To go with all the raves about PK Subban's skating and Max Pacioretty's power-forwardiness, some of the best news to come out of the last few days has been the attendance of Canadiens veterans new and old at a series of little practices and skates.
When I looked down the player list, my first thoughts were of encouragement – mainly that so many players were already and raring to go. My second thought went to the players that were missing, such as Andrei Kostitsyn. I didn't alight there long. Finally, the thing that ended up jumping out of the page at me was the name Shawn Belle.
When you look at this list from Pat Hickey:
Newcomers Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri were among those getting an early start, and it's interesting that Sergei Kostitsyn was there without his older brother, Andrei.
Other players on hand were Roman Hamrlik, Guillaume Latendresse, Jaroslav Spacek, Maxim Lapierre, Shawn Belle, Glen Metropolit, Matt D'Agostini, Gregory Stewart, Travis Moen, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Halak.
... you can see that the players listed are all familiar to us, either by their play or their appearance in the summer headlines. But Shawn Belle doesn't seem to belong. His appearance on the ice in Montreal seems a bit of a puzzle.
Now, I have no inkling as to whether Shawn was specifically invited, or whether the invitation was open for any of the Bulldogs players to join, but I think the fact that he was the only Bulldog in attendance speaks volumes – Mathieu Darche after all might even be in Montreal anyway. Allow me to speculate.
I think that Bob Gainey or Jacques Martin or whoever is in charge of invitations to the main camp must have given Shawn Belle a special phone call at some point along the way, perhaps with some gentle encouragement to come along and get ready to show his goods at this camp.
Why is this feasible?
For one thing, I believe he has a chance this year. He's big, physical and has NHL experience. I think if Ryan O'Byrne continues to flap about in the wind, that it would be just as likely for Shawn to take his place as trying to shoehorn in a green Yannick Weber into a defensive defenceman slot. For another thing, he's showed he can play a system (something Jacques Martin likes); and he's played the O'Byrne role before with Minnesota.
Belle may also have been asked in to make some credible competition for places hot up a bit sooner than it might have. Gainey might want to see if O'Byrne and the youngsters can respond to having another hungry candidate around, and for longer.
There's also another consideration here: a trade. If Bob Gainey is thinking of swinging a trade, even at this late juncture, the assets he is likely to move must include some defenceman (of which he has a wealth). In that scenario, Belle could either be one of the pieces, or indeed be asked to step in after the chips have fallen.
Whatever the case, Shawn Belle is here. He's come early. Ryan O'Byrne, don't say you haven't been warned.
Who are you Shawn Belle?
Not much more than a year ago, Shawn Belle was someone else's problem – a depth prospect who looked on track to take his place in the first rounder career graveyard. He became our business last July when Bob Gainey threw his second small centre of the offseason into a trade. Gone prospect we know and had big hopes for (Corey Locke), in unknown beast.
Since he's arrived, I have come to appreciate that Shawn Belle is an interesting player in the scheme of the organization. For one thing, he is quite a big guy – if not that tall, his 235 lb frame makes him one of the heaviest options to the coaches. That's even more important when one considers he's a big defensive-minded guy among smaller offensive-minded backliners in the pipeline. If I was to separate defensive prospects into two lists: one of potential Habs to fit PP duty and potential star future and another with defensive defencemen with highly affordable salaries; Shawn would come pretty high up the ranks. I'd have Emelin and Fischer ahead, but then neither or those guys is available now. Neither of those guys has a +19 season in Hamilton under their belt, nor any of Shawn's NHL games.
His history indicates everything the scouting reports say:
ASSETS: Owns an impressive physical package and plenty of athleticism for a blueliner. Is willing to make his presence felt with strong hits in the defensive zone.
FLAWS: Lacks the hockey sense required to maximize his potential. Is not a scoring threat at all, despite the tools to do so. Takes a lot of bad penalties.
CAREER POTENTIAL: Top six defenseman.
Somewhere else, I found this:
Belle has the attributes to be a Komisarek-type player in the NHL. He's big and strong and is noted as an outstanding skater.
His potential was obviously noted early on, as he was drafted in the first round of the 2003 draft at position 30 by the St. Louis Blues. Following that, he was twice identified twice by Team Canada for participation at the World Juniors. His second medal at the tournament, his gold one, was earned as part of the team some call the deepest Canadian squad ever. All looked to be going rather smoothly indeed.
I suppose the first hiccough came with a trade from the Blues to the Stars. Leaving the organization that drafted you before you have played an NHL game is often hard to recover from. Nevertheless, the next season Shawn managed to jump from success in Tri-City to Dallas's minor league team in Iowa. Faring well enough for a rookie that year, it was to be short-lived with the Stars. Shawn was eventually appended in what was a big league deadline deal and shipped to the Wild.
The Minnesota system rubbing off or something else, Shawn went from being a potential offensive threat to simple big defender – a move that may facilitate his entry into the league one day. Two seasons in the AHL with Houston seemed to have turned Shawn into a reliable, if wholly unspectacular, piece of the team.
The latest chapter of his tale took place in Hamilton. To say it started well would be selling him short. I think were it not for waiver restrictions, Shawn would have been up in Montreal some time in November, because at that time he was leading a very average Hamilton defence with impressive +/- numbers. Indeed, Don Lever was quite positive about his new ward:
"He's a first-round pick and the potential is there. He's a hard worker. I have no complaint with the way he works. I have a hard time believing that he only had three points last year. He's got the free reins here as long as he gets back to where he's supposed to be."
It ended up well enough as well for Shawn, as he led all defencemen on the season in +/- and even managed 13 points in the end. Obviously his 93 PIMs sound like they need to be trimmed.
That's how he ended up in Brossard this week. Whether next year's report includes NHL game reports or not appears to hang in the balance right now.