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.
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 Gallagher, Michael 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 Hudon, Brady Vail, Mac 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.