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Marc-Andre Bergeron betting that the Lions will be harder to play against this season

There are high expectations as the Habs’ ECHL affiliate heads into its sophomore season.

Andrew Zadarnowski

It was with the sound of pucks and whistles from the Laval Rocket’s Red vs. White scrimmage in the background that Marc-André Bergeron granted Eyes On The Prize an interview to speak about the upcoming season of the Lions de Trois-Rivières.

Over the course of the summer, he lost four of his top five forwards to the lure of European contracts, but viewed the number of returning players as a huge boon for the organization.

“It’s obviously harder to build a connection with the fans [when you lose your top players], but this year, I expect to have maybe a dozen returning players from last year. For our league, it’s really something out of the ordinary. Not many teams that are going to have 10 guys back. So that shows that they like playing in Trois-Rivières”.

Replacements for the offensive-minded Olivier Archambault and Alexis D’Aoust were not evident, and newcomers James Phelan and Nicolas Guay certainly were of a different mould, offering a more 200-foot game than the former players. “We want to be a little harder team to play against, a little more complete. The players that we signed, it was with that in mind. We want guys who are hard to play against, so that’s exactly it. I also like Alex Breton as a complete player; they are not one-dimensional.”

Breton is a former ECHL Defenceman of the Year, and will be heavily relied upon to lead the back end. “I’ve been talking to Alex for two years now, trying to convince him to come to Trois-Rivières, so you could say it was quite complicated,” Bergeron explains. He will be one of the highest earners in the league this season according to Bergeron.

The Pitch

The pitch to free agents wasn’t necessarily easier or more difficult after the inaugural season, just the way Bergeron approached it changed.

“My speech was different. This year, I was much clearer. When I sign guys, especially guys who are on ECHL contracts, I tell them that I want them to have the attitude that they are coming to Trois-Rivières to dominate the league, so that next year there are better opportunities for them. I don’t want another Alexis D’Aoust situation, that they spend their time away, then finally you don’t really play in the American League, and you don’t really play with us, and it’s harming everyone, Alexis most of all. I’m trying to make it clear that I want the guys to focus on us.

“It’s not to prevent it either that if the Rocket would call to come and play a few games — well it is quite correct, it’s the nature of our league — but go to the AHL six times with five different teams, then play, be scratched, then play six minutes is not good for anyone. During that time we are in a bad position.”

One of the bigger themes for the Lions is that they want to be synonymous with the Québec identity to help build a close relationship with the fans. But one of the newcomers to the team is Conner Chaulk, the former captain of the University of Regina team, and a Second-Team All-Star for USports Canada West. He fits the mould of the 200-foot player that Bergeron was mentioning, but he’s not a francophone. “We don’t want to make it appear that we want to be exclusively made of Quebecers. It’s important to us, but we are there to win hockey games, after all.”

Chaulk’s signing was a reaction of sorts to the retirement of Tim Vanstone, who was a late addition to the Lions roster last season, and did quite well. “We hoped [Vanstone] would come back. Basically, Chaulk’s a bit of a substitute, if we could say that. He’s going to be a guy who we see playing for us in a big role. Maybe a bit more defensive, I think. On the other hand, I think that there is more offence in him. He is a solid player from 200 feet who has character.”

Bergeron is hoping to also count on QMJHL champion forward Pierrick Dubé, who was on a tryout with the Canadiens at their rookie camp, their main training camp, and now the Laval Rocket camp. He remains unsigned, with a decision pending soon in his case on whether he continues on to Trois-Rivières who own his ECHL rights. “It is not certain yet, but he is a player that I would like to have. I traded for his rights because we would like to see him here. I wish for him to make the team in Laval, but if that’s not the case we will try to sign him.”

One of the players returning for a second year is forward Jonathan Joannette. Returning from France after five seasons, Joannette was invited as a tryout and was the only player to earn a contract to start the season with the team. “He is a very good example. He had quite a journey last year with us. He brings a lot of energy to our team. I’ve got a lot of hope for some more nice surprises this year. It’s motivating for everyone, knowing that you can come to Lions camp and you have a chance to maybe make the team.”

This season the Lions did not have pre-camp tryouts, but you can expect to see tryouts at the Lions training camp. One known player is Benjamin St-Onge.

A pool of unavailable players

Among other players included in the pre-camp last season, along with Joannette, were a few players on LNAH contracts, which is the single-A professional league in Québec. During the season the Lions used a lot of players from that league as they dealt with injuries and call-ups. The LNAH eventually banned their players from signing with the Lions, threatening them with lengthy suspensions for violating their contracts.

“Last year we negotiated practically for eight months [with the LNAH] to finally not come to an agreement. And then this summer, yes, the negotiations resumed. We are hoping to come to an agreement, to finding a way to get along with the LNAH, a league with interesting players near us, I think it’s a plus for everyone, as much for these players as for us to be able to count on them.”

What is unique in this situation is that the Lions are negotiating directly with the LNAH, whereas the SPHL, the American single-A professional league, has no agreement with any other ECHL teams or any transfer agreement with the ECHL as a whole. They also do not suspend their players when they are signed away to ECHL deals. They see it as a positive for their league.

As it relates to players who are playing in the SPHL, they are all considered free agents within the ECHL, meaning that any ECHL team can sign any SPHL player to a contract. In order for that player to return to the SPHL, he would need to be released from his ECHL contract, or placed under team suspension (and be ineligible to play in the ECHL for a minimum of 45 days) by the ECHL team to be able to play in the SPHL. ECHL teams are not permitted to assign an ECHL contracted player to the SPHL, or any other lower-level league.

The LNAH suspending their players for being signed to play at a higher level is counter-intuitive to the whole nature of tiered leagues, and still shows that the Lions have some work to do to gain legitimacy in the Québec hockey landscape, while the LNAH shows that they prefer to remain insular to their business rather than be a part of a whole. A bridge to gap for sure.

A closer relationship with the Rocket

The Lions coaching staff was in Laval last week, working alongside the Rocket coaching staff in a first for the Habs organization that has normally kept their ECHL affiliate at arms length. “Last season things were still very new. We were going into our first year, and the Rocket had a whole new coaching staff as well. We know each other a bit better now.”

The Rocket will also be providing around 10 players to the Lions according to Bergeron, and that already includes forward Thomas Beauregard and defenceman Santino Centorame who both are on two-way AHL/ECHL contracts. The Lions can also expect goaltenders Philippe Desrosiers and Joe Vrbetic. Bergeron expects that goaltender Thomas Sigouin will operate in a similar fashion to Anthony-Carmine Pagliarulo last season as the auxiliary third goaltender. Generally speaking, about half of the Lions’ roster will be players on AHL contracts.

Lions training camp starts on October 10, with an intrasquad game on October 13 open to the public. The season-opener at home against the Maine Mariners is on October 21.