Sun Oct 16 10:45am EDT
The smile and proper blood flow is returning to Gerard Gallant's face.
For much of September, a look of concern was the most prevalent expression on the mug of the coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs with 13 roster players away at NHL camps. As the leaves turn, the bench boss of the reigning MasterCard Memorial Cup champions has his smile and his full team back. The Sea Dogs, with high NHL picks such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu, Zack Phillips and Tomas Jurco now back in the Port City, have won four of their last five games to move into a tie for first overall in the QMJHL with 18 points entering Sunday's action.
Gallant is only to happy to be clear of a first month where his team was short-staffed. Each year some QMJHL teams have up to five, six sometimes seven regulars away at pro camps. Thirteen is unheard of. Gallant had the unenviable task of icing a credible team until the cavalry showed up to save the day.
"We knew it was going to happen, it wasn't a surprise, but it was really tough," admitted the 2010 and 2011 CHL Coach of the Year.
"We had to play the first five games of the season with Junior A and midget players. The league (QMJHL) permits its teams to play with six affiliates but it made an exception and allowed us to play with 11 or 12 players."
Huberdeau, the No. 3 overall pick in the NHL draft by the Florida Panthers, was the last to return. The centre has eight points (2G-6A) in five games since rejoining the Sea Dogs. The St. Jerome, Que., native had a solid training camp with the Panthers but team management decided that another year of junior hockey would benefit his development.
"Going to Florida's camp and skating with NHL-calibre players was a great experience, I enjoyed every second of it," said Huberdeau, who signed with the Panthers shortly after returning to Saint John.
"But it's a good feeling to be back in Saint John with the goal of winning another Memorial Cup. We have a very talented team and look forward to having a successful season."
Huberdeau was named Saint John captain last Thursday. He has inherited the role of leader for the high-flying Sea Dogs, who have to be considered as a favourite to represent the QMJHL and move on to the Memorial Cup for the second consecutive year.
Fellow NHL first-rounder Nathan Beaulieu is back patrolling the Saint John blueline after his sojourn with the Montreal Canadiens.
"I met a lot of tremendous people during my stay in Montreal," Beaulieu said. "I received some great advice and several tips from the coaches and veterans which I plan on using this season in Saint John".
Beaulieu is sporting an A on a rotating basis, with three other players. The 19-year-old Strathroy, Ont., relishes the opportunity to be a team leader.
"This will be my fourth year with the Sea Dogs so I plan to assume more of a leadership role with the team," he said.
"I put up 45 points the last two years and would like to contribute a little more offensively this season. I will be the quarterback on our power play and my goal is to see that part of our game, really prosper."
Both skaters participated in the 2010 Canada-Russia Super Series and will undoubtedly receive invitations again. On the line is a spot on Team Canada.
"Skating alongside the best players in your league is always an honour," said Beaulieu.
"It's an event that you can certainly get excited about and hopefully make an impression in front of the Hockey Canada people. I'm really looking forward to the games against the Russian team and plan to play to the best of my ability to make the world junior squad."
The Sea Dogs recently shored up their blueline by acquiring 20-year-old defenceman Charles-Olivier Roussel from the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. Saint John sent its first-round pick in the 2013 QMJHL draft to the Armada, along with a fifth-round pick in 2012.
The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Nashville Predators prospect is expected to fill the team's third and final 20-year-old spot, joining fellow overages Mathieu Corbeil-Theriault and Danick Gauthier.
Now that things are back to normal in Saint John, Gallant should have just about all the ammunition needed to take another run at the Memorial Cup, the Holy Grail of hockey in Canada.
"It's a day to day process for us right now," Gallant explained.
"As a result of all the kids being away, it may take some time before we start to gel as a team. But the goal is still the same … win our league (QMJHL) and go on to capture the Memorial Cup."
(Photo: The Canadian Press.)