Categories
Feature

A First Look at Hamilton Bulldogs 2014-15 Lineup

By Dale Lamontagne, Lead Correspondent, Bulldogs Hockey Report

(Photo by Hamilton Bulldogs)
(Photo by Hamilton Bulldogs)

MILTON, ON. — The Hamilton Bulldogs have added some veteran depth up front in signing T.J. Hensick to a one-year deal on Thursday.

It’s no secret the Bulldogs lack veteran help up the middle with just Jacob De La Rose and Gabriel Dumont  currently penciled in on the depth chart. But by adding Hensick, the Bulldogs get a proven forward at the AHL level that will likely center Sven Andrighetto and Christian Thomas on the first line, which could end up being the Bulldogs most offensive line in the 2014-15 campaign.

Hensick, 28, has 371 points in 363 AHL regular season games. He split the 2013-2014 season between the Hartford Wolf Pack and the Swedish Hockey League’s MODO.

In 42 games with Hartford, he scored 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists), and in 31 regular season games with MODO, he scored 15 points (four goals, 11 assists.)

Overall, this is a good depth move for the Bulldogs and I’d expect Hensick to score 30+ points next season, which is something the ‘Dogs desperately need.

There will be several changes in the 2014-15 Bulldogs lineup from last season with 18-goal man Mike Blunden being signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and goaltender Devan Dubnyk being picked up by the Arizona Coyotes.

Forward Joonas Nattinen is a restricted free agent who received a qualifying offer from the Canadiens but he will be playing for MODO in the Swedish Eite League in the Fall. The Habs chose not to give qualifying offers to the following restricted free agents: forward Robert Czarnik and goaltender Peter Delmas.  Goalie Robert Mayer was released from the final year of his contract instead signing a three year deal with Genève-Servette HC of the Swiss hockey league.

With a hole in their goaltending depth resulting from the departures of Dubnyk, Delmas and Mayer, the Canadiens signed free agent Joey MacDonald to a one-year, two-way deal. MacDonald will likely share the crease with Mike Condon who spent most of his season in the ECHL.

Jacob de la Rose has committed to playing in Canada this season and will likely center the second line.  It will be interesting to see what happens with defenseman Magnus Nygren who has declared that he will not go back to Hamilton after an unsatisfying experience both on and off the ice. Both parties are likely open to a trade.

Mac Bennett could get a chance to play with his Michigan teammate Greg Pateryn. The puck-moving Bennett paired with the stay-at-home Pateryn formed an effective duo for the Wolverines. Also on defense Dalton Thrower was signed to a three-year entry-level contract days after the conclusion of the Canadiens season.

In other changes the Habs finally parted ways with the underachieving Louis Leblanc trading him to the Anaheim Ducks for a conditional fifth round pick. Montreal decided to pass on signing Brady Vail and Erik Nystrom to entry-level contracts. Back in April, the Habs signed forwards Connor Crisp and Daniel Carr from the NCAA champion Union College Dutchmen to contracts. Rugged forward Jeremy Gregoire signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Canadiens but he has one more year of junior hockey left with Baie-Comeau Drakkar.

Below is an updated depth chart of the Bulldogs:

 

0vPGnCLGBulldogsDepthChartFinal2

 

As you can see, the Bulldogs lack veteran depth up front and on the back end whereas the goaltending situation seems fine.

Nonetheless, this signing is the start of many changes that need to be addressed in Hamilton.

Categories
Feature

What Should the Canadiens do With Budaj, Tokarski?

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Dale Lamontagne, Lead Correspondent, Bulldogs Hockey Report

About a year and a half ago, Montreal Canadiens fans thought the goaltending  position was weak. But now the Habs have Carey Price, Peter Budaj, Dustin Tokarski and Zachary Fucale in the organization. Pretty good, eh? 

MILTON, ON. — The Montreal Canadiens will have to decide what they are going to do with their back up goaltending situation this summer. Carey Price, Montreal’s starting netminder, was injured in Game 1 of third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Head coach Michel Therrien made the gutsy decision to start rookie Dustin Tokarski over NHL veteran Peter Budaj.

Although, the Habs lost Game 6 to the New York Rangers and were eliminated, I fully believe Therrien made the right call by giving Tokarski the chance to shine – and boy oh boy, did he look good out there! Tokarski played very well and he was able to give the Canadiens a legitimate shot at winning the series when many fans thought there was very little chance doing so.

So the question is, do the Habs send Tokarski down to the Hamilton Bulldogs and risk losing him to waivers, or do they trade him before, or after the draft? Another option is to send Budaj down to Hamilton to make room for Tokarski, or they can trade him for a draft pick. It is pretty obvious that the Canadiens will not get much in return for either goaltender, but it’s better to receive a draft pick than losing one of them to waivers and get nothing in return.

At this point, I think if they trade Budaj and keep Tokarski, the Habs are making the better decision. I know some fans believe Tokarski’s value is higher than the market would suggest, but if he is traded this offseason, the club won’t get as much as they would if they trade him within the next year or two. That’s if he plays well with the Habs in that time. With Zach Fucale in the pipeline, Tokarski will not be nothing more than just a backup in Montreal. So, I say build up his stock and then trade him within the next two years.

Budaj has one year left on his deal and I think his days in Montreal are numbered. It should be considered what Tokarski has done with the Habs this season. It has been incredible. There’s a reason why Montreal inked him a new two-year deal in early April, and it makes you wonder what the Habs are thinking about in goal. Tokarski has proved himself this season that he can handle the pressure and can jump into a game at any time.

There’s no doubt in my mind if the Habs decided to send Tokarski down to the Bulldogs he would be claimed off of waivers. And what would be the point in that, right? So, if Budaj is moved not much is lost and the club would gain a draft pick – which will be used in the future.

The summer in Montreal should be interesting, that’s for sure.

Categories
Feature

Hamilton Bulldogs End-of-Season Report Card

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – There’s no hiding that it was a tough year in Hamilton. A team with a lot of fresh faces showed early season promise, before inconsistencies and midseason slumps left them in a similar spot to a year ago, battling to stay out of the AHL’s Western Conference basement. When the Bulldogs finally seemed to start putting things together late in the season, it was simply too late, with too much ground to make up in too little time.

The blame for a third straight year without a playoff spot can be put on many, but there were also some standout performances that deserved recognition.  Below is a review of the years of all players to have dressed for at least 5 games for the ‘Dogs this season.

 

FORWARDS

Sven Andrighetto – A

The diminutive speedy Swiss winger made his professional debut just a little more than three months after the Canadiens made him the 86th overall selection of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He produced right from the get-go with 7 points in 8 games in his first month, and quickly become a fixture on the team’s top scoring line, finishing with the best points-per-game average of anyone to spend significant time with the team this year. Andrighetto, 21, seems to be good for at least one shifty highlight-reel rush a night, and likely would have produced more than 17 goals and 44 points in 63 games (which still rank him among the league’s top 20 rookies) if he had better offensive linemates to work with. Certainly he looks to have an NHL future, but the question will be whether Montreal can really stand to add another 5’9″ body any time soon.

Andrighetto's brilliant rookie season is what shone brightest from a tough year in Hamilton. (PHOTO: Hamilton Bulldogs)
Andrighetto’s brilliant rookie season is what shone brightest from a tough year in Hamilton. (PHOTO: Hamilton Bulldogs)

Gabriel Dumont – A-

Dumont, 23, was deserving of co-MVP honours in Hamilton a year ago, but struggled to produce early on this season. Still, Dumont isn’t the player you should be counting on to score on a nightly basis, and he and the next player on this list were the two guys you could count on for a consistent effort night-in, night-out. Dumont’s ceiling seems to be as an intense, hard-working, two-way fourth liner, but as NHL teams most often look to fill those roles with big bodies first, his 5’10” frame will always hold him back. The Quebec-native is under contract for next season, where he will look to build off a strong end-of-season with the ‘Dogs (7 points in 7 games in April) in his continued quest towards a full-time role with the Habs.

Mike Blunden – A-

Blunden and Dumont were inseparable for much of the season, a duo that coach Sylvain Lefebvre would send out with any third linemate and in any situation, so it’s no coincidence the two paced each other in scoring. While that represented stagnation for Dumont, it was progress for Blunden, whose strong play was recognized with a token call-up for Montreal’s final game of the regular season. A leader on and off the ice, should the pending UFA be retained, he would be a strong candidate to assume the captaincy from Martin St. Pierre. There is no questioning Blunden’s work ethic, but he simply doesn’t have the legs to carry his 6’4″ frame quickly enough to be a regular everyday NHL’er, and his stone hands mean that for every point he was able to produce, two-to-three golden set-ups (typically from Dumont) went to waste.

Joonas Nattinen – B

If you don’t follow the ‘Dogs closely, you’d be forgiven for not knowing Nattinen much prior to this season. The 6’2″ Finnish centre missed all but 24 games due to injury a year ago, but had a strong bounceback campaign in 2013-14. Centering the third or fourth line for much of the season, through his work ethic alone, Nattinen seemed to inspire whichever wingers he was paired with to be at their best. Defensively responsible and strong in the face-off dot, while Nattinen’s offensive output was limited (15 points in 68 games), if he could play with the physicality he shows in spurts on a more consistent basis, he would have all the tools necessary to make a formidable NHL calibre bottom six guy. That said, Nattinen, 23, is an RFA this summer, and is unsure what his playing future holds. If he opts to return his native Finland, the 1:45 he played against the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 18th will allow him to live forever as an obscure Canadiens trivia question answer.

Christian Thomas – B-

There were lofty expectations of Thomas this season following his acquisition in return for vaunted prospect Danny Kristo, and an impressive rookie camp showing. Thomas showed flashes of his potential, often benefiting from playing opposite Andrighetto, but seemed to struggle to find a groove. His biggest weapon is a dangerous arsenal of shots, but unleashing them was dependent on set-ups from linemates, unable to create space for himself with any regularity. In addition to his shooting and despite his 5’9″ frame, the second year pro has the right instincts, willing to drive to the net every shift, and he did manage to increase his point-per-game production modestly from his rookie campaign. At age 21, it’s unfair to directly compare his output (11 goals and 27 points in 54 games) to 23-year old Kristo’s (24 goals and 42 points in 63 games), but Thomas will need a Michael Bournival-like off-season of hard work if he’s to challenge for an NHL spot as early as next season. He has tools, but is another player that will need to develop outside the norm to compensate for his lack of size.

Connor Crisp – B-

Many questioned the Canadiens selecting Crisp as early as they did in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, but the 20-year old improved his production in the OHL this season, and then fit in well during a small stint with the ‘Dogs towards the end of the year. Crisp moves up and down the ice adequately for a 6’2″, 220 lbs physical presence, and produced two goals in his first seven professional games as a result of his driving to the opposition net. It’s too early to speak to Crisp’s longer-term upside, but he has shown enough to earn a contract from the Canadiens, and may ease the “need” for signing a Nathan McIver or Kyle Hagel who brings little to the team (on ice) other than willingness to drop the gloves. He remains a project, but early signs are positive that he could develop into an NHL player.

Justin Courtnall – B-

Courtnall was an unknown coming into the season on an AHL deal, with many penciling him into a role as an ECHL call-up (where he spent most of last year). The nephew of former Hab Russ Courtnall earned every opportunity given to him this year, working his way into the line-up, and then off a fourth line, to spending considerable time with Dumont and Blunden. Despite his limited pro experience, at age 24, there may not be much room for development remaining in Courtnall’s game, but his responsible two-way play and hard work makes him a solid bottom six AHL’er. He only produced 9 points in 62 games, but was a guy you would notice for only the right reasons more often than not. He would be a welcome returnee next season, though it is just as likely he is edged out in the numbers game due to the potential additions of Crisp, Brady Vail, and Jack Nevins.

It looked like the Bulldogs had struck gold with the addition of St. Pierre last summer, but the signing largely flopped. (PHOTO: Robin Leworthy Wilson, Aerial Promotions)
It looked like the Bulldogs had struck gold with the addition of St. Pierre last summer, but the signing largely flopped. (PHOTO: Robin Leworthy Wilson, Aerial Promotions)

Martin St. Pierre – B-

I struggled mightily with this grade. Is it possible to give a team’s leading scorer and only proven offensive talent a lower grade than a B-? There was much hoopla surrounding St. Pierre’s signing last summer, as there should have been, given he is an AHL all-star and former point-per-game scorer. At age 30, however, it quickly became obvious that the Ottawa native’s best days were behind him. A majority of St. Pierre’s production (including 6 of his 10 goals) came with the man advantage, and he was frequently invisible at even strength. He was unable to elevate his linemates, and when paired with Patrick Holland – which was often – that line became a virtual black hole. That, in fact, can be identified as a first cause of the team’s disappointing season, as Holland and St. Pierre were expected to be two of the main offensive catalysts. This is not to say that St. Pierre brought nothing to the ‘Dogs, as many spoke to their captain’s leadership and important off-ice presence, and on a team with few truly skilled players, he did contribute important points on some nights. But his inconsistency and lack of intensity were such that coach Lefebvre even made him a healthy scratch for a night late in the season. Given this, I don’t expect him back, but he’ll need to be replaced with another veteran AHL scorer.

Brady Vail – B-

Small sample size for Vail, who saw a strange season end with a quick termination of his Bulldog tryout after just five games due to an ankle injury. Unlike last year, when he managed a goal and four points in a 12-game stint with the ‘Dogs, the versatile 6’1″ forward (and sometimes defenseman) was unable to find the scoresheet in the AHL this time, but to understand his season and future, one must look back to last summer. Vail had a strong 2012-13 campaign on a disappointing Windsor team, and despite looking AHL ready, was forced to return to the OHL because of his young age. Then something went wrong. A disappointing performance at Team USA’s summer WJC camp saw him sent home early in August. He came into Montreal’s rookie camp in September, and was the only drafted player cut prior to the start of the team’s main training camp. Then back with the Spitfires, he wasn’t given any of the leadership letters despite thought months earlier that he may have been next in line for captaincy. But his play and production picked up quickly, and he was one of the primary catalysts that got Windsor into the post-season. One would think the grit, scoring ability, and two-way play the 20-year old has shown would be enough to earn him a professional deal, but it wouldn’t be the first time a player was “blacklisted” by the organization for some unknown reason should he be allowed to re-enter the draft instead.

Nick Tarnasky – C+

If Tarnasky could skate, he would undoubtedly be an NHL player. A vast majority of the 29-year old’s 13 AHL goals this year came from the lip of the crease, as he uses his 6’2″, 224 lbs frame effectively to park himself right there. Unfortunately, he is seldom noticed otuside of that area, as he isn’t the guy you want carrying the puck up ice, and would often be caught down low, resulting in odd-man rushes against and reflected in his team-worst -17 rating. Tarnasky’s other asset is his fighting ability, but even still, while he represented an upgrade on Zack Stortini a year ago, he would just as easily be replaced as return.

Nick Sorkin – C+

Sorkin was given a professional tryout following the end of his college career with the University of New Hampshire, and early on seemed like he’d be no bigger blip on the radar than Matt Grassi the year prior. But Sorkin improved every game throughout his short stint in Hamilton, climbing the depth chart not unlike Courtnall, and working his way on to a scoring line. He moves well for a 6’3″ forward, and seems to understand how to position himself well on the ice to get open in dangerous spots. Still, with just one goal in eight games, he is on the fence for whether he can turn this tryout into a season-long AHL contract for next year. Turning 23 in June, he may be edged out in favour of younger talents.

Louis Leblanc – C

Early on, it looked like Leblanc might have learned his lesson from last season and gotten back on track. The effort was there, he was playing a smarter, more disciplined game, and the results were coming  with 8 points in his first 8 games, interrupted by a brief call-up to Montreal in the middle of his hot streak. From there, however, it was all downhill, managing only 20 points in the next 61 contests, and rarely having an impact on the game, typically chasing the play rather than controlling it. Despite decent footspeed, he frequently seems to be a step behind the play, and rarely engages physically. Admittedly Leblanc didn’t have much to work with, shifted down to a third line once his struggles began, and frequently saddled with Tarnasky at even strength, while receiving little powerplay time. But it was on him to prove that he deserved a better opportunity, and he was unable to separate himself from the pack, unlike some others on this list. Leblanc did manage to simplify his game and reduce the poor offensive-zone penalties of which he was often guilty a year ago, but the hope of him becoming an impact player seems to have vanished, and at this point his ceiling is an adequate two-way third liner. That has its value, of course, and at age 23, it’s too soon to declare he’ll never be a full-time NHL’er, but Leblanc himself has to consider his options thus summer as his 3-year entry level contract comes to an end. The most likely scenario is probably a one year deal from the Canadiens to prove himself, unless another team is interested in taking a flyer on a former first round selection, and he is included in an off-season transaction.

Patrick Holland – C

Holland was among Hamilton’s top forwards down the stretch a year ago, playing wing on a top line with Joey Tenute. As such, it was expected that he would play an important role on St. Pierre’s wing this year, but he never quite got going, resulting in a significant and disappointing dip in his development curve. His decline in production (from .4 PPG to .3 PPG) between his rookie and sophomore years came despite continued opportunity to man the point on a powerplay unit, though to his credit, he did manage to round out his game as a serviceable penalty killer as well. As seen during training camp and his short call-up, Holland can be a multi-dimensional player, willing to block shots and battle in his own end, but ultimately his natural ability is in playmaking, and that is the skill that he’ll need to continue to develop if he’s to get another crack at the big leagues. The 6’0″ forward has a year left on his ELC before any decisions need to be made, and he’ll again be expected to play a significant role as a young veteran in Hamilton in 2014-15.

Maxime Macenauer – C

Macenauer, 25, is a veteran of 29 NHL games, though how he ever convinced the Anaheim Ducks that he was good enough to make the roster in 2011-12 remains a mystery. A confident, defensively responsible pivot, Macenauer is clearly a coach’s player, earning the trust of Lefebvre and being handed a regular role as a first line centre between Andrighetto and Thomas, despite a lack of production. His 24 points in 73 games came through playing big (and largely ineffective) minutes on the powerplay and between his skilled wingers, while his most positive impact seemed to come on the penalty kill, where his strong face-off and positioning work helped the P.K. be one of the bright spots on this year’s Dogs team. The team seems to like him, so he could be retained, but on-ice he could easily be replaced (and ideally upgraded) by any AHL veteran free agent.

Stefan Fournier – C-

In his rookie campaign, Fournier would impress one game out of four, notably when playing with Nattinen, but for all the positive flashes, he would find himself back in the press box due to frequent, poor, momentum-killing penalties. Turning 22 later this month, Fournier still has time to work on his discipline and hockey smarts, and the organization can do nothing but be patient given the two years remaining on his entry level deal. Still, he doesn’t have the skills to be more than a third or fourth line AHL forward, and will have to battle for ice time with any new additions to the club for next season.

Jordan Owens / Erik Nystrom / Akim Aliu / Ben Duffy / Stephen MacAulay – D

All five of the above players left the Bulldogs during the course of the season, with only Nystrom technically remaining part of the organization as a player drafted by the Canadiens, but having signed a new deal to remain in Europe. Aliu was a darling of Bulldogs training camp, but his play puttered out early on in the season. MacAulay impressed in his first game in Hamilton after a call-up from the ECHL, but it was a flash in the pan before he and Duffy both opted to further their studies rather than continue playing pro hockey.

Robert Czarnik / Steve Quailer – D

Another less successful experiment was the trade of Qualier for Czarnik. Quailer produced in limited playing time with the Bulldogs, notably when slotted on Nattinen’s wing (a common theme), whereas Czarnik was never given much of a chance, and didn’t make much of the opportunities he did receive.

 

DEFENSEMEN

Simply put, there’s nothing left for Greg Pateryn to learn at the AHL level. He just needs a real NHL chance. (PHOTO: Vincent Éthier)
Simply put, there’s nothing left for Greg Pateryn to learn at the AHL level. He just needs a real NHL chance. (PHOTO: Vincent Éthier)

Greg Pateryn – A

Hamilton’s most consistent defenseman, the 23-year old Pateryn has little left to learn at the AHL level. His 15 goals rank second in the American Hockey League among blueliners and more than double his totals over a four year college career. He backed up his 34 points in 67 games with sound play in his own end, combining physical play with adequate footspeed on his 6’2″ frame. One would think the Canadiens would fine a place for a young, two-way right-handed blueliner with size, but Pateryn hasn’t been given a true opportunity to adapt and learn in the NHL. If the perhaps likely scenario of Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi starting the year in Montreal comes to pass, Pateryn is another favourite to take over as Hamilton captain, able to ease the transition of former D partner Mac Bennett to the pro game.

Nathan Beaulieu – B+

Beaulieu isn’t the player he was down the stretch in the AHL a year ago, where he dominated games in Scott Niedermayer-like fashion. The yo-yo trips to and from Montreal didn’t seem to rest well with him, and – given he’s blessed with all-world skill – it really is the mental aspects of the game that he needs to sharpen. An effortless skater with slick hands and a booming shot, the 21-year old tends to get frustrated or give up on plays when beaten or after making a mistake. Paired with a player like Pateryn or Josh Gorges, there’s no reason to doubt that Beaulieu could play in the NHL as early as the Fall, but he’ll need a responsible partner to help him make the jump. Once he has that learning under his belt, though, there is no reason to think he can’t be a regular top four rearguard.

Jarred Tinordi – B

Clearly the Canadiens have identified Tinordi as the guy they want NHL-ready fastest, a position in the depth chart which can’t be attributed to his AHL play. It’s not that Tinordi had a bad season in Hamilton. There was even a stretch prior to one of his call-ups where he was clearly the ‘Dogs’ best rearguard. But he isn’t particularly physical, gets himself out of position in his own end, and despite strong skating ability and willingness to jump into the rush, has limited offensive production to show for it. Tinordi’s frame and potential can’t be denied, but he’s still very raw in his development, and will need a lot of coaching and patience if he is to live up to expectations and be more than a bottom pair filler.

Davis Drewiske – B

Drewiske was very obviously disappointed to be sent to Hamilton once recovered from injury, and early on in his stint with the ‘Dogs, it looked like he might not stay in the AHL very long. Over his first few games, Drewiske played with the intensity you’d expect from a guy who has been forced to sit out so many months. But after that initial surge of adrenaline wore off, the poor decisions and mistakes seemed to crop up a little more regularly in his game, and you were reminded why the 29-year old has yet to lock down a full-time NHL gig. Drewiske has a year remaining on his NHL deal, but given he is likely under the three above names on the organization’s depth chart, he seems likely destined for waivers and a possible return to Hamilton next year.

Morgan Ellis – B-

A hot-and-cold season for Ellis saw him start the season as a prolonged healthy scratch. When given an opportunity to play, he took full advantage, using the departure of Magnus Nygren and injuries to Darren Dietz to help secure a job in the top four, where he was frequently paired with Beaulieu. Ellis managed a modest improvement in his point production, while gradually improving his all-around game, but remains far more of a project than most believed when he graduated from junior hockey two years ago. He was unable to maintain a high level of play, and the late season saw him return to scratch status in favour of some names lower down this list who have no NHL futures to speak of. Especially given the expected arrivals of Bennett and Darren Dietz, Ellis will need to prove he can remain relevant in the upcoming final year of his entry level deal.

It sounds like Nygren is willing to attend Montreal's camp in September, but a return to Hamilton won't be in the cards. (PHOTO: Brandon Taylor, Hamilton Bulldogs)
It sounds like Nygren is willing to attend Montreal’s camp in September, but a return to Hamilton won’t be in the cards. (PHOTO: Brandon Taylor, Hamilton Bulldogs)

Magnus Nygren – B-

Nygren was impressive upon his arrival in Hamilton, particularly in the offensive zone where his blistering point shot helped him put up 8 points in 16 contests. After a minor injury, however, Nygren decided he wasn’t happy with life on or off the ice in Hamilton, opting to return to his native Sweden to complete the season with Farjestad, where the 23-year old scored at a torrid pace with 12 goals and 20 points in just 25 games. The 6’0″ rugged blueliner was guilty of numerous offensive zone turnovers in Hamilton and needs to improve play in his own end, but his skills can’t be overlooked, and recent comments indicate his willingness to attend Montreal’s camp in the Fall, though his options would be limited to NHL or SHL with no interest in returning to the American League.

Darren Dietz – C+

Dietz’s pro rookie season was interrupted by multiple injuries, limiting him to just 34 games. The 20-year old is still seeking his first professional goal, after coming off a season where he led all Canadian Hockey League d-men in markers with 24. He should play a bigger role in Hamilton next season if he can stay in the line-up, and is likely to be joined by his former Saskatoon Blades teammate Dalton Thrower. Dietz is one of those middle-ground d-men at the pro level, not unlike Ellis, who does everything well enough without any one particular ability standing out. For this reason, it may take him longer to fully adjust to this stage and even longer still to get noticed, but he does have two full years remaining on his ELC to pile on some experience and learnings.

Joel Chouinard – C+

After Courtnall, Chouinard was the best of the players on AHL deals this season (though this isn’t saying particularly much). When it wasn’t Ellis sliding into the team’s top four on D, it was Chouinard, thanks to his defensive effectiveness and quick playing of the puck (and the absence of other viable options). At 24, Chouinard’s potential is likely nothing more than a bottom pair AHL d-man, but this season he helped compensate for the losses of Nygren and Dietz this year that could have left the ‘Dogs in quite a pinch. Unlikely to be back unless for extra depth in the ECHL, Chouinard was a stop-gap that must be upgraded for the team to improve.

Nathan McIver – C

McIver would look like he fit in well one shift out of five, but you’d be reminded of his limited skill set the other four. He basically gets into the line-up because of his pugilistic skills as the truest pure enforcer on the squad, and well, every team carries facepunchers in the American Hockey League. No reason to expect him back next year.

Drew Schiestel – C-

Schiestel was a surprise to go as early as he did in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft – taken in the 2nd round by the Buffalo Sabres – and he has never lived up to the organization’s expectations. The 25-year old Hamilton native showed no signs of getting back on track this year either, frequently misplaying pucks and losing coverage in his own end. The roll he can play is limited to full-time ECHL’er, providing depth as a call-up in case of injury. 

 

GOALTENDERS

Dustin Tokarski – A

Really the only reason the Hamilton Bulldogs were competitive at times this year, Tokarski confirmed his status as one of the top goaltenders in the American Hockey League this season. Sporting a sensational .920 save percentage and a 2.36 GAA, it was thought by some that Tokarski may seek a new challenge overseas or request a trade to another organization for a shot at a full time NHL gig next season, but his agreement to a two-year extension with Montreal provides the Canadiens with strong depth between the pipes. Though the indisputable trend is to favour netminders with size, Tokarski’s quickness and determination compensate for his 5’11” frame. The structure of Tokarski’s new deal speaks to the team’s plans for him, with a two-way contract for next season and an NHL only deal the year after, coincidentally the timing of the end of Peter Budaj’s current stint with the Habs, but this is dependent on his clearing waivers in the Fall.

Robert Mayer – B

Mayer represents quite the mystery in Hamilton. There is no doubt he was regularly outplayed by Tokarski, and yet coach Lefebvre continually sent Mayer out to start more than his fair share of games. And it wasn’t that Mayer didn’t have the talent to play at this level; he turned in some big performances to bank points for the ‘Dogs when it looked like they might still have a chance to reach the post-season. But consistency has always plagued the Czech-born, Swiss-citizen netminder, and you can typically tell from his first shot faced of the night whether he’s going to have a strong or poor outing. The situation is a curious one, complicated by the fact that the Canadiens gave Mayer a two-year deal last summer, meaning he has a year remaining when the Habs would likely prefer to promote 23-year old Mike Condon to the role of backing up Tokarski after he dominated the East Coast Hockey League. Mayer is as good as he will be, while Condon’s development is on a rising curve, so it’s possible the team agrees to allow Mayer to head to Switzerland this summer, or deals him to another club in need of AHL depth.

Devan Dubnyk – B-

Dubnyk was acquired simply because the Bulldogs were playing for their playoff lives in a pivotal 3-games-in-3-nights weekend and starter Tokarski was up in Montreal. Unfortunately, his season of struggles continued in Hamilton with a 3.33 GAA and a .893 save percentage, meaning his visit to Hamilton is certain to have been a mere layover. Dubnyk was a reasonable, proven NHL goaltender prior to this year, so there is no doubt he’ll get a contract from someone for next season in another effort to re-assert himself, but the Canadiens’ organization has no motivation to offer him a prolonged stay.

 

LOOKING AHEAD

So it was a tough year. But all is not lost, given the Canadiens will benefit from the experience gained by players like Beaulieu and Tinordi this season as they are promoted to the next level. And turnover from one year to the next in the American League can be so great that this year’s results don’t necessarily spell doom for years to come, even though it was the third straight season without playoff action in the Hammer. How does general manager Marc Bergevin – holding his own part of the blame for not finding the right veterans to fill out his AHL affiliate’s roster – go about turning the team around? A winning roster based on the pieces under contract might look something like this:

Sven Andrighetto – AHL VET UFA – Christian Thomas
Charles Hudon – Jacob De La Rose – AHL VET UFA
Mike Blunden – Gabriel Dumont – Louis Leblanc
Patrick Holland – Brady Vail – Connor Crisp

Greg Pateryn – Mac Bennett
AHL VET UFA – Morgan Ellis
Dalton Thrower – Darren Dietz

Dustin Tokarski
Mike Condon

Of course, being competitive depends on those AHL VET UFA spots being filled by quality players, and not Drew Schiestels and Ben Duffys, but you can add a real wildcard to the mix in Tim Bozon. Already signed by the Canadiens, Bozon continues his courageous recovery from a bout with meningitis that saw him hospitalized in a medically-induced coma last month. An established WHL sniper, it is unclear at this point where he’ll be in terms of health and physical conditioning by next Fall, and in turn what role he might be able to play in the organization. Also already signed is Jack Nevins, an undrafted prospect who has fit in well enough in a late-season stint with the ‘Dogs after his QMJHL career came to a close. Nevins is interchangeable with Vail and Crisp should the organization choose not to sign either, or reinforces the club’s important depth at this level.

Thanks for following Hamilton Bulldogs coverage at All Habs all season long, and we will continue to follow every development over the off-season.

Categories
Feature

Down on the Farm – ‘Dogs Not Going Places, But Adding Faces

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – Just when it looked like the Hamilton Bulldogs might be putting together a late-season streak to at least keep things interesting in the Western Conference playoff hunt, back-to-back losses have essentially killed any remaining dream that the team might stage the most improbable of runs.

After wins at home on Wednesday and Friday, the ‘Dogs were unable to carry momentum into the weekend, dropping a 5-1 decision to the Abbotsford Heat and then falling in the first game of a nine-game road trip on Tuesday by a 4-0 score to the Texas Stars.

Mac Bennett will join former college D partner Greg Pateryn on the Hamilton blueline (PHOTO: Salam Rida/Michigan Daily)
Mac Bennett will join former college D partner Greg Pateryn on the Hamilton blueline (PHOTO: Salam Rida/Michigan Daily)

If a degree of blame could be laid on goaltender Dustin Tokarski – making only 19 stops on 23 shots – for the first loss, the result in Texas was hardly Devan Dubnyk‘s fault, as Hamilton was doubled up in shots 40 to 20 by the first place Stars. With Michael Bournival back in Montreal, the offensive well has again run dry, and players are left to play for pride and call-ups in a bid to not finish last in the conference for a second year in a row.

But this doesn’t mean that any and all intrigue surrounding the team has vanished. Late in the AHL season, as young prospects complete their junior and college seasons, team rosters are bolstered by an influx of fresh-faced talent. Hamilton is no exception to this ritual, with the Montreal Canadiens adding two new players to the squad on Wednesday.

First is Mac Bennett, an average-sized, mobile, two-way defender who was a third round pick of the team back in 2009. Signed to a two-year entry level contract, Bennett has yet to be officially assigned to the ‘Dogs, but one can assume he will join the team as soon as his semester at the University of Michigan is complete. He may not have the professional experience or the upside, but at age 23 and with four years of college hockey under his belt, he will hit the AHL as a more mature and developed player than a Jarrred Tinordi or Nathan Beaulieu, more in the footsteps of a Greg Pateryn. Speaking of Pateryn, his presence in Hamilton will be a big help to Bennett adjusting to the pro game. The defensemen spent two seasons in Michigan together, including one as partners – chemistry they can reignite quickly at the next stage in their development, especially as Pateryn represents one of the team’s more reliable guys on the back end, making him an ideal partner for a rookie.

In addition to his smart puck-moving game on-ice, Bennett’s off-ice leadership qualities were recognized as an alternate captain in Michigan a year ago, and then the team’s captain this past season. His offensive game didn’t develop as fully as many had hoped when he was drafted, but he has compensated for this by improving his play without the puck. Like many young players, consistency is still a bit of an issue with him, as he could stand to play with more intensity on a regular basis, but hopefully that comes with a new challenge in the next phase of his career.

The other signing is a player most Hab fans will be less familiar with, but one who could stand to surprise given there is a need for a forward of his ilk. Nick Sorkin – a 22-year old undrafted winger – may not be a household name as of yet, but the 6’3″ Maryland-native is coming off a tremendous bounce-back season that followed a year derailed by a broken hand. Having completed his fourth season at the University of New Hampshire at a point-per-game pace (20 goals, 21 assists in 41 contests), Sorkin agreed to a professional tryout with the ‘Dogs for the remainder of the season. Though he’s on skinny side at 195 lbs, he isn’t afraid of playing an aggressive and physical style, and given the lack of scoring talent and size on Hamilton’s present roster, he certainly could find a niche for himself.

It’s not unheard of for undrafted college forwards to make a splash at the NHL level. Though he left school after only a single season at age 21, and his NHL peak was somewhat of a flash-in-the-pan, Dustin Penner might be a good example as the kind of path Sorkin could aspire to follow if he should pan out. Which at this point is of a longshot at best. Those who don’t follow the ‘Dogs closely may not know the name Matt Grassi, a d-man the team signed to a similar tryout a year ago and then retained on an AHL deal this year, but who has only suited up for three games between the two seasons combined. So there’s a chance Sorkin is little more than that, too.

Sorkin and Bennett won’t be alone in joining the Bulldogs. Both Brady Vail and Connor Crisp find their respective squads one game away from elimination in the first round of the OHL playoffs, and thus should be available in the coming days. Then there’s 18-year old Jacob De La Rose, whose season ended days ago, but with whom the organization must make a determination as to what will be best for his development: another season in Sweden, joining Hamilton, or spending a year with the Windsor Spitfires.

Local fans will have only two opportunities to see this next wave in action at home, as nine of Hamilton’s eleven remaining contests are on the road. Tickets for games on April 12th and April 19th are available at http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/.

Categories
Feature

Down on the Farm – Bulldogs Get Help from the Big Club

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – A team with every reason not to show up on a Wednesday night got some help from two players who strongly believe they have plenty to play for, as the Hamilton Bulldogs – despite any hope of a playoff berth virtually nil at this point – downed the playoff-bound Abbotsford Heat 3-1 at First Ontario Centre.

The win was just Hamilton’s second in their past seven games, leaving them ten points out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the AHL’s Western Conference with only fourteen games remaining. The situation would have been even more grim if not for a couple of familiar faces that made returns to the line-up.

Bournival had 1 assist playing on left wing with Andrighetto & Thomas in his first game with the Bulldogs (PHOTO: Dario Ayala, Montreal Gazette)
Bournival had 1 assist playing on left wing with Andrighetto & Thomas in his first game with the Bulldogs (PHOTO: Dario Ayala)

First was Dustin Tokarski, unquestionably the MVP of a Bulldog team that has struggled to score all season, relying on stellar goaltending to win games. Fresh off a shutout of the Buffalo Sabres Sunday, Tokarski wasn’t forced to turn in his best effort of the season against the Abbotsford Heat, but managed 27 saves that allowed his side to overcome an early 1-0 deficit. As Devan Dubnyk‘s difficult season has continued in the AHL, having Tokarski back between the pipes should bring an extra dose of confidence to his team’s play, just as Carey Price‘s return seems to have done for the Canadiens.

Next was Michael Bournival, returning to game action on a conditioning stint in Hamilton after missing considerable time with a concussion. Bournival was a surprise in making the Montreal roster out of training camp in his second professional season, but hadn’t looked at all out of place in the NHL after hardly lighting the American League on fire last year. He showed in hist first AHL game of the season just how far his game had progressed, slotting right on to the top line with Christian Thomas and Sven Andrighetto, and energizing it to be the game’s best all night. Bournival would register an assist on Thomas’s game-winning goal, accepting a pass from Andrighetto and firing a shot on Aaron Dell before Thomas would bang home the rebound.

If Dell’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he attended numerous Canadiens’ off-season Development Camps back in the day. Many assumed the organization would sign Dell out of the University of North Dakota given their extended look at him and the thin pipeline in goal at the time, but such a move never came to fruition, and Dell has struggled to establish himself as more than a top ECHL starter to date.

But back to Bournival, a peculiar Sylvain Lefebvre decision was to play the natural center on left wing on the top line. Andrighetto, having played wing all season, was shifted to centre for the first time. While it may be as simple as limiting Bournival’s responsibilities for his first game back in over a month, it’s also interesting to consider the Canadiens may have taken the same approach as they did with Louis Leblanc. That is to say having made the determination that a player doesn’t project to the next level as a centre, and thus permanently switching him to the wing.

Integrating Bournival into the line-up required Lefebvre to make a decision on who to sit. Rather than cut one of his fourth line energy players, the head coach decided to use the opportunity to send a statement to a guy supposed to be one of his offensive leaders but whose game has been in sharp decline as a sophomore. Just as he tried to do in sitting Martin St. Pierre two weeks ago, Lefebvre hopes a one-game benching of Patrick Holland will get the versatile, two-way forward going for the final stretch. The situation is a pretty significant reversal from this time a year ago, where Holland was far more valuable to the ‘Dogs as a first line winger than Bournival as a third line pivot.

At 22, Holland is hardly a lost cause, but if he want another sniff at the NHL beyond the five games played there this year, he’ll need to show in the final year of his entry level contract that the present season was merely a blip on the radar of his development.

Two other notable players were out of the line-up Wednesday, but not by the coach’s own will. An injury plagued pro rookie season for Darren Dietz has come to an end, the team announced, with the defenseman not expected to return until 2014-15. A less serious lower body injury forced Greg Pateryn to miss the game. The d-man is considered day-t0-day, with his absence necessitating huge minutes from a top pairing of Nathan Beaulieu and Davis Drewiske.

Drewiske has played strong two-way hockey since joining the Bulldogs, and will be an important piece if the team manages to win enough games to keep things interesting over the final fourteen contests. Once the season is done, he will undoubtedly serve as one of the “black aces” in Montreal, and will be available to challenge for an NHL roster spot in the Fall, given the year remaining on the contract he signed last summer.

Also interesting to watch we’ll be how Hamilton handles its three-headed monster in goal. Despite Tokarski’s far superior play, the staff never hesitated to sit him for Robert Mayer after a tough loss, and now with both Dubnyk and Mayer in the mix, despite all he’s shown, Tokarski’s leash may be even shorter.

The ‘Dogs have two home games this weekend before heading out on a nine-game road trip. Friday’s game against Milwaukee and Saturday’s rematch with Abbotsford are must-wins, or the team will see the plug pulled on the life support on which its season rests. This also means it may be the last chance for hometown fans to see their team in meaningful action this season, so grab your tickets now from http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/.

 

Categories
Feature

Down on the Farm – Where do ‘Dogs go From Here?

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – In a season filled with ups and downs, one wouldn’t be wrong to single out last weekend as the Hamilton Bulldogs hitting rock bottom.

The ‘Dogs had a golden opportunity to close the gap on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with three games all at their home barn of First Ontario Place. Moreover, two of the three games were against rivals also battling for that last spot. It seemed the time for this streaky club to make a statement was “now or never,” with 13 of their final 18 games beyond the weekend being on the road.

If any messages were sent to the league by way of Hamilton’s play, it was unfortunately not what coach Sylvain Lefebvre and his staff were looking for. Though the team was “in” all three games, opening the scoring each time, the only conclusion that could be drawn from an 0-3-0 record is to expect a third straight year of no playoffs in the Hammer.

If Sylvain Lefebvre wasn't feeling the heat prior to last weekend, it has doubled in intensity. (PHOTO: CANADIENS DE MONTREAL)
If Sylvain Lefebvre wasn’t feeling the heat prior to last weekend, it has doubled in intensity. (PHOTO: CANADIENS DE MONTREAL)

Lefebvre had few answers following Sunday’s loss to Lake Erie – a defeat that allowed the Monsters to vault pass the ‘Dogs in the standings and drop them to last place in the Western Conference. Few answers to why second periods have haunted the team all season. Why the first goal against seems to deflate the entire bench. Why the spring in the team’s skates off the opening face-off doesn’t last longer than twenty minutes. Why the club has regularly been unable to cash in scoring chances that would put games away.

He’ll tell you they don’t try to lose games. That they work on scoring every day. That they aim to be consistent. That nobody is giving up. But what message does it send when the team fails to execute on three consecutive nights at the most pivotal point of the season? Have they quit on the staff? On each other?

Lefebvre showed he wasn’t backing down from the challenge Sunday, playing what one might say was his last card: making captain Martin St. Pierre a healthy scratch. Discussed previously here on All Habs was that – despite leading his team in scoring – St. Pierre has been a disappointment this season. Often soft and/or invisible at even strength, his points have come almost exclusively with the man advantage. Further, he was frequently guilty of undisciplined penalties in the offensive zone. His compete level just wasn’t where it was expected to be for a player known as a perennial all-star in this league.

Clearly, it was about sending a message to both St. Pierre and the rest of the team. But it meant taking a team that has scored the second fewest goals in the AHL and depriving it of the man with nine points more than his closest ‘mate on the season. The ‘Dogs may have only managed three total goals in the Friday and Saturday games, but the captain had been in on all of them with three helpers.

So, it didn’t work. For one period, it looked like the gamble – which some suggest may have meant the head coach putting his own job on the line – would pay off as Christian Thomas had the game’s only goal. But a missed Sven Andrighetto penalty shot in the second opened a door for the Monsters to hang around long enough to beat Devan Dubnyk – which they did, four times.

In addition to specifically pointing to that Andrighetto shot as a turning point, Lefebvre called out his powerplay failing to produce. On a normal night, he’d be right. But on a night where you’ve chosen to sit one of your two true skill forwards – and your top powerplay point producer – in the press box, it becomes hard to hide behind poor special team execution. There is something far more wrong in Canada’s Steeltown.

It starts with the construction of the team, which is on general manager Marc Bergevin and his staff. The young squad clearly needed a veteran presence on the blueline, and adding Davis Drewiske with just over one quarter of the season to go is too late to be truly impactful, even if the rugged d-man was the team’s best at the position this weekend. Second, just as was the complaint about Bergevin’s work in Montreal prior to landing Thomas Vanek, he went out of his way to over-acquire tough, character players, skimping on the skill needed to put pucks in the net.

Then there’s Lefebvre himself. Questionable platooning of goaltenders and odd line combinations have plagued his two seasons behind the bench, and while he hasn’t always been given the best elements to work with, one has to ask the same question as they do with the Canadiens: which players have truly improved under their head coach?

Hab fans will quickly point out Hamilton’s main role as a development team, and the transitions of Brendan GallagherMichael Bournival, and soon Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi as successes. But how much of that is strictly on the players themselves, given we’re talking about two first round picks and two players who continue to play in the exact same style they have since their junior days? Of the hold-overs in Hamilton, who is better than last year? Not Beaulieu who was utterly dominant in the final quarter of 2012-13. Not Louis Leblanc – at least not significantly, as it would be hard to be worse than last season. Not young veterans like Mike Blunden and Gabriel Dumont. Certainly not Patrick Holland whose game has fallen off the planet. Maybe Morgan Ellis, but that only after Lefebvre was basically forced to insert him into the line-up after holding him out as a healthy scratch for the first month. Greg Pateryn may have improved his production significantly, but he was rock solid in his own end last season, which hasn’t always been the case this year.

So what’s next? The good thing about the American Hockey League is that Lefebvre is right in saying players can’t give up. The Toronto Marlies had a slogan of “Every game is a tryout,” which could be no truer. Even once the seemingly inevitable happens and the team is mathematically eliminated from post-season contention, players must continue to try to perform to earn new contracts or consideration for call-ups to the Canadiens.

Theoretically, there should be an influx of much-needed talent for the final few games, as the likes of Charles HudonBrady VailMac Bennett, and perhaps even Jacob De La Rose would be eligible to join the club once their current teams are eliminated from the CHL playoffs (and SHL in De La Rose’s case). The four – along with Dalton Thrower who will be having season-ending ankle surgery – should be Bulldogs next Fall, but do you even want them around the group for the remainder of the current campaign with seeming leadership disarray? That question will likely be best answered by player development coaches Patrice Brisebois and Martin Lapointe, both of whom spend considerable time with the group in Hamilton.

The 2014-15 Bulldogs will likely look a lot different than this year’s edition, both on and off the ice. While Bergevin made a statement hiring a very young and inexperienced coaching staff to lead his AHL affiliate, he’ll need to make quick judgments on their future considering the impressive group of prospects that will be making the transition from juniors over the next two seasons, with their development vital to the big club’s future.

 

Categories
Feature

Down on the Farm – ‘Dogs Add New Tricks for Home Stretch

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – Wednesday night was just another day at the office for Dustin Tokarski. The undersized and soft-spoken but fiery tempered and fiercely competitive netminder went about his usual business of making it a personal objective to match his rival save for save. Only on this night, the guy in the other net wasn’t a career minor pro or an unproven up-and-comer. It was Jonas Hiller, he of a league-leading five shutouts thus far this season. Oh and the team in front of Hiller barreling down on Tokarski just happened to be the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks.

Drewiske scored one goal and two assists in nine games with the Canadiens after being acquired at last season's trade deadline. (PHOTO: Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Drewiske scored one goal and two assists in nine games with the Canadiens after being acquired at last season’s trade deadline. (PHOTO: Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

One might say it’s the stuff movies are made of. The kid who hasn’t gotten an NHL start in two years. The underappreciated trade acquisition that has had to repeatedly fight tooth and nail for AHL playing time despite repeatedly proving he was simply better than Robert Mayer. The RFA who was only given a one-year contract when his back-up got two seasons, and who sat on the bench watching as Peter Budaj got both halves of Montreal’s post-Olympic break back-to-back. Steps in one Wednesday night, hours after his organization goes out and acquires a more proven NHL netminder in Devan Dubnyk, only to send the ex-Oiler down to Hamilton. And wins. Not only wins, but makes 39 saves, and then still has to outduel Hiller in a shootout. He had earned the opportunity to get the start. And he earned the victory.

Two more important points collected for the Habs while their franchise netminder remains sidelined, thanks in part to a guy who has been the Hamilton Bulldogs’ MVP since he was acquired in a deal for Cedric Desjardins a year ago January. And while the man they call ‘Tick’ was strutting his stuff before a much larger audience, Robert Mayer was holding the fort down on the farm, turning in solid performances in back-to-back wins last weekend to get Bulldog faithful thinking the post-season might be attainable after all.

The path ahead still won’t be easy, however, and gearing up for an always difficult three-games-in-three nights this weekend, the ‘Dogs can count on two key new faces. First, as already mentioned, the Canadiens made a move to bring in Devan Dubnyk for future considerations. Rather than claiming him on the waiver wire, the trade allowed them to immediately send him to the ‘Dogs, and also got Nashville to pick up more of his salary – a portion of which was already being paid by the Edmonton Oilers. Dubnyk, 27, has struggled mightily this season, as a pedestrian .894 save percentage in 32 games with the Oilers ballooned into a .850 in just two games for the Preds, but it remains that he was considered at least a solid back-up for three years prior. He hasn’t played an AHL game since 2009-10, a season where he maintained a .915 save percentage in 33 games for the Springfield Falcons.

Certainly, he’s an upgrade on Mayer, though both goalies will get work until Price is healthy enough to allow Tokarski to take the 401/403 route back to Canada’s Steeltown. Coach Sylvain Lefebvre has already confirmed that it will be the new acquisition getting the start Friday night against Oklahoma City in a pivotal match for Western Conference positioning. Not lost on Dubnyk is the fact that the visiting Barons are the affiliate of his former club – the Oilers – who he will want to prove wrong for giving up on him.

The other addition to the Hamilton line-up didn’t arrive by trade, but is another player who has dressed exclusively in the NHL over the past few seasons – since 2008-09 in his case. It was evident as far back as last summer that the ‘Dogs lacked a veteran presence on the blueline, and with 21 games remaining in their regular season, hopefully it won’t be too little too late as 29-year old Davis Drewiske steps in to fill that role.

As Jarred Tinordi looks to remain in Montreal for the remainder of the season, and Darren Dietz is sidelined once again in what has been an injury-plagued rookie year, the ‘Dogs had resorted to inking ECHLer Jordon Southorn to a tryout for depth on the blueline. The arrival of Drewiske has coincided with the release of Southorn – without having played a game – but more importantly is what it does to the top of the team’s roster on D.

Without Tinordi, the ‘Dogs had reunited Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu, essentially going “all in” on a single standout pairing. Through two games, it had worked almost perfectly, as Pateryn collected a goal and an assist, with eight shots and a +2 rating, while Beaulieu amassed one assist, seven shots, and also a +2. But as three 3-in-3s highlight a surcharged final stretch – that also includes a nine-game road trip – it would be too much to ask the duo to play 25 or more minutes night-in night-out. Drewiske, then, gives the Bulldogs options for a second reliable pair, completing a top four with Morgan Ellis.

Drewiske and Dubnyk will be instrumental if the ‘Dogs are to close the seven point spread that currently separates them from the eighth and final playoff position. While the offense showed signs of life in the last two wins, the team has gotten by by coming out on top of low-scoring tilts for much of the season, and every point is essential here on out with as many as nine teams still in contention for likely just the seventh and eighth spots in the West.

All three games this weekend are at Hamilton’s First Ontario Centre, and thus a great opportunity for the home team to vault themselves ahead in the race. Tickets are still available for the contests via HamiltonBulldogs.com.

Categories
Feature

Down on the Farm – Playoff Flame Dwindling

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – With 23 games remaining in their regular season, the Hamilton Bulldogs find themselves in an unfortunately all too familiar spot: near the basement of the Western Conference standings and quickly losing hope of a playoff berth.

A gutsy effort from a tired team Sunday allowed the Bulldogs to snap a four-game losing skid and rekindle some confidence – if only within the walls of the club’s dressing room – but a 3-7-1 record over the last eleven games has the ‘Dogs trailing eighth place Milwaukee by seven big points.

Jarred Tinordi was the bright spot on the southern Ontario squad during the NHL’s Olympic break, playing his best hockey of the season and thus surplanting Nathan Beaulieu as first call-up when action resumed. Not only had the big man picked up his physical play and shored up his defensive lapses, but he was even contributing offensively,  making it an optimal time for Marc BergevinMichel Therrien, and company to assess his development this year against competition of a higher level.

What’s been eating the ‘Dogs has been a major lack of offensive production with underperformers throughout the forward line-up. It seems the team needs starter Dustin Tokarski to put up superhuman save percentages to have any chance to win hockey games. Encouraging is that captain Martin St. Pierre has found his game to an extent after a disappointing first half, leading the way with two goals and five assists in the past seven games.  However, it has coincided with prolonged slumps for both Christian Thomas (one point in the last eight games) and Louis Leblanc (one point in the last 14 games), counted on to be two of the more dangerous scorers, leaving the team still looking for solutions.

The 'Dogs will need all-star level performances on-ice and leadership excellence off of it from St. Pierre as they navigate the final third of the season (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)
The ‘Dogs will need all-star level performances on-ice and leadership excellence off of it from St. Pierre as they navigate the final third of the season (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)

Coach Sylvain Lefebvre seemed to have found something Sunday, separating St. Pierre from his usual higher skill partners like Patrick Holland and Sven Andrighetto, and instead skating him with two bigger grinders in Nick Tarnasky and Stefan Fournier. The result was St. Pierre’s third and fourth even strength goals of the year, earning him first star honours in a 3-1 victory. Though Andrighetto collected an assist in the game, the change won’t help reignite his game, mired in his first true slump of the year with one point in five games as his previously hot line with Maxim Macenauer and Thomas has gone quiet.

What’s Trending

With the NHL’s trade deadline now less than a week away, the future of Louis Leblanc with the organization has been a major topic of conversation. The 23-year old winger is coming to the end of his entry-level deal, and thus where he’ll spend next season is hardly a certainty. Leblanc has played 50 games with the Canadiens, but 42 of them were back in his pro rookie season when he was pressed into service due to injuries. He didn’t look out of place in an eight-game stint this year, but was ultimately returned to the Bulldogs when veterans had recovered from bangs and bruises, victim of his exemption from the waiver wire.

Where does all of this leave the 6’0″ Pointe-Claire native? He hasn’t turned into the player Trevor Timmins hoped he had snatched up on draft day in 2009, but he has shown he can play a simple, responsible, and safe game, taking a regular shift without looking outclassed.The question is whether or not this game fits into Marc Bergevin‘s longer-term plans.

Truthfully, this is a question best left unanswered for the time being. If Leblanc is dealt by deadline day, expect his value to be little more than fellow former first rounder Kyle Chipchura when the Canadiens cut ties with him, sending him to the Anaheim Ducks for a fourth round draft choice. This next-to-nothing return (given the minuscule odds of a fourth liner having an NHL career) means it is likely better to hold on to hope with Leblanc, giving him every opportunity to make the Montreal roster out of next year’s camp – a chance he was never afforded this past Fall. While the Canadiens may not particularly miss having Chipchura’s rights, even he has developed into a respectable third liner, again of more use than the majority of players chosen after the third round.

For anything less than a second round pick, at this point, the Habs are better off holding on to Leblanc, provided they are willing to look past their previous unwillingness to open doors for him. He showed signs of life early this AHL season with a stretch of eight points in four games, but his production has since gone south. His biggest improvements have been in the area of on-ice discipline – no longer guilty of the frequent lazy penalties he took a year ago – and simple but smart decision-making with the puck. He has come to terms with the fact that he isn’t going to be a skilled top six winger in the professional ranks, and is rounding out his two-way third line game.

 

Leblanc and the Bulldogs are next in action on February 28th as they host Lake Erie. For any shot at the post-season, they’ll need to win nearly all of their next eleven games, seven of which are at First Ontario Place. After that stretch, they embark on a difficult nine-game road trip, only returning home when there are just three games remaining in thee season.

 

Categories
Feature

Down on the Farm – Snakebitten ‘Dogs Hit the Road

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – It was a weekend of ups and downs for the Hamilton Bulldogs. Despite solid efforts that had their head coach proud in all three outings, a 6-2 Saturday night offensive outburst on the road was sandwiched between two snakebitten losses at Copps Coliseum. The 1-2-0 weekend  means the ‘Dogs have now lost four of their last six games on the heels of a season-high six-game win streak, dropping them out of a playoff spot for the time being, though they of course remain in the thick of the race.

Hamilton was dealing with the absence of some top players during this stretch, as both Nathan Beaulieu and Louis Leblanc were up in Montreal. Moreover, Sunday’s game required a gutsy effort by the d-men who were in the line-up, as not only was it a third game in less than 72 hours, but the club lost Morgan Ellis – he who I mentioned last week had taken on a far bigger role with the squad – to an apparent shoulder or arm injury midway through the game, forcing them to play out the final period and a half with just five blueliners. It is unknown how long Ellis will be out for, but as a security measure, the ‘Dogs signed ECHL’er Myles Harvey – a 25-year old 6’5”, 225 lbs pro rookie – to a professional tryout agreement.

TRENDING UPWARDS

Thomas joins the Canadiens with goals in his past two AHL games. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR, via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)
Thomas joins the Canadiens with goals in his past two AHL games. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR, via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)

– Christian Thomas: Thomas and Sven Andrighetto (who I mentioned last time as trending upwards, and I’m trying to avoid using the same players in consecutive installments) have been Hamilton’s best two forward of late, and coach Sylvain Lefebvre has stuck them together on a line in Louis Leblanc’s absence. In his second year as a pro, the 5’9” 21-year old winger missed the first part of the season with a sports hernia, produced when he returned to the line-up, then seemed to hit a bit of a wall which could have been a conditioning issue due to the time off. Of late however, he frequently leads the team in scoring chances, which helped him collect two goals and an assist over the course of the weekend. While not as feisty as fellow little man Brendan Gallagher, Thomas doesn’t shy away from going to the net. He’s just as comfortable hanging around the high slot, though, as that is where he can unleash his greatest weapon: a rocket launcher arsenal of powerful shots. As a reward for his recent good play and to see how he can handle tougher competition, the Canadiens called Thomas up Thursday evening. The timing is especially nice for the prospect given Montreal plays Tampa Bay on Saturday, and Thomas’s father – former NHL’er Steve Thomas – is a player development consultant with the Lightning.

– Maxime Macenauer: With skilled wingers like Andrighetto and Thomas on the first line, one might expect an equally skilled center like Martin St. Pierre to be the trio’s pivot. But one would be wrong, as that honour has been bestowed upon Macenauer, who has been a coach’s favourite in Hamilton right from the start of the season. You’ll never be “wow’ed” watching him play, but the 25-year old Laval native seems to do all the little things right on the ice. He plays a jack-of-all-trade, master-at-none type of role, capable of killing penalties, winning face-offs, clearing the puck in defensive situations, and dishing to teammates. At 6’0” and 200 lbs, he’s average sized, which about sums up most of his other abilities as well. He works hard and will rarely put you in a trouble situation for sending him out on the ice. For these reasons, Lefebvre may see him as a safety net, which has resulted in significant ice time at even strength, on the powerplay, and on the P.K.

– Jarred Tinordi: If you were to compare Tinordi’s play in Hamilton to how he looked in Montreal during this year’s training camp, it has been a disappointing season for the 21-year old. At 6’6” and 218 lbs, you would hope to see him working on his physical game at the AHL level, but the hits have been few and far between this season, deciding his style was better suited to playing a positional defensive game rather than running around and chasing the opposition. Unfortunately even that has taken some time, as he is far from an impermeable forcefield in his own end, but part of that may simply be confidence. Undoubtedly Tinordi had illusions of grandeur starting the year in the NHL, and the return to the American League was a difficult transition, but since being moved to the top pairing with Greg Pateryn, his game has taken a step forward. Playing with a partner that he doesn’t have to worry about covering for, he seems more confident in his own skates. Though still not throwing big hits, the American behemoth is an adequate crease-clearer, and unlike a Doug Murray or Hal Gill, is a very smooth skater, able to pick his spots and support offensive breakouts despite what his low point total would make one think. If not overly physical during game action, Tinordi never shies away from after the whistle scrums, always there to stand up for a teammate and dropping the gloves with semi-regularity.

 

IN A RUT

There's nothing wrong with a powerplay specialist that leads your team in scoring, but the Bulldogs had greater hopes when signing St. Pierre. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR, via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)
There’s nothing wrong with a powerplay specialist that leads your team in scoring, but the Bulldogs had greater hopes when signing St. Pierre. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR, via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)

– Martin St. Pierre: It is imperative that Sylvain Lefebve separates St. Pierre from linemate Patrick Holland to get at least one of the two should-be-AHL-stars going. They have been paired at five-on-five for some time now, and the line has become a virtual black hole for the Bulldogs, generating little in the way of offensive opportunities despite the skill sets of its members. Though he may lead the team in scoring, captain St. Pierre has been a disappointment this season, unable to play an offensive catalyst role at even strength, and frequently guilty of poor or lazy penalties. In the face-off dot, the team relies heavily on Macenauer and Joonas Nattinen, effectively limiting St. Pierre to a role of powerplay specialist. While that definitely has its uses, it’s not the high impact signing the Bulldogs believed they had bagged when inking the veteran last summer. Plus-minus may not be a high quality statistic, but his -7 being second worst on the team to only Nick Tarnasky is very reflective of his play this year.

– Mike Blunden: It’s hard to dislike Mike Blunden. The former second round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks is a model teammate and works hard every shift. He can play a physical game with his 6’3” frame, and positions himself well in the slot to obtain scoring chances nightly. Unfortunately his weak skating and mediocre hands have betrayed him this season, as the ‘Dogs needed him to take on a more offensive role on a team with little experienced firepower. Though he remains the team’s fourth leading scorer, he has been ice cold in 2014, with only 1 assist and a -2 rating in his past nine games. When the team is winning, it’s easy to laugh at the number of great Gabriel Dumont set-ups that Blunden fans on or fires wide. But when the goals are tougher to come by, what should be a dependable and productive line has been letting the team down at times.

– Greg Pateryn: This isn’t to say that Pateryn has been bad, but just as I spoke so very highly of him earlier this season, it’s fair to point out that the Pateryn of the past five or so games hasn’t been playing up to that level. Part of it may be learning to play with Jarred Tinordi after spending significant time beside Nathan Beaulieu, but Pateryn has only a single point to go with a -1 rating in his past nine games while looking more human in his own end following a dominant start. The injury to Ellis and the absence of Beaulieu will put a lot of pressure on Pateryn and Tinordi as the Bulldogs head out for an extended road trip, so the team needs the 23-year old to be at his best, rather than committing the kind of turnovers we’ve seen most recently.

The Bulldogs head out west this weekend for two games against the Abbotsford Heat, and remain on the road for stops in Rockford, Milwaukee, Binghamton, and Toronto. They’ll return home to the newly renamed FirstOntario Place (formerly Copps Coliseum) for a date with the Texas Stars on February 15. As the team finds itself in a playoff battle in the second half of the regular season, home crowds been gaining steam in Hamilton creating a great atmosphere, so be sure to check the team out if you’re in the area, with tickets available at http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/.

 

Categories
Feature

Down on the Farm – ‘Dogs Packing Copps for Friday Night

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – It was a quiet week on the ice in Hamilton, as the Bulldogs had only a single game, allowing some of their conference rivals to close out games in hand. Unfortunately they also allowed those teams to gain points on them in the AHL’s Western Conference standings, as their lone outing was a disappointing 3-1 loss to the cellar-dwelling Utica Comets.

It wasn’t for a lack of chances that the Bulldogs dropped their second game in the past three following a season-long six-game win streak. Removing the empty netter insurance goal, the shots on the night were even, and a Hamilton had a number of chances to get on the board early, but failed to cash in. Finding themselves down 2-0 through twenty minutes, the ‘Dogs simply didn’t have it in them to come back, struggling to beat netminder Joe Cannata despite the poor season he’s having.

Leblanc must prove he belongs in Montreal before White and Galchenyuk are ready to return from injury. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR, via Hamilton Bulldogs)
Leblanc must prove he belongs in Montreal before White and Galchenyuk are ready to return from injury. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR, via Hamilton Bulldogs)

Of greater significance to Habs fans were the three players called up to Montreal this week. Joonas Nattinen – who I’d highlighted as an unsung hero this season for the ‘Dogs – wasn’t given much of a chance to make his presence felt, centering the fourth line against the Toronto Maple Leafs but seeing his ice time limited to just 1:45. Nattinen will be an RFA this summer, and if he opts to explore options overseas, he will join the ranks of some of the most obscure players to ever wear the CH crest.

Nathan Beaulieu – called up along with Nattinen – has been given a better opportunity and hasn’t looked out of place on the Habs’ back end. His playing has come at the expense of Raphael Diaz – a curious choice to say the least – but his puck-handling and skating abilities are welcome additions and certain upgrades on veterans Francis Bouillon and Doug Murray. It is critical for the Canadiens to begin breaking in their prospect blueliners at the NHL level, as it is difficult to have multiple players making that transition all at once.

Lastly, Louis Leblanc was recalled after Nattinen was sent down to fill a bottom six winger role. Leblanc was Hamilton’s second leading scorer at the time of the recall, and their most productive player at even strength. His overall game wasn’t particularly impressive at the AHL level, but there were few forwards on the ‘Dogs’ roster truly deserving of a call-up, and the Canadiens do have a need to figure out Leblanc’s career trajectory beyond this season sooner rather than later. Leblanc got a slightly greater audition than Nattinen, playing 7:49 on a line with Michael Bournival (whereas Nattinen got Travis Moen and George Parros as wingers), and remains in the mix for the time being, with Ryan White and Alex Galchenyuk still sidelined with injuries.

With underperforming veterans like Bouillon, Murray, Rene Bourque, and Daniel Briere frequently in the Canadiens’ line-up, combined with Montreal’s poor play as a team of late, it isn’t inconceivable that other Bulldog players get NHL auditions before the season is through to inject some youthful energy and enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s the fact that Hamilton is in a tight race for a playoff spot that has made the Canadiens reluctant to pull the kind of moves that would gut their AHL affiliate. Is it just Michel Therrien‘s insistence on favouring is veterans, or is the organization putting heavy value on playoff experience for their young prospects in a case of “Ask not what your Bulldogs can do for you, but what you can do for your Bulldogs?”

In an ideal scenario, Hamilton would remain as hot as their 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games indicates for the next while, providing them a cushion of points on which they can rest their laurels. That would allow the Canadiens to free up some roster spots pre-trade deadline for call-ups, and not leave the Bulldogs shorthanded for too long, as at least some of the organization’s junior prospects would be nearing the ends of their seasons. Hamilton stands to gain the likes of Charles HudonTim BozonBrady VailDalton Thrower, and potentially Swedish imports Sebastian Collberg and Jacob De La Rose for a stretch run, and will need open spots for them to fill.

This weekend is a busier one for the boys from the Hammer with a traditional American Hockey League three-in-three. The team has seen exceptional ticket sales for it’s Friday night match-up against the arch-rival Toronto Marlies Friday night, completely selling out the lower bowl at Copps Coliseum, and now opening the upper bowl to fans as well. Considering it’s also $3 beer night, the building should be rocking, and thus if you’re in the Hamilton area, act quick and pick up tickets from www.hamiltonbulldogs.com.