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Habs' Swiss import Diaz poised to make team

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. -- Raphael Diaz appears to be beating the odds at Montreal Canadiens training camp.

When he was signed as a 25-year-old free agent out of Zug, it was widely assumed the reigning defenseman of the year in the Swiss League was pegged for the American Hockey League to learn the nuances of the North American game. But with the Canadiens playing their final preseason game Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Quebec City, it looks as though Diaz has played himself into a top-six role, at least to start the season.


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He says the adjustment has been a big one, but he's proven to be a fast learner.

"In the beginning, the difference between the European game and the North American game was huge," Diaz said after practice Friday. "I had to get into some games, and I learned a lot of things in those games."

Diaz has been skating with Jaroslav Spacek at practice for the past few days on what looks to be the team's third pairing, and that's in spite of the signing of free agent defenseman Chris Campoli earlier this week.

The absence of top defenseman Andrei Markov is certainly helping Diaz's case, but coach Jacques Martin insists that has little to do with him leapfrogging fellow Swiss national Yannick Weber and Russian newcomer Alexei Yemelin on the depth chart.

"He's got good puck skills, he's a good positional player," Martin said. "He's not a big defenseman, but he's very smart, uses anticipation a great deal, but also competes hard. I think he's been fairly effective."

Diaz is trying not to get caught up in the possibility of actually being in uniform when the Canadiens open their season Thursday night in Toronto, saying his goal all summer was to simply take it one day at a time and work as hard as he could at training camp.

But Martin admitted for the first time Friday that Markov will not be ready to play when the season opens, something that was widely assumed but had not been confirmed by the club. That fact greatly improves Diaz's chances of suiting up against the Maple Leafs next Thursday night, and it would be an incredible feat if he manages to do it.

After dominating the Swiss League last season with 39 points in 45 games and also holding his own in the Vancouver Olympics, Diaz wanted the challenge of playing in the world's best league.

The Canadiens were not the only NHL club interested in his services, but the fact that Mark Streit broke in with Montreal and that Weber was on the team gave them the upper hand.

Now that he's on this side of the ocean, Diaz said he is finding the learning process very enjoyable.

"I like the hockey here very much," he said. "It's different, but it's good intensity and the game is faster. I like it very much."

The one thing Diaz admits he needs to get used to is the increased physicality in the NHL.

"In the beginning, the difference between the European game and the North American game was huge. I had to get into some games, and I learned a lot of things in those games." -- Raphael Diaz
"If two guys are coming at you to the net, you have to be strong," Diaz said. "The guys here are big."

The other side of Diaz's ascension is that it has seemingly come at the expense of his countryman Weber, who has been practicing as a forward ever since Campoli arrived at camp.

Martin confirmed that Weber will dress as a forward for Saturday's preseason finale.

"Campoli's a great defenseman," Weber said. "We saw it last night, he's a really solid guy and he had a great year last year. I'm sure he's going to help our team. It's one more guy ahead of me, so it's just a little bit of a bigger challenge."

Weber excelled at forward in last spring's playoffs against the Boston Bruins, scoring two key goals and serving as a point man on the power play.

"Right now with the injuries we have (at forward) and the number of defensemen we have, this gives me a chance to be in the lineup," Weber said. "I did it last year and had success. As long as I can play and be in the lineup, I'm not going to say anything."

The way Weber is being used now is exactly how Streit was used when he was in Montreal. It was only with the New York Islanders that he was given a chance to be a full-time defenseman and he's flourished, recently being named the team's captain.

Weber is able to draw some inspiration from that today.   

"I was talking to Mark Streit the other day, we had a long phone call," he said. "He was in the exact same situation, and look at him now."

The Canadiens announced more cuts Friday, sending junior-age prospects Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival back to their respective teams and Joonas Nattinen to Hamilton of the AHL.

Gallagher had an extremely strong training camp overall, generating a ton of great chances but failing to capitalize on one. He did not have a strong game in Thursday's 4-0 loss to the Lightning, but his overall performance in camp sparked fans and media alike to push for him making the club.

Martin explained the rationale behind it a few hours before the cuts were announced.

"Every year at the start of training camp we have a tendency to get excited when a young player performs well," Martin said. "Over the years we've learned that the first wave of preseason games has a lot of junior and AHL players, and even the NHL players are not up to speed, so the caliber is very diluted.

"That allows certain players to stand out, but you have to be careful not to put too much emphasis on it. As camp progresses, cuts people thought would be difficult to make are, in reality, quite easy. It's the players who cut themselves, because they're unable to compete at that level."

While that argument may apply to Gallagher, it does not appear to apply to Diaz. For a player making his first strides on this side of the Atlantic, that is quite a remarkable achievement.
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