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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.