MONTREAL - Joel Bouchard, whose 14-year career has been wracked with injuries and illness, is taking one last shot at getting back into the NHL.
The 33-year-old defenceman signed a 25-game try-out contract on Wednesday with the Hamilton Bulldogs, the defending American Hockey League champions and the top farm club of the Montreal Canadiens.
"I wanted it like this because if it doesn't go well, I can say, 'fine, I can't do it anymore,' " Bouchard said. "I'm here for the opportunity to play.
"The Canadiens will see what I can do. I'll see what I can do."
The Montreal native remains an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any club, but in the meantime, he'll be able to work his way back into shape and help out what he calls "my local team."
The Bulldogs need a veteran on the blue-line because Mathieu Biron (hip) and Mathieu Carle (knee) are both out with long-term injuries, and veteran Jamie Rivers had his contract terminated after failing to report when he was cut by the Canadiens in training camp.
Bouchard, drafted by Calgary in 1992, has played 364 NHL games with the Flames, Nashville, Dallas, Phoenix, New Jersey, the New York Rangers twice, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders.
He played only seven AHL games in 2004-05 and only four with Bridgeport last season due to injuries. And in 2005-06, he was limited to only 25 games for the Rangers.
He approached Tampa Bay for a try-out this season, but the Lightning weren't interested.
"I'd have even paid my own way, but they didn't want it," Bouchard said. "I look at their lineup, I'm sure I'd be in the top five defencemen if I was healthy."
Finally, he had a try-out with Columbus, but caught a virus that saw him drop 10 pounds. He played through it for three pre-season games, but the Blue Jackets said they had no room for him on their roster.
When he returned to Montreal, he was told by a doctor to take complete rest to get over the virus. Healthy again, he wants to take another shot at the NHL.
"If I can come back, I'll come back," he said. "If not, it's up to me to decide what I should do - stay in Hamilton and continue to help the organization or do something else."
Bouchard has other interests. He hosts an instructional TV show for youngsters that is shown between periods of Canadiens games.
And it was Bouchard that organized a successful charity series across Quebec by NHL players during the 2004-05 lockout.
He said he is not looking to take the job of any of the current Montreal defencemen and it is just as well, since the Canadiens blue-line has played well while building a 4-2-2 record.
Losing point man Sheldon Souray's booming shot to Edmonton (as a free agent) was supposed to weaken their power play, but the Canadiens are second in the league with the man advantage with a 26.8 success rate with Mark Streit on the point.
And veteran Roman Hamrlik, signed as a free agent from Calgary, has been a steadying influence on the blue-line even if he won't come close to replacing Souray's 26 goals from last season.
"Hammer would be the first to say that's not his nickname because of his heavy shot," said assistant coach Kirk Muller. "But they're both good in the room.
"Hammer from day one has been a great addition for working with the other defencemen. And he does the job on the ice. He's a calming guy to have back there and that's valuable for any team."
The Canadiens did not skate on Wednesday, but did off-ice training. Their next games are Friday night in Carolina and Saturday in Pittsburgh before returning for a four-game homestand.