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.
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/.