TORONTO, ON — This ain’t your father’s American Hockey League.
The lockout hanging over the National Hockey League this season means the AHL is as competitive as it’s ever been. Teams are loaded with fringe veterans who no longer have a second league to float between (think Mike Blunden, Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion.) Clubs have sent down young stars who are full-time NHL’ers but still eligible to play in the league (think Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Henrique, Jake Gardiner). Teams find themselves stocked with depth, not having to worry about NHL injuries and call-ups decimating their rosters.
It may not be quite the challenge of winning the Stanley Cup, but contending in the AHL this year will be a tall order for any organization (well, except maybe the Edmonton Oilers.) There is/was a lot of buzz around the Hamilton Bulldogs coming into the season, and rightfully so. The players making debuts with the squad include two first round picks in Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, junior scoring stars Brendan Gallagher, Michael Bournival, and Patrick Holland, and proven college studs in Steve Quailer and Greg Pateryn. But while the skill and potential of this club is undeniable, training camp and preseason has triggered certain doubts in the minds of those following the squad.
Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin wasted little time this summer identifying the types of players he appreciates the most and felt the organization lacked. He bolstered the toughness on the Montreal roster through the signings of Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, and Francis Bouillon, and retaining the services of Travis Moen. But his signing of grinders didn’t end there, with the additions of Zack Stortini and Darryl Boyce, and the retention of Mike Blunden, all on contracts destined for the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Was there a need for the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate to become tougher teams to play against? No doubt, but it isn’t unreasonable to wonder if the club maybe went overboard on that front when there is still a need for skilled goal scorers in the organization. Given the lockout, we can ignore the potential hole in Montreal’s top 6 for now, and instead focus on Hamilton where goals have been tough to come by throughout training camp.
The Bulldogs opened their preseason on Saturday against the Toronto Marlies, falling 3-1. Tryout Stephen MacAulay scored the only Hamilton goal, with many of the team’s stars (Leblanc, Gallagher, Bournival…) watching from the press gallery. Monday saw a rather complete forward lineup for the Bulldogs, but the results were little different as the team came up on the short end of a 2-0 score. The ‘Dogs lines, of course still a work in progress, were as follows:
Steve Quailer – Michael Bournival – Brendan Gallagher
Aaron Palushaj – Blake Geoffrion – Patrick Holland
Mike Blunden – Louis Leblanc – Darryl Boyce
Joonas Nattinen – Stephen MacAulay – Zack Stortini
In a normal season, this team would be a force to be reckoned with. I previously proclaimed them as potential cup contenders. But if we look at the AHL as virtually half-NHL / half-AHL this season, we can understand why scoring may actually be an issue. Players like Palushaj and Geoffrion are proven AHL scoring stars, but have struggled to produce when called up to the big league, which would make statistical setbacks for them this year understandable. The hope, however, is that they and Louis Leblanc can carry the load in the short-term while the team is patient with the adjustment process of the rookie line of Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher – which, as a positive sign, has shown some nice chemistry when together.
Who will score for the team? Will Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher be anything more than intense two-way forwards as pros? Scoring at this level isn’t the same as doing so in juniors, and there are many who have picked up points in lower leagues only to project as third or fourth liners further into their careers. There is no forward on the roster who has a certain future as a top-6 player at the NHL level, so it is hard to identify a player the team can send out there when it desperately needs offense. Grinders are necessary, but wouldn’t a scoring vet have been a better fit in rounding out the roster than the late-added Darryl Boyce or Zack Stortini on a club with plenty of tough customers and penalty killing pros already?
Of course, it’s only preseason. Just as there is no reason to panic or overreact to an NHL team losing exhibition games, no one should give up on Hamilton’s season based on these two results. But the fact that the difficulty scoring was also noted during the four Red-White intrasquad games the team played raises the issue as a legitimate concern. It is necessary to be patient with the younger players and not rush them even as AHL stars, but no one should be surprised if the Bulldogs stumble out of the gates a bit during the adaptation process. Gallagher will be fine. So will Bournival and Leblanc. But fans need to temper their expectations of these players given the high level of competition they will be facing and their young age.
The positives? The Bulldogs look pretty sound defensively and between the pipes. Nathan Beaulieu was arguably one of the better Bulldogs through 2 games, rushing the puck well and looking sharp in the offensive zone. None of the three tryout blueliners, Antoine Corbin, Etienne Boutet, or Kevin Gagne, looked out of place, which will mean some tough decisions for management as to who is retained, and yet another unexpected question to be answered. Frederic St. Denis will be the team’s anchor on the back end, and Hamilton play-by-play man Derek Wills says the hard-hitting Greg Pateryn reminds him of a young Mike Komisarek.
Another question is in goal. There is no doubt Cedric Desjardins will be Hamilton’s number 1, and he was given both preseason matchups off. Both Robert Mayer and Peter Delmas were solid in their outings, and either can be a competent AHL back-up, so it is possible the team decides to keep all three on its roster for the time being. With the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins already having assigned goaltender Patrick Killeen to Montreal’s ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, neither Delmas or Mayer would be a guaranteed clear starter there anyway.
All of the above goes without saying that, should the NHL resume at some point during the season, the landscape of the AHL will change dramatically. With 23 players on NHL deals already with the Canadiens, it is possible the Bulldogs wouldn’t lose too many players, which can’t necessarily be said of all clubs. The Toronto Marlies team that beat the Bulldogs twice is coming off a season where they went right to the Calder Cup Finals, and the club then added dominant AHL scorer Keith Aucoin to its roster over the summer. So should we really be worried? Of course not. We’re not even a single meaningful game into the season. Final cuts have yet to be made to the roster, but they should be on their way.
Still the play of the young prospects up till now is giving fans lots to think about and debate. With no Habs’ camp results to fret over and proclaim the sky to be falling, in the spirit of Thanksgiving weekend, perhaps the overwhelming number of chronic Canadiens worrywart fans should be grateful for the entertaining, unpredictable, and certainly challenging road ahead.