Connecticut Whale: Quebec-League reinforcements paying dividends; plus an update on Kolarik and notes on Valentenko hit from Sunday

Entering the 2011-12 American Hockey League season, the Connecticut Whale roster featured three former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League stars, who all at one point were teammates in the junior development league. And just a month ago, the Whale was provided with another former QMJHL star after the parent New York Rangers made a trade with the Washington Capitals (parent club of the Hershey Bears).

Leading the pack of four forwards is two-time Calder Cup Champion with Hershey, winger Francois Bouchard, who the Rangers’ acquired for blueliner Tomas Kundratek. Bouchard, 23, joined the Whale with zero points to his credit, after playing in nine games with the Bears’. The younger brother of Minnesota Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard was taken 35th overall in the 2006 NHL entry draft by the Capitals, following a stunning season in “The Q” with Baie-Comeau Drakkar.

The Sherbrooke, QC, Canada native began his junior career as a second-round pick of Baie-Comeau in 2004. In his first season with the club, he recorded just 24 points (11 goals and 13 assists) in 54 games. Bouchard took a major step forward during his draft year in 2005-06, when the right-winger led his club in points with 102 (33 goals and 69 assists) in only 69 contests. His play only improved during his third season with Baie-Comeau, when he led the entire QMJHL with 125 points (45 goals and 80 assists) in 68 games. His scoring potential was evident, and Bouchard became a professional with Hershey during the 2008-09 campaign.

Since joining the Whale, the fourth-year pro has scored once and assisted twice in 11 games. He is a minus-1 rating, has six taken three minor-penalties along with 13 shots on goal. Though the former 20-goal scorer continues to struggle in finding his scoring game with this season, Coach Ken Gernander continues to use Bouchard as a top-6 forward and also gives him some power-play time. If Bouchard can re-discover his scoring touch, then he will be able to make more of an impact with his new club. The 6-foot-1, 188-pound, winger, has an impressive shot and is a good passer. For now his impact on the Whale has been limited, but as the season progresses, expect Bouchard and his Calder Cup experience to step up.

Next in line is second-year pro, center Kelsey Tessier. The Whale signed Tessier, 21, last summer after the forward played in his fourth QMJHL season. Originally drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the fourth-round of the 2008, he was not signed by the NHL organization which allowed the Whale to take him.

Similar to Bouchard, the 2006 pick of the Quebec Remparts (fourth-round) was a pretty good point producer throughout his junior career. In his rookie season with Quebec, Tessier recorded 50 points (23 goals and 27 assists) in 63 games. During his draft year, 2007-08, the Fredericton, NB, Canada, native led the Remparts in scoring with 81 points (36 goals and 45 assists) in 68 games. In his fourth and final QMJHL season, Tessier played in 39 games with the Remparts and recorded 41 points prior to being sent to the Moncton Wildcats at the trading deadline. He collected 12 points in 15 games with Moncton, followed by an impressive playoff performance in which he totaled 30 points in 21 contests.

Tessier became an AHL rookie last season with the Whale, and he played mostly a bottom-6 role with the club which resulted in a 28 point season, with 75 games played.  He also recorded one assist in six playoff games. This season, Tessier has a more prominent role with Connecticut, and is relied on as more than just a bottom-6 forward. The speedy, two-way center receives plenty of penalty-killing time on a unit with veteran Jordan Owens, and he has proven to be an effective defensive-forward. Although he continues to play in a bottom-6 role with the club during even-strength minutes, Tessier’s importance to the team increases with each game. Aside from his work in the defensive zone, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound, center, is a decent in the face-off circle and he has become one of the Whale’s physical energy players. Tessier continues to battle for an NHL contract in the near future, and his current play this season could earn him one.

The final two players are both AHL rookies with the Whale, in former Remparts’ forwards Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and Ryan Bourque.

Audy-Marchessault, 20, signed with the Whale as an undrafted NHL free-agent after participating in four seasons with the Remparts. The diminutive forward was drafted in the 12th round of the 2007 (QMJHL) draft by the Remparts. It was not until his final year with the team that he exploded offensively with a team-leading 95 points (40 goals and 55 assists) in 68 games. In his second act last season, Audy-Marchessault collected 33 playoff points in just 18 games. The Remparts fell short of a QMJHL championship, but the Cap-Rouge, QC, Canada, native, left an impression on several Rangers’ scouts, which resulted in the Whale offering and signing him to a contract.

The first 23 games of his rookie season have been a success. Audy-Marchessault leads the entire Whale team with 22 points (eight goals and 14 assists), and he also leads with 53 shots on goal. Though he is not the biggest skater on the ice (5-foot-9, 175-pounds), ‘JAM’ receives plenty of ice-time from the Whale coaches as the teams’ second-line center during even strength, and the power-play. Audy-Marchessault is not a one-dimensional player, either, as the center excels on the penalty-kill and even has a short-handed goal. He is a highly-skilled player, with tons of scoring potential. Jonathan hopes that his play will result in more interest from NHL clubs next summer, including the Rangers, and possibly an entry-level deal.

Bourque, 20, had a rocky start to his pro-career, enduring an injury just three games into the 2011-12 season. The upper-body injury forced Bourque to miss seven games with the Whale, but since his return, the former Quebec-league star has been of Connecticut’s most consistent performers.

Just a little background on the Whale freshman: he was drafted in the third-round of the 2009 draft by the Rangers as a member of the US National Development Program (U-18). The Remparts were in possession of his QMJHL rights, and that is where Bourque decided to develop his skills. He had the best rookie season of each player mentioned, recording 43 points (19 goals and 24 assists) in 44 games with Quebec. That season (2009-10), Bourque played with current Whale teammates Tessier and Audy-Marchessault on the Remparts. In his second and final season with the Remparts (2010-11), Bourque was the third best scorer with 59 points in 49 games.

As a rookie, Bourque has scored two goals and three assists in 16 games so far this season, but his lack of scoring should not alter your opinion on the top Rangers prospect. Bourque has not been relied on as a scorer for the Whale this season. Instead, the Topsfield, Massachusetts, native, makes his impact as an important penalty-killer and a vital energy player for the Whale. In recent games, the winger has earned extra playing time through his physical play, and was even considered one of the only players who showed up physically for his club during Sunday’s loss to the Binghamton Senators. It is this type of play that will intrigue the Rangers scouts and coaching staff.

Though “The Q” has been very kind to the Whale, the Rangers very rarely pick a player from the QMJHL during the draft each June. In fact, they only have one prospect that is currently a member of the junior league. That player is big-bodied defenseman, Samuel Noreau who plays for Baie-Comeau. He will not turn 20 for another two years, making him ineligible to play an entire season with the Whale until 2013-14.

The Whale may still decide to sign players from Quebec’s top NHL development organization, though, as the impact of these players has been greatly appreciated by the club; especially after 23 games this season.

Chad Kolarik update; could Pavel Valentenko receive a suspension?

Forward Chad Kolarik tweeted today that he expects to be skating with the Whale by January. This is very good news for both Kolarik and the Whale, as the scoring forward has been absent from the teams’ line-up all season after tearing his ACL during training camp in September. He is still not expected to play until March.

Blueliner Pavel Valentenko was given a five-minute major and a game-misconduct on Sunday for an illegal boarding penalty against a Binghamton forward. A suspension has not been dealt to Valentenko yet, but I have been told to expect one in the next day or so. Valentenko also appeared to hurt his hand or wrist on the play, but there has not yet been a confirmed report of an injury.

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