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 Bergevin, Michel 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.
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.
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.