Mathieu Carle, J.T. Wyman and Brock Trotter.

As Boucher noted, the players recalled to Montreal typically brought different skill sets to the table, which highlighted the synergy between Canadiens and their AHL affiliate.

"There have been defensive defensemen (going up), offensive defensemen, all types of players," Boucher said. "And you look at forwards, White's a very grinding type of kid, a guy like (Ben) Maxwell is a skill guy, a guy like Darche likes to crash the net, and then there's David Desharnais, who helped them with the power play, and Subban is a shooting sort of defenseman.

"What it says about the organization is that we're on the same page."

Along those lines, Montreal and Hamilton developed a philosophy that a player would not be recalled to the NHL unless he specifically deserved it at that point in time, regardless of draft status or any other factors. But when a certain player deserved a look at the NHL through hard work and excelling at his AHL role, the Canadiens typically granted that look.

"What that did is instill a feeling of fairness," Boucher said, "It gives real hope that if you work hard and follow what you're supposed to, that anybody has a chance to go up there."

Each time a player made to the NHL and was then subsequently reassigned to Hamilton, he brought with him some positives as well.

"It's been great for us because first of all, a lot of our guys went and got some experience and brought it back," Boucher said. "They got a sense of what you needed to get up there, so it inspires them and gives them extra direction on what they need to do and not to do, and it gives everybody hope."

That organizational mindset also influenced the way Boucher was able to coach the Bulldogs.

From the beginning, Montreal never told him who to play (and not to play). Quite the opposite, the parent club gave its rookie AHL coach plenty of leeway in terms of who should get minutes in various situations. This translated into remarkable success for the Bulldogs, who, despite the seemingly-constant player movement, set franchise records for wins (52) and points (115) en route to finishing with the AHL's second-best regular-season record.

"The players have to earn it," Boucher said. "For me, a first-liner can end up on the fourth line in two seconds, and vice versa, within a game or from one game to another. What it did is it made me put in the values of work ethic, the attitude, and the discipline standards that are crucial to success but also crucial to developing guys, and them finding out how to earn something rather than being given something."

"It's the same game that you play in the AHL, the same game that you play in juniors. Other than a few things in terms of the skill level, and the speed and the size, it's the same hockey game. There's not a huge change, but there are still some adjustments that you need to make." -- P.K. Subban
Regardless of what happens, the Canadiens have to be delighted about a season that has allowed them to get a glimpse into their prospective future.

"It gave the Canadiens a look at different players in different roles, and it was good for the Canadiens to be able to evaluate some of the players," Boucher said. "Some of these players aren't going to be ready for the next year or two, but it still gives you an overview of what the guys might be able to do eventually."

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