Commodore back in AHL with a mission

NEW YORK -- There is something more circular than arc-like about the path Mike Commodore's career has taken.

Seven years ago, the big defenseman was coming off a trip to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals with the Calgary Flames when coach and GM Darryl Sutter asked him to report to the team’s AHL affiliate in Lowell, Mass., during the last lockout.

Although he didn't expect it at the time, Commodore now says the experience might have been the most important period in his career.

He played 20 minutes a night, got power-play time and killed penalties.

“It was probably one of the best things that ever happened in my career,” Commodore said.

Perhaps more importantly, Commodore’s play caught the eye of Carolina GM Jim Rutherford and his scouts, as the Canes and Flames shared the AHL affiliate in Lowell.

When the lockout that scuttled the 2004-05 season ended in the summer of 2005, the Hurricanes acquired Commodore at the draft, and he became an important part of the team’s Stanley Cup run in that first post-lockout season.

Fast-forward to this fall and Commodore is stationed at another AHL port of call. This time he is in Ontario, where he has signed a 25-game tryout contract with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the hopes that the AHL will once again provide a catalyst to good fortune at the NHL level.

Commodore, who finished last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning and became an unrestricted free agent, was working out with some of the Lightning players in the Tampa area. Some days there would be five skaters, other days there would be a dozen or so.

If he hoped to resume his NHL career, Commodore knew he had to get in more game action and get in front of NHL scouts and GMs, especially with the lockout “taking its familiar route” of seven years ago.

If the season was canceled, “I knew I was going to have a tough time getting a deal next season,” Commodore told ESPN.com. “I just figured there wouldn’t be any interest.”

So Commodore sent a memo out to AHL clubs offering his services, and the Hamilton Bulldogs took him up on his offer, signing him to a 25-game tryout. The tryout allows the club to make use of Commodore’s experience, while he retains the flexibility to sign with an NHL club if the lockout ends in the interim.

If the lockout continues and/or the NHL season is canceled, he could then sign an AHL contract.

So far, Commodore has seen action in two games with the Bulldogs and two weeks’ worth of practices. He has enjoyed his role as a mentor to a young Hamilton blue line, and he hopes that he has shown enough of the toughness and savvy that has seen him play in 484 regular-season games and 53 postseason contests to pique the interest of some NHL teams down the road.

“It went better than I thought it would,” he acknowledged.

The past couple of years have not been kind to the native of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, who turned 33 last month.

After establishing himself as a solid, hard-working defenseman who was a popular presence in the dressing room, Commodore signed a lucrative five-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets worth $18.75 million in 2008-09. But he fell out of favor with former Columbus coach Scott Arniel and ultimately was banished to the team’s AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass.

On July 1, 2011, shortly after being bought out of his contract by the Blue Jackets, Commodore signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings. Opportunity and ice time didn’t materialize in Detroit, and the Red Wings dealt Commodore to the Lightning at the trade deadline.

He played some, but when the Lightning fell out of the playoff race, his ice time diminished.

“I don’t want to complain. But at the same time, the last two years haven’t really gone in my favor,” he said.

This time around, Commodore is embracing his AHL experience and the doors he hopes that experience may open down the road.

“It’s completely different from Springfield,” he said. “I didn’t feel I should have been there. I wanted nothing to do with it.

“I want to continue my NHL career. This is the perfect place for me.”

What happens next is anyone’s guess, especially with negotiations between owners and players at a delicate stage in New York. But the Bulldogs are the top farm team of the Montreal Canadiens, a team that is in the midst of a major metamorphosis with new GM Marc Bergevin and new head coach Michel Therrien.

It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Commodore was asked to bring some character and grit to the Habs' locker room if there is an NHL season.

As for the lockout, it strikes Commodore as frustratingly inevitable.

“The fact that it’s come to this, it’s sad is what it is. But am I surprised? Not really,” he said.