The Saint John Sea Dogs have struggled during the season’s second half, but a visit with an old friend brightened their collective spirits.
During a recent Quebec road trip, the club stopped by the Montreal Canadiens’ practice facility in Brossard, Que. The visit was arranged by former Sea Dogs head coach Gerard Gallant, now an assistant coach with the Habs.
“It was a very cool experience,’’ Saint John rookie Matthew Highmore said. “It was neat to see what they have and what could possibly be down the road. It’s kind of interesting to see their lifestyles.’’
While the Habs were off that day, several players were at the practice facility, including Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban, who was studying video with another Canadiens assistant coach, QMJHL alumnus Clement Jodoin.
“They use all their resources at their disposal,’’ Highmore said. “They have pretty much everything you can imagine. It’s always good to experience things like this on the road. It’s a bonus.’’
So is the NHL being back, according to Highmore.
The 16-year-old forward is an admirer of Pittsburgh Penguins star and fellow Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby, who may have benefitted from the extra time off.
Concussion issues have haunted Sid the Kid, but this season the Cole Harbour, N.S., native had 17 points in his first 13 games.
“I think I’ve watched at least part of every one of Pittsburgh’s games,’’ Highmore said. “It’s good to see them back and I’ve been watching (Florida Panthers forward Jonathan) Huberdeau, too, and he’s looking good as well.’’
Huberdeau was Highmore’s teammate for the first half of the season. The two could relate in terms of being first-round picks.
Saint John drafted Huberdeau 18th overall in 2009, while Highmore was taken eighth overall last summer.
“It’s good to be able to watch them,’’ Highmore said about QMJHL alumni in the NHL. “It’s an inspiration, not that we’re not already inspired, but it definitely helps you with your game and you can definitely learn from them.’’
After playing for Canada in his second straight world junior championship, Huberdeau joined the Florida Panthers and had a goal and two assists in his NHL debut. His 45 points remain tops on the Sea Dogs, who underwent a roster makeover during the holiday trade period.
A shoulder injury has caused Highmore to miss a good chunk of the season. He has a goal and three assists in 18 games.
“He’s a 200-foot player,’’ Saint John head coach and general manager Mike Kelly said. “He’s got great speed, he competes real hard and plays a pretty honest game. I think as time goes on for younger players, the game tends to slow down for them and they see it more clearly.
“That’s when the offence will start to kick in. There are parts of his game that he’ll learn as he goes, like how to adjust to bigger and stronger guys, but we sure like the energy that he brings.’’
Highmore played for Team Atlantic in this year’s World Under-17 Challenge in Victoriaville and Drummondville. And while wins were hard to come by, the overall experience goes beyond where your team finishes.
“It’s a measurement of where you are and what you need to work on,’’ Highmore said. “I definitely learned a lot about myself.’’