BROSSARD, Que. – Among the 31 players at the Montreal Canadiens rookie camp, none feels closer to cracking the NHL roster than right winger Aaron Palushaj.
The 22-year-old from Livonia, Mich., is coming off a 22-goal campaign with the Hamilton Bulldogs and wants to be up with the NHL squad with his good friend and former University of Michigan roommate Max Pacioretty this season.
“I’d be disappointed for sure,” he said of the prospect of another season in the America Hockey League. “My goal is to make the team out of camp this year.”
His pro experience and the 22 goals he scored in Hamilton last season may give him a step up on other top candidates in the rookie camp, including 2009 first round draft pick Louis Leblanc, high-scoring Vancouver Giants right winger Brendan Gallagher or Shawinigan Cataractes left winger Michael Bournival.
There will be more competition when the main camp opens on Friday, including Andreas Engqvist, a big centre with strong defensive skills.
The five-foot-11, 190-pound Palushaj brings good foot speed and a tenacious style of play along with some scoring ability.
He also may have some pull from Pacioretty, who is returning from a fractured neck after a frightening hit late last season from Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.
Palushaj was among the guests as Pacioretty got married in July to former WTA tennis player Katia Afinogenova, the sister of former Buffalo Sabres winger Maxim Afinogenov, who also married a tennis player this summer, Elena Dementieva.
And he is part of a growing group of ex-Michigan skaters, including scoring star Michael Cammalleri and a centre invited to rookie camp, Ben Winnett.
It will all depend on how much he impresses coach Jacques Martin and his staff in the main camp, however.
“I want to do the major things right—get the pucks out, finish my hits, play hard, compete. I think that’s what they want to see. But this rookie camp is for me to get ready for the main camp. I don’t want to impress the management so much in this camp and then not show up in the main camp.”
Palushaj was obtained in a March 2010 trade with St. Louis for forward Matt d’Agostini. He had a three-game stint with Montreal last season in which he had some scoring chances but did not get a point.
Since 2007, the Canadians have elected not to play all-rookie exhibitions against other clubs and concentrated on developing players in their own camp. Their rookie camp runs through Thursday, when some will be sent back to their other teams and others will be kept for the NHL camp.
They cap each day with a one-hour intra-squad scrimmage.
Alain Berger, a six-foot-four left winger from Switzerland who played junior in Oshawa last season, scored twice in the opening scrimmage as the white team beat the reds 3-2. Defenceman Darren Dietz of the Saskatoon Blades also scored for white, while try-out defenceman Olivier Dame-Malka and forward Hunter Bishop scored for red.
Leblanc and forward Olivier Fortier skated but did not scrimmage because they are recovering from shoulder injuries.
Palushaj, Gallagher and Bournival were among the most impressive players on the first day, along with goalie Peter Delmas.
Leblanc had hoped to take a run at making the NHL club this season, but is not quite ready after post-season shoulder surgery. He will have the shoulder checked out by a doctor in Florida and hopes to get the all-clear to play in some of the Canadiens pre-season games before the end of camp.
“I up the tempo every day with the shoulder, doing more hitting drills,” the Montreal native said. “I feel almost 100 per cent.
“There obviously is timing and getting into game shape, but I feel great. My goal is to play some exhibitions and get my shoulder back to 100 per cent, like it was last year.”
Shawinigan traded for Leblanc’s junior rights, but the play-making centre is likely to turn pro with Hamilton if the injury heals on schedule.
Bournival had five goals in the opening two games of the Quebec major Hockey League season before joining the Canadiens camp. He said his goal for this year is to make the Canadian team for the world junior championship after being a late cut from the squad in December.
Among the eight try-outs in camp are Etienne Brodeur, who led the QMJHL in goals last season with 53, Sudbury defenceman Josh McFadden and French goalie Robin Gusse.