The Montreal Canadiens assigned Zachary Fucale to the Brampton Beast for the majority of the 2016-17 season. The goaltender played big minutes and led the team into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
This season the Beast are slated to once again receive a netminder from Montreal. Charlie Lindgren is well entrenched as the starter for the inaugural season of the AHL’s Laval Rocket, leaving hometown product Fucale and rookie Michael McNiven to battle for the backup spot.
Brampton’s Team President and General Manager, Cary Kaplan, broke down the situation in the crease.
“Most teams in the NHL envy Montreal’s goalie situation. There are a lot of riches there. Carey [Price] is understood to be the best goalie in the world. Lindgren was a tremendous goalie in the AHL.
“I’m a big fan of Fucale — of his demeanour and his commitment level. I think that he’s got the ability to one day play in the NHL. I feel strongly about that.
“McNiven is arguably the top junior goalie out there. He won every award there was. We haven’t seen him play live, but I don’t think we lose here.
“I think Fucale is going to battle hard to play at the AHL level. He’s earned whatever he gets there, and I think if he’s there, then McNiven will be here, and that’s great. If Fucale is here he’ll be among the best goalies in the league. It’s a pretty good situation for us.”
The Beast have been busy signing players to fill up their roster, but they are sure to receive some reinforcements once the NHL and AHL training camps conclude. Thomas Ebbing and Yannick Veilleux are signed to two-way AHL/ECHL deals, but Kaplan doesn’t know yet where they are starting the season.
“Where I think Montreal is good is that everybody gets a fighting chance, a fair shot at camp. David Broll is a great example last year: signed first to an ECHL deal, but played the whole year in the AHL.
“Players want to be at the AHL level, but the truth is that we will have a few guys here on two-way deals. When Veilleux was here last season he was an elite player. He had 11 points in 11 games, and was a first-line player at this level.”
The number of players that the Canadiens assign to the ECHL has fluctuated greatly over the years and during the season, but this year the number should grow given the ease of transport between Laval and Brampton, a luxury not previously afforded.
“Montreal signs a good amount of guys that, if they are relatively healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had six or seven guys here. There was a period two years ago when we had Mark MacMillan, Josiah Didier, Tim Bozon, Eddie Pasquale, and Travis Brown, among others.
“What I do think is ideal for us is guys here for longer stints. We can’t control that, but if guys come here for two- or three-game stints it can help out on a daily basis. But oftentimes during the first game even a good player doesn’t know our systems, hasn’t practised with the guys ... it’s almost unfair.
“A good example is Connor Crisp, who was OK for a game or two, but he bounced around for a bit. Once he was here for a longer stint we had a good run where he was playing top-line minutes. With Crisp, if he was playing with Brandon Marino and David Pacan, it was really good for his development. Same when Veilleux was here. We were really fortunate to have two scoring lines with [David] Vallorani’s line. Veilleux and Crisp were on those lines.
“When Dalton Thrower was healthy, he played a lot of minutes as a top-four defenceman, which was good for his development. Montreal is now settled in Laval. We think that this will be a really good test for everybody. We are optimistic that we will have more regular prospects here.”
With call-ups from the ECHL to the AHL, there was also the case of the Beast’s best players, Pacan and Vallorani, not getting a chance at a higher level last season.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” offered Kaplan. “The challenge at the AHL level is that you have different motivations. Are you calling a guy up for two games, or are you calling someone up because you see potential? Age has a big part of it too. Crisp was 22, Vallorani and Pacan are in their late 20s, so what’s the future there?
“Marino was up the previous year in Utica, and he barely played. It was a great opportunity. Brandon deserved that opportunity as he led the ECHL in scoring. It’s tough.
“If Vallorani is up in St. John’s and he’s a scratch or he’s playing on the fourth line, is he best served that way? The player sometimes says that he would rather be sitting in the AHL. We make the case for what’s better for the player’s development. Is it better for him to play lots of minutes, including power play and penalty kill down here, or be a healthy scratch there?
“We have a heavy bias, but we always make the case that those kind of players are better served here. If you talk to Zach or Connor, you’ll see that they really enjoyed their time in the ECHL and got a lot of value out of playing here. Fucale was in every big situation here, and it probably helped his development.”
It’s been almost 10 years since a skater developed his way through the ECHL in Montreal’s system. David Desharnais started in the ECHL with the Cincinnati Cyclones before moving to the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs, and ultimately landed a regular spot on the Canadiens’ roster. Kaplan spoke about how difficult that particular path is.
“It’s not easy. It’s two big jumps. For a player to be dominant in the ECHL, then go to another league and do the same.... It happens, but it’s a really hard road.
“We feel we are good at helping Montreal identify players at this level: who would be exceptional ECHL players, who could step in in the AHL and hold their own. It’s for us to identify those kinds of guys.
“But what I like about the players in this league? They are the guys that didn’t go to Europe. Almost every guy in this league can make more money playing over in Europe. So the guys who choose to stay, a big part of it, are the guys that still have the NHL dream. Even the guys who are 28, 30 years old. When they go there it’s out of sight, out of mind. Very few people go to Slovakia and come back to the NHL. When you’re here, every scout is connected somehow to the ECHL. So the guys who choose to stay here still believe in the dream.
“People have different motivations. I have no disrespect for players who sign in Europe, but for the most part the decision is financial or lifestyle. It’s very rarely a hockey decision.”
As to whether there is any resentment from the ECHL players toward the AHL players who join for a stint during the season, Kaplan was quite frank about the situation.
“You need the right coach and you also need the respect from your affiliates. The Montreal Canadiens defer to [Beast head coach] Colin Chaulk to make lineup decisions. Because you are managing that, you don’t want a player who is playing a lot of minutes here suddenly getting demoted because someone comes down, and he didn’t earn that demotion or lesser role. That’s a challenge.
“Colin has done a real good job in navigating that, and the truth is the Montreal guys still have to earn that spot. If we have a player from Montreal playing on the top line and he’s not playing well, he will drop lines.
“Ultimately, it’s Colin’s decision and he doesn’t look that the guy comes from Montreal, and the Canadiens are good with that.”