HabsWorld.net -- 

Montreal’s AHL franchise kicks off their season on Saturday night. For the first time since 2002, that franchise is not the Hamilton Bulldogs but rather the St. John’s IceCaps. Here are some of the key questions surrounding the team.

Of the players who won’t be back this year, whose departure will hurt the most?

Davis Drewiske. St. John’s defence is very inexperienced. While Mark Barberio gives the team a legitimate #1 blueliner, there isn’t really anyone else who is established as a top notch defenceman. Drewiske wasn’t the most skilled player on Hamilton’s back end last year but he ate up a lot of minutes and did so in a very steady fashion.

An honourable mention would be T.J. Hensick. Losing the leading scorer off a team that had issues scoring has to be a concern.

Which newcomers are going to make a big impact?

There are a lot of new players on this team that are going to play a lot right away. Barberio, as mentioned, will be the top defenceman and will be asked to play a huge role on the back end. Brett Lernout may start down the depth chart a bit but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the top four before long.

Up front, the main rookies are Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherbak, Tim Bozon, and Jeremy Gregoire. The first two will make more of an impact at the beginning while the latter two should move up the lineup as the season progresses. Don’t write off Bud Holloway (as the Habs did in training camp). He has been a major point producer wherever he plays and should contend for the team lead in points with the IceCaps.

Who among the returning players from last year could be classified as underrated?

Last year, the defence corps was deep for most of the season which pushed Darren Dietz off the radar a little bit and he wound up having a quiet year. That’s not going to be the case this time around though. I think he should be playing alongside Barberio to start the year (Morgan Ellis will get that spot, however) and I wouldn’t be shocked if he takes a big step forward in his offensive numbers in 2015-16.

Who among the returning players from last year could be classified as overrated?

For all of the attention he received with regards to his waiver status this year and his stint with Montreal in 2014-15, many have overlooked the fact that Christian Thomas has had two poor seasons in a row in the AHL. His shot hasn’t been the weapon many expected it to be and he hasn’t been more than a secondary scorer no matter what role he has been in.

Forget about earning a recall to the Habs this year, the more realistic challenge will be staying in the top six if this season starts off with him playing the same as he has before. He’s not really a core player on this team right now.

How important will having their own ECHL affiliate be?

While it’s nice to say that the Habs are no longer sharing an ECHL affiliation with Pittsburgh, I don’t think there are many tangible benefits from having their own team now. Because of the extra travel challenges associated with St. John’s, it’s likely that the IceCaps will carry a larger roster than the Bulldogs did last season. So any extra players that might have been heading to Brampton will probably spend less time with the Beast than one might hope.

If the Habs still had their team in Hamilton, this would have been huge. Players could have been shuttled back and forth from one day to the next to keep everyone in game shape. There could have been some chances at cross-promotion between the two cities as well. But with St. John’s being the AHL team, almost all of that will be offset simply because of the travel challenges.

What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses for the IceCaps?

To start the season, the IceCaps have a chance to roll three pretty good scoring lines…as long as they stay healthy of course. Anyone who has followed the Bulldogs in the past knows it has been a while since that was the case. That’s a good spot to be in.

The goaltending should also be strong with Dustin Tokarski, a proven #1 in the minors, getting the starting nod. Eddie Pasquale, if he can return to the form of two years ago, is a strong backup and if he falters, Zach Fucale should be capable of providing quality #2 goaltending at the very least.

In terms of weaknesses, I’m not a big fan of their blueline depth. Last year, Hamilton had one of the better defence corps in the AHL which helped overcome some of their scoring deficiencies. Unfortunately, this is a pretty weak group compared to the 2014-15 Bulldogs. If Barberio gets hurt or recalled, it will be trouble.

This is a common complaint of mine but the team is lacking quality veteran depth. I get the organizational reasons for putting the youngsters in big spots early. However, it’s not the most conducive strategy for winning. Barberio, Holloway, and Gabriel Dumont are all very good veteran players. One or two more of those would really help their fortunes and give them a much better chance of having some success in the standings.

Is this a playoff team?

I hate sitting on the fence but it’s really hard to say. If the likes of McCarron and Scherbak produce right away and the returning top line of Daniel Carr, Charles Hudon, and Sven Andrighetto all have similar seasons, this team should score enough to compete most nights, especially when you add in a player like Holloway.

However, I also expect this team to allow quite a few more goals despite having Tokarski between the pipes simply because of the defence. Could this be a situation where their downgrade there largely offsets any offensive gains?   If so, they could be on the outside looking in.

This looks like another bubble team that’s going to be in a 7-10 spot for a big chunk of the season. And with that being the case, the answer to this question will largely be determined by the composition of the roster in the final six weeks of the season once the NHL trade deadline has passed. If the team is still largely together and the Habs haven’t ‘sold the farm’ to make a run, they should make it. If not, the playoff drought is probably going to be extended once again.