By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
TORONTO, ON – After starting the season inconsistently, hovering around the .500 mark for the first 23 games, the Hamilton Bulldogs’ 2012-13 campaign has seen far more downs than ups. In the 18 games that have followed, the club is an abysmal 4-10-4, which has left them 30th overall in the American Hockey League, six points behind their closest Western Conference rival and a full 13 points away from the eighth and final playoff spot.
It seemed all along like the ‘Dogs might be one of the AHL’s best positioned clubs to make a second-half run up the standings ladder with the National Hockey League work conflict resolved. It didn’t look like the team was going to lose any of its core players, it would benefit from weakened opposition league-wide, and it had a need to address – a veteran scoring forward – which it could focus on once the NHL fate of those sitting out had been decided.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Due in part to the health of Max Pacioretty, the Montreal Canadiens have decided to keep Brendan Gallagher – one of Hamilton’s top forwards along with Gabriel Dumont through the first half of the year – for the remainder of the season. Injures have meant Mike Blunden has also been largely unavailable to Hamilton, as he has served as press box filler for the Habs. The club inked local talent Joey Tenute, and while he has performed admirably with four points in six games, he is hardly the veteran fallen-from-grace-NHL’er many had hoped would be acquired.
What did the organization identify as a problem this season? If astute observers questioned the system – or lack thereof – the team had been employing, they may have been right. On January 22nd, in a move strongly reminiscent of the Canadiens’ dismissal of Perry Pearn a year prior, the team relieved Assistant Coach Ron Wilson – easily the most experienced man on the green staff – of his duties, citing a difference in philosophies with Head Coach Sylvain Lefebvre. A strange move, but an early vote of confidence in the man Marc Bergevin picked to lead his AHL squad over the summer. This marked the second time Wilson has been fired from a job with the Bulldogs, previously leaving the team after the 2008-09 season only to come back on board for 2011-12. He was the only holdover from last season’s ‘Dogs coaching staff.
That Hamilton is 1-0-0 in the post-Wilson era is very likely more coincidental than causal, and it’ll take more than a scapegoat if the team is to build any momentum. Admittedly the club’s schedule didn’t help in the month of January, with a 3-4-3 record not disastrous for a club that played only 4 home games the entire month. February will be much busier, so stay tuned to AllHabs.net for exclusive post-game player interviews and analysis following most contests at Copps Coliseum.
And the month to come should see some reinforcements. While no one is rushing Blake Geoffrion‘s recovery, the other AHL star lost early in the year – Aaron Palushaj – is inching closer to a return. On the blueline, rookie Greg Pateryn had his health status upgraded to day-to-day well over a week ago, and thus should be able to reintegrate into the roster in the coming days to make up for the hole left by the end of Mike Commodore‘s try-out contract. The defense should be one of the team’s strengths moving forward as the trio of promising youngsters – Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, and Morgan Ellis – continue to gain experience and learn the intricacies of the pro game.
Tinordi was a bit of a surprise invite to the Canadiens’ abbreviated training camp, but his rare mix of size and agility combined with Montreal’s need for more toughness on the back end have accelerated his progression towards making an NHL debut, and he looks as though he may be ready to challenge for a job early in the 2013-14 season.
The inconsistencies in Beaulieu’s game have been noticeable, with stretches where he has seemed like Hamilton’s top d-man and other where he seems a long ways from being able to set up residence in la belle province. He is easily the most skilled of the Bulldogs’ defense corps, and if the logjam of offensive blueliners is cleared up this summer through a buyout for Tomas Kaberle and a trade of Yannick Weber, he too may earn some action in 2013-14.
Lastly, based on his dominance at the junior level and well-rounded game, some predicted that Ellis might have the more direct path to the NHL when compared to his first round selection counterparts. He hasn’t been overly noticeable, but that isn’t necessarily troubling for a player who battles hard and does all the little things right. The challenge for Ellis – due to his balanced game – will be to define himself as a professional hockey player. It’s easy to say the Habs should call up Tinordi if they need size and toughness, or Beaulieu if they need scoring from the point, but under what circumstance will Ellis get his shot? For this reason, he might need a bit more seasoning before cracking the roster, so pencil him in for the Fall of 2014.