IceCaps Hockey Report - bringing you inside the St. John's IceCaps
Dan was raised with a love for the Habs since his grandfather was a close friend of Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, and others of that era. But he only became a diehard in his own right during the 1993 Stanley Cup run. If it is a fact regarding the Canadiens between then and now, he probably knows it. Dan loves to read or watch anything and everything about his team, and started a blog to share his knowledge, a mission he hopes to continue in joining the All Habs team. Outside of hockey, he is a Toronto (via Montreal) marketing and business professional who recently completed an MBA from McGill University.
HAMILTON, ON – It was a tough fan appreciation night in Hamilton Saturday, as the Bulldogs closed the book on a disappointing 2013-14 season with their 35th loss, unable to reach the .500 mark on the season which was in play.
Newcomer Jack Nevins gave fans something to get excited about just 14 seconds after opening puckdrop, engaging in a fight with defenseman Joey Mormina, and quickly wrestling him to the ice.
The ‘Dogs carried momentum into the game’s first powerplay, as Mormina sat in the box again for a trip. Nathan Beaulieu pinched downlow, and Mike Blunden found a seam cross-crease, enabling an easy tap-in for the offensive-minded blueliner.
“That was a designed pass. I actually pass the puck,” joked Blunden post-game, making light of his own hands of stone. “I was looking for [Dumont], I kinda lost the puck a bit, and then I just wired at [Beaulieu] right at the net.”
But it wouldn’t be one final game in Hamilton this season if the team didn’t carry on their tradition of tough second periods. The ‘Dogs looked like they might survive despite being thoroughly outshot, until the final five minutes when a pair of strange bounces did them in. First it was multiple giveaways, followed up by an Evan Rankin centering pass deflected off defenseman Joel Chouinard and behind Dustin Tokarski, knotting the game at one.
Just over a minute later, a Luke Witkowski attempted dump-in took a funny hop off Nathan Beaulieu‘s leg and also beat a slow-to-react Tokarski, allowing the visitors to take their first lead of the night into the second intermission.
For a team playing what could be its final twenty minutes of the campaign, the ‘Dogs seemed eager to start vacation, with a fast-moving third yielding few scoring chances, other than a hard Greg Pateryn wrister that made it through a dense crowd but was still stopped by Cedric Desjardins. Then, just after an indisciplined penalty to Nick Tarnasky had expired, Jonathan Marchessault held the puck on a 3-on-1, froze Tokarski in his stance, and whipped a wrist shot through his five hole for an insurance marker that would put an end to Hamilton’s inconsistent year that unfortunately featured far more downs than ups.
“Our powerplay in the second period set the tone. We didn’t generate anything,” summarized coach Sylvain Lefebvre. “We had five shots in the period. We didn’t play well enough to win the game.” As to why, that middle stanza has been the team’s plague all season, Lefebvre had no answers. “If I knew, we wouldn’t be standing here talking like this.”
The loss means the ‘Dogs finish the year at 33-35-1-7, missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Prior to the game, end-of-year awards were given to Dustin Tokarski (MVP), Greg Pateryn (top d-man), Sven Andrighetto (top rookie), Gabriel Dumont (fan favourite), and Morgan Ellis (community involvement).
On being named most valuable player, the team’s starting netminder said he was satisfied with his own season amidst disappointment on the team’s lack of success. “I wanted to come in and turn some heads. Make management have some hard decisions. I think I was able to do that. But on the AHL level, you want to be in the playoffs right now and not going home. That’s tough to take in, but I think the team made strides from last season. It’s a great honour [to be named MVP]. Every guy in the room plays their heart out for the team; I’m the lucky one to be named MVP.”
After signing a 2-year deal with the Canadiens organization last week, Tokarski added that he feels he’s found a good fit for himself. “Montreal has treated me great since I’ve been here. Showed confidence in me. I’m ready to continue to work hard, and have a great summer. Montreal is all class, and to be part of it is real special.”
Post-game, the remaining awards were distributed, going to Martin St. Pierre (top scorer), Tokarski (Molson Cup / 3 stars), and Mike Blunden (hardest worker). Blunden, a pending unrestricted free agent, said he hasn’t given much though to his playing future after serving in a valuable leadership role this season. “I was focused on this year. Having a strong year. I’ve had a lot of fun, and now I”ll take a couple of weeks and think about it. I was joking with [Dumont] that he’ll probably have a better winger next year with much better hands.”
And with that, the ‘Dogs set sail for the off-season. A number of players are expected to head to Montreal Sunday to form a group of “black aces,” skating and practicing to stay in top form in case injury strikes the Canadiens during post-season play and they are pressed into service. The group should include Beaulieu, Pateryn, and Dumont, among others.
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 aMichael 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.
HAMILTON, ON – With little but pride left to play for, the Bulldogs turned to a surprising starter Saturday night in their return to First Ontario Centre from a nine-game road trip. The same day as Dustin Tokarski signed his new two-year contract with the organization, Robert Mayer was given another chance to prove he has value to Hamilton beyond this season, and he supported a ruthless Bulldog penalty kill that helped stage an improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit. In the end, however, the visiting Rochester Americans – battling tooth and nail for a playoff spot – would prove too much, prevailing 4-3 in a shootout in the second-to-last game of the season at First Ontario Centre.
Hamilton got the game’s first quality scoring chance when a Christian Thomas point shot hit a crowd of bodies in front of Rochester starter Andrey Makarov. Sven Andrighetto dug the puck out, spun, and fired a backhander on goal, but the netminder had the last word.
Andrighetto would make good on his next drive to the net, however. With five minutes to go in the opening period, the Swiss native entered the Americans zone with speed, cut towards the goal, and saw his shot attempt bounce off Makarov’s pads to a wide open Connor Crisp, who made no mistake in hitting the empty side of the net. The goal was Crisp’s second in his sixth professional game on a tryout with Hamilton.
Rochester would tie the game just two minutes later, however. Nathan Beaulieu attempted a clear off a defensive zone face-off, only to see it kept alive by Tim Schallerat the line. Beaulieu was then beaten to the net by Colton Gillies, who accepted a pass and fired a shot inside the post on Mayer.
A bit of bad luck to start the second, as Mayer made an ill-fated attempt to stop a dump-in behind the goal. A weird bounce had the puck squirt out front to Kevin Porter, who quickly tapped it into the goal before the netminder could recover.
Mayer would redeem himself not long after, sliding across to miraculously stop a Mikhail Grigorenko point-blank shot into what looked like a gaping cage. He couldn’t stop them all, however, as the ‘Dogs were heavily outchanced, and Brayden Irwin found a loose puck at the lip of the crease, slapping a rebound past the keeper just before the period’s halfway mark for a 3-1 advantage.
A 5-on-3 powerplay gave Rochester the chance to put the game out of reach, but strong defensive work by the P.K. unit and even a semi-breakaway for Joonas Nattinen allowed the home side to kill it off. Hamilton seemed to take some momentum from the kill, with each of Gabriel Dumont and Christian Thomas earning quality scoring chances in the period’s final minutes, but both turned aside by the Amerk rookie.
Any chance at a comeback took a serious blow when Dumont was assessed a four minute high sticking penalty as the second period expired. But the aggressive penalty killers got the job done once again, even generating chances for defensemen Nathan McIver and Drew Schiestel.
They say many things can turn the tide in a hockey game, and the two big penalty kills were no exception in this one. The line of Joonas Nattinen, Jack Nevins, and Nick Tarnasky stormed the Rochester crease, and a rebound landed on the Finnish centre’s blade. A slick forehand to backhand shift gave him a clear shooting lane, which he deftly capitalized on to pull his side within one.
The hounds smelled blood with that goal, and Hamilton controlled flow over the next few minutes, but was unable to get anything through to Makarov. Until, that is, Gabriel Dumont turned in a dominant shift. After blocking a shot in his own end, he collected a turned over puck and raced down the ice, roofing a laser beam shot over Makarov’s arm to tie the game.
And the ‘Dogs didn’t stop there. They looked poised to collect a regulation win when in the game’s final minute, the newly assembled unit of Andrighetto, Thomas, and Nick Sorkin – who logged big minutes in perhaps his best AHL game to date – generated three shots on a dangerous offensive zone sequence, but couldn’t seal the deal.
Overtime would solve nothing, and if several big glove saves from Mayer allowed the ‘Dogs to reach the shootout, his play in the skills competition tiebreaker ended things quickly, ceding on three consecutive shots.
Still, the stirring comeback provided an entertaining evening for what was one of the best crowds seen in Hamilton in months, with 6,314 in attendance in addition to 84 dogs for the team’s annual Pucks and Paws night.
“It shows a lot about the guys in the room. Obviously we wish we’d be in the race for the playoffs, and making comebacks to get in, but everybody’s playing for something,” summed up Dumont, the third goal scorer. “The road trip and here today again, the penalty kill was really big for us. We’ve had some success because of special units.”
The shorthanded units were a common theme post-game as a source of motivation that had the bench believing in a comeback. “Obviously with things like that, the team gets some life and power off of it. I can’t say I’ve ever had a 3-on-5 scoring chance before,” added Nattinen, a key role player who had recently spent time in the press box to make room for some of the younger junior call-ups.
Coach Sylvain Lefebvre agreed with Nattinen’s assessment, lauding the efforts of his two-way centreman. “It’s been a tough time for Nattinen. He had some big blocks, and came up with a big game tonight. We killed some big penalties with the 3-on-5 and the four minutes to Dumont. We came up short in overtime and the shootout, but showed some grit and character against a team that needed those points.”
The ‘Dogs close out their schedule with a game in Lake Erie on Tuesday, and then a home date against Syracuse on April 19th. Hamilton fans can get tickets for the last chance to see their team in the 2013-14 season at http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/.
NOTES: The game marked the professional debut of Montreal prospect Jack Nevins. Brady Vail will miss the remainder of the season with an ankle injury. Martin St Pierre also missed the game with an injury suffered in practice on Friday. Morgan Ellis was a healthy scratch.
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/.
HAMILTON, ON – It seems the margin between the Hamilton Bulldogs being a competitive team this season and being one that struggles to stay out of last place in the Western Conference was a slim 18. That 18 is the number sophomore forward Michael Bournival wears in the AHL, as Friday night his pair of goals helped the team to a 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Admirals, improving to 2-0-0 during the winger’s three-game conditioning stint. His return, coupled with solid goaltending from Dustin Tokarski has people in Hamilton believing that a late-season surge to at least make the playoff race interesting is indeed still possible despite the precarious situation in which the club finds itself.
The Bulldogs are no strangers to strong opening periods, but their efforts wouldn’t go unrewarded Friday night. After an 0-for-2 cold streak, Hamilton’s powerplay came to life with Patrick Cehlin in the box just past the five minute mark. Marek Mazanek was scrambling in the crease as a puck came back to Nathan Beaulieu at the point. His heavy slapper went well wide, but ricocheted off the end boards and right back out to Michael Bournival, who quickly batted it into the deserted cage for a 1-0 advantage.
Another powerplay – the third of four Hamilton would be gifted in the opening stanza – allowed the home team to extend their lead. Greg Pateryn accepted a Martin St. Pierre feed along the blueline, and the d-man took two steps in before firing a wrist shot top shelf past Mazanek, earning his 11th marker on the season. The goal tied Pateryn for fourth in the AHL in that category among all d-men.
Just as common as strong openings has been second period collapses in Hamilton this season, but the Bulldogs were determined not to let up this time around. It was again Bournival in the centre of the action, taking a pass as he charged to the net, and being awarded a penalty shot on a slash despite still managing to get a shot off. With a second opportunity, the former Shawinigan Cataractes captain made no mistake, letting go a quick wrister that deflected off the far post and in.
Milwaukee would try to make a game of it, catching the pair of Morgan Ellis and Drew Schiestel flat-footed in their own end as Mathieu Tousignant found Michael Liambas uncovered on in the slot for a one-timer that beat Tokarski, reducing the lead to two.
Whereas on many nights the first goal against results in a dip in the intensity and level of play of the Bulldogs, Friday they stormed right back to the attack. With Nick Tarnasky creating havoc in front of the goal, a Greg Pateryn point shot deflected off the pugilist’s active stick just as an Admiral defender collided with Mazanek, resulting in the puck trickling through the helpless netminder. A four-goal outburst is a rare occurrence for the team’s anemic offense, evident in the 12-1-0 record they’ve posted when accomplishing such a feat.
After a couple of ineffective third period powerplays for Hamilton, the Admirals found one final breath of life. An odd scrum after an uncalled Mike Blunden board resulted in Hamilton being called for not one but two minor infractions. With both Nathan Beaulieu and Maxime Macenauer in the box, Milwaukee quickly capitalized on the 5-on-3 opportunity as Taylor Beck‘s big point shot beat Tokarski bar-down.
Despite sustained pressure from Milwaukee for the remainder of the powerplay, the ‘Dogs defense – backed by a solid performance from Tokarski – was up to the task, shutting things down the rest of the way in preserving the 4-2 victory.
Coach Sylvain Lefebvre was understandably in a cheerful mood following the win, praising the night’s first star. “I just talked to Montreal, and we’re gonna keep [Bournival],” he joked, before quickly confirming that it was in fact just a three-game conditioning stint. “He never stops working, and he’s a good guy to have around. Everybody loves him. He’s a quiet guy, and just goes about his business.”
While not entirely happy with Sven Andrighetto‘s performance, coach Lefebvre also confirmed he will continue the experiment of skating the Swiss forward at centre. “Wednesday’s game was a better game for him. Tonight he didn’t have the same spark, but he made some good plays with Bournival and Thomas. I’m gonna keep him at centre for now. I think he enjoys playing there and he gets chances.”
Bournival himself was fairly critical of his own play despite his two goals. “I think I need to improve some things in my game, especially defensively. There are some things in my game I need to work on, and I’m gonna try to do that tomorrow. I need to be a little sharper.”
The final game of Bournival’s return to the ‘Dogs will be Saturday night at home against the Abbotsford Heat. It’s the last contest in Hamilton prior to a nine-game road trip that will ultimately decide the team’s end-of-season fate.
HAMILTON, ON – A team with every reason not to show up on a Wednesday night got some help from two players who strongly believe they have plenty to play for, as the Hamilton Bulldogs – despite any hope of a playoff berth virtually nil at this point – downed the playoff-bound Abbotsford Heat 3-1 at First Ontario Centre.
The win was just Hamilton’s second in their past seven games, leaving them ten points out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the AHL’s Western Conference with only fourteen games remaining. The situation would have been even more grim if not for a couple of familiar faces that made returns to the line-up.
First was Dustin Tokarski, unquestionably the MVP of a Bulldog team that has struggled to score all season, relying on stellar goaltending to win games. Fresh off a shutout of the Buffalo Sabres Sunday, Tokarski wasn’t forced to turn in his best effort of the season against the Abbotsford Heat, but managed 27 saves that allowed his side to overcome an early 1-0 deficit. As Devan Dubnyk‘s difficult season has continued in the AHL, having Tokarski back between the pipes should bring an extra dose of confidence to his team’s play, just as Carey Price‘s return seems to have done for the Canadiens.
Next was Michael Bournival, returning to game action on a conditioning stint in Hamilton after missing considerable time with a concussion. Bournival was a surprise in making the Montreal roster out of training camp in his second professional season, but hadn’t looked at all out of place in the NHL after hardly lighting the American League on fire last year. He showed in hist first AHL game of the season just how far his game had progressed, slotting right on to the top line with Christian Thomas and Sven Andrighetto, and energizing it to be the game’s best all night. Bournival would register an assist on Thomas’s game-winning goal, accepting a pass from Andrighetto and firing a shot on Aaron Dell before Thomas would bang home the rebound.
If Dell’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he attended numerous Canadiens’ off-season Development Camps back in the day. Many assumed the organization would sign Dell out of the University of North Dakota given their extended look at him and the thin pipeline in goal at the time, but such a move never came to fruition, and Dell has struggled to establish himself as more than a top ECHL starter to date.
But back to Bournival, a peculiar Sylvain Lefebvre decision was to play the natural center on left wing on the top line. Andrighetto, having played wing all season, was shifted to centre for the first time. While it may be as simple as limiting Bournival’s responsibilities for his first game back in over a month, it’s also interesting to consider the Canadiens may have taken the same approach as they did with Louis Leblanc. That is to say having made the determination that a player doesn’t project to the next level as a centre, and thus permanently switching him to the wing.
Integrating Bournival into the line-up required Lefebvre to make a decision on who to sit. Rather than cut one of his fourth line energy players, the head coach decided to use the opportunity to send a statement to a guy supposed to be one of his offensive leaders but whose game has been in sharp decline as a sophomore. Just as he tried to do in sitting Martin St. Pierre two weeks ago, Lefebvre hopes a one-game benching of Patrick Holland will get the versatile, two-way forward going for the final stretch. The situation is a pretty significant reversal from this time a year ago, where Holland was far more valuable to the ‘Dogs as a first line winger than Bournival as a third line pivot.
At 22, Holland is hardly a lost cause, but if he want another sniff at the NHL beyond the five games played there this year, he’ll need to show in the final year of his entry level contract that the present season was merely a blip on the radar of his development.
Two other notable players were out of the line-up Wednesday, but not by the coach’s own will. An injury plagued pro rookie season for Darren Dietz has come to an end, the team announced, with the defenseman not expected to return until 2014-15. A less serious lower body injury forced Greg Pateryn to miss the game. The d-man is considered day-t0-day, with his absence necessitating huge minutes from a top pairing of Nathan Beaulieu and Davis Drewiske.
Drewiske has played strong two-way hockey since joining the Bulldogs, and will be an important piece if the team manages to win enough games to keep things interesting over the final fourteen contests. Once the season is done, he will undoubtedly serve as one of the “black aces” in Montreal, and will be available to challenge for an NHL roster spot in the Fall, given the year remaining on the contract he signed last summer.
Also interesting to watch we’ll be how Hamilton handles its three-headed monster in goal. Despite Tokarski’s far superior play, the staff never hesitated to sit him for Robert Mayer after a tough loss, and now with both Dubnyk and Mayer in the mix, despite all he’s shown, Tokarski’s leash may be even shorter.
The ‘Dogs have two home games this weekend before heading out on a nine-game road trip. Friday’s game against Milwaukee and Saturday’s rematch with Abbotsford are must-wins, or the team will see the plug pulled on the life support on which its season rests. This also means it may be the last chance for hometown fans to see their team in meaningful action this season, so grab your tickets now from http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/.
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, MichaelBournival, 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.
HAMILTON, ON – With three home games in three days, this weekend was pivotal for the Hamilton Bulldogs to climb back into the AHL Western Conference playoff race. As the team plays 13 of their final 18 games on the road, it was critical for them to close the gap on the 8th and final spot in front of their own fans. But as much as the team got off to good starts, taking an early lead in all three contests, they failed to collect the four or six points they critically needed. And on Sunday, playing to salvage some positives out of the despair, they failed to even pick up two, dropping a 4-1 decision to the Lake Erie Monsters, who leap-frogged the Bulldogs in the process, dropping Hamilton to last place in the West.
Pre-game in Hamilton was unusually eventful, as first there was a notable absence from the team’s warm-up. Captain Martin St. Pierre was announced as a healthy scratch; the latest development in what has been a trying season for the veteran, despite his two assists yesterday. Though St. Pierre may lead the Bulldogs in scoring, almost all of his production has come with the man advantage, nearly invisible at even strength, and frequently guilty of poor penalties. Regardless of his play, benching your team’s top scorer and dressing room leader when as a club you struggle to produce is a bold move. So bold, one might argue, that it represented coach Sylvain Lefebvre‘s last straw tactic to try to get his team to play up to their potential, conceivably putting his own job on the line in doing so.
Next, there was almost a second curious storyline as the Bulldogs had only four skaters on ice throughout the national anthems. Nick Tarnasky was missing in action after being announced as part of the starting line-up. The pugilist raced down the hallway from the dressing room and on to the ice just prior to puck drop, ending any conspiracy theories, and then immediately dropped the gloves with Guillaume Desbiens off the opening face-off.
In Devan Dubnyk‘s second start since joining the Bulldogs, it was his teammate Morgan Ellis who made certain the netminder was sharp early on. Two blatant defensive zone giveaways gave the Monsters the game’s first two quality scoring opportunities, but both times the 6’6″ keeper had the last word, swallowing up any rebounds.
After their goalie’s heroics, Sven Andrighetto got the home team’s offense rolling. A solo rush saw him weaver between defenders before firing a wrister on goal, but despite the ensuing scramble, neither he nor Maxime Macenauer could tap a rebound past Calvin Pickard.
Andrighetto would make good later on in the frame, finding Christian Thomas alone at the top of the face-off circle, with the sniper making no mistake in firing a one-timer top shelf to open the scoring. The Swiss winger would nearly got on the scoreboard himself moments after the first tally, taking a delayed feed from Davis Drewiske during 4-on-4 play, but again Pickard resisted.
Strong firsts are nothing new for this year’s Hamilton Bulldogs squad, but the second frame has been their nemesis. A slow start was reversed following a Sylvain Lefebvre timeout, with the ‘Dogs carrying the play for much of the middle stanza without being able to add to their lead. The best chance came as Hamilton was awarded a penalty shot on a call most recently seen at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. With the puck on Louis Leblanc‘s stick in the attacking zone, a Monster defenseman inadvertently batted a broken stick along the ice at the puck-carrier, and the refs were quick to whistle play down and point to center ice signalling a penalty shot.
Coach Lefebvre went with his most dangerous skater for the shot, but Sven Andrighetto‘s quick backhand to forehand deke was matched with an equally quick Pickard pad.
A common problem for the boys from the Hammer as been failing to capitalize on chances, and thus allowing other teams to hang around for too long. That was the case again in this one, as Nathan McIver would leave his side shorthanded, guilty of an extra two minute penalty prior to a fight with Daniel Maggio. Immediately off the face-off in the ‘Dogs end, David van der Gulik fired a hard wrister up and over a falling Dubnyk to tie the game.
Another common problem has been second period collapses, and in a case of “jamais un sans deux,” van der Gulik was again Johnny on the spot just three minutes later, accepting a dish from Andrew Agozzino completely uncovered the slot and beating Dubnyk with a heavy release.
If the team’s season was on the line in the third period, they disappointingly didn’t play like it. Managing only four shots the entire frame, any hopes of a comeback were wiped out when Matt Hunwick pinched into the high slot on the powerplay, converting on a van der Gulik pass and beating Dubnyk just under the bar blocker side. Michael Schumacher added a fourth tally off a Hamilton turnover, sliding a backhand five hole on the Hamilton netminder in a game that was already out of reach.
Post-game, coach Lefebvre wasn’t entirely happy with his team’s effort, but saw Sunday as a game that could have gone either way. “The powerplay didn’t come up big. Tonight if Andrighetto scores on the penalty shot, it’s 2-0. Our second periods have been nowhere to be found this year. We gain momentum in the first period, then we come out in the second and we’re flat. I don’t know what it is.”
Certainly one of the “what it is” is a lack of scoring, for which the coach also has few answers. “We work on scoring everyday. I wish we could score more goals, but that’s how it is right now and we have to play well defensively. Last night, the empty net goal was the thirteenth this year. We’re in games, but we just can’t find a way to win games when we have to comeback from behind, and scoring is part of it.”
How does a last place team stay motivated with eighteen games remaining in the season and the already slim hope of a playoff berth now requiring nothing short of a miracle? “If we stop believing and we quit, no one is going to benefit from that. It’s our job as coaches and our job as players not to quit, and to battle till the end. Guys are playing for their lives, playing for their livelihoods and their jobs. That’s the plain and simple truth,” summarizes the coach, alluding to the fact that at least on an individual basis, players remain in competition for NHL call-ups.
And then there’s the captain. The team’s lone goal scorer on the night, Christian Thomas, didn’t hide his disappointment in St. Pierre’s absence from the line-up. “It was definitely tough. He’s a presence in the room. He’s a good leader; older guy, brings veteran status out there, but we come to the rink and whatever the lines are, we can’t change it and just have to do our thing out there. He definitely helps, but today I’m not going to blame it cause he wasn’t playing, but we should have showed up more.”
Coach Lefebvre didn’t shy away from tackling the issue of his controversial line-up decision head on. “[St. Pierre] was a healthy scratch tonight. Not happy with his game. Been talking to him a few times, sending him messages here and there not happy with his game. Sometimes as a coach, you have ways to get guys going. Hopefully he’ll rebound and get to playing the way he can play. He’s our captain. He’s the guy that sets the tone, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Things won’t get any easier from here on out, as after three-in-three at home this weekend, they’ll play three-in-three in different cities on the road next week.
HAMILTON, ON – If it was the Hamilton Bulldogs’ mission to make new goaltender Devan Dubnyk feel at home in his debut with the team, they certainly succeeded. Dubnyk turned in a solid performance, but was faced with an overwhelming barrage of scoring chances all night from the Oklahoma City Barons – something he had become accustomed to in backstopping the Edmonton Oilers – unable to help his new squad prevail in a pivotal game for the Western Conference playoff race. Despite the netminder’s 38 saves, the Bulldogs were unable to generate much offensively, finding themselves on the wrong end of a 2-1 decision.
Things started off well for the home team. The Bulldogs were gifted a 5-on-3 powerplay early in the game when Austin Fyten was guilty of a flagrant high stick on captain Martin St. Pierre with Taylor Fedun already sitting in the box. A Gabriel Dumont slash subsequently reduced the advantage to 4-on-3, but just as the first Barons’ penalty expired, Greg Pateryn found Nathan Beaulieu with a cross-ice pass, and the offensive blueliner rifled a shot that beat Richard Bachman up high for a 1-0 lead.
Oklahoma City – a team with a roster far better than you’d expect of a ninth place squad – took over the opening stanza from there, pouncing on numerous Hamilton defensive lapses. First it was Pateryn – exhausted at the end of a near three minute shift – with a turnover to Matthew Ford forcing Dubnyk into a quick save on a break. Dubnyk wouldn’t be agile enough to make up for a second giveaway, however, as Gabriel Dumont deflected a puck in the defensive zone right out to Mark Arcobello at the midway mark of the period. Arcobello, who spent time on the Edmonton Oilers’ powerplay earlier this season as a teammate of Dubnyk’s, made no mistake in shelfing a backhander off the crossbar and in to tie the score.
Dubnyk would finish the first with 12 saves as the visitors held a 13-5 shot advantage. Hamilton would manage to generate more offensive pressure in the second, with the best chance coming as Louis Leblanc picked off a Baron defender to skate in alone on a breakaway in the early minutes. But his backhand to forehand attempt was turned aside by Bachman, as was a quick shot on a Martin St. Pierre break later in the frame.
After the wasted opportunities, a tough shift for Maxime Macenauer would prove costly. The two-way center coughed a puck up in his own end bailing on a play to dodge a hit and then was called for a clear hook in trying to cover his error. Oklahoma City would quickly capitalize on the powerplay, as top prospect Anton Lander found Arcobello again with a cross-rink feed, and his quick one-timer fooled Dubnyk between the legs as he slid across the net. Through forty minutes, the shots stood a highly one-sided 30-17.
The third period was quiet, with the Barons effectively shutting down the ‘Dogs, stifling them from any sustained offensive zone pressure even during two powerplays. Any hope of a last-minute comeback was stymied when an all-out brawl in the crease erupted after a questionable Dumont goalie interference call, resulting in a face-off outside the blueline as both Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu left the points to defend their tackled forwards.
While two critical points escaped Hamilton on the night, the positive news was the play of the new masked man guarding the team’s cage while Dustin Tokarski is up in Montreal. “Arcobello’s a pretty good hockey player,” joked Dubnyk post-game on the coincidence of facing his former club’s AHL affiliate in his first game within the Canadiens’ organization.
Dubnyk acknowledged there are challenges ahead playing behind a team that doesn’t score a lot of goals. “You can’t give up bad goals. You have to make the saves you should make, and hope to make some spectacular ones in between. It’s that much more important to make sure that goals that shouldn’t go in don’t go in.”
On his playing future, Dubnyk is taking things one game at a time. “As the weeks went by after the Olympic break, you start to see the writing on the wall. I was happy that I was acquired by a team that wants me here. I’m not sure what the situation is, but whether it’s up there or down here, it’s fun to play hockey again. I’m gonna try to enjoy it and work as hard as I can.” But that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied continuing his career at the AHL level. “Everybody wants to be in the NHL. I want to get back there as soon as I can, but you have to make the best out of it.”
Also making his Bulldog debut was Davis Drewiske, rounding out the team’s top four on the blueline on a pairing with Morgan Ellis. He had a couple of nice touches, but was mostly unnoticeable, which suits the stay-at-home d-man’s game nicely. “I was on the IR all year, so just trying to get into shape, get acquainted with the guys. [Tonight] was ok. About what you’d expect for not playing all year. Ok in some parts, and rusty in others. Room for improvement. Trying to get some confidence back, and just play.”
The old and new Bulldogs won’t have much time to think about Friday’s loss, as they are back in action at home Saturday night against the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, before rounding out a three-in-three Sunday as hosts to the Lake Erie Monsters. If they are to not lose further ground in their long-shot playoff hopes, Hamilton must aim to collect all four remaining possible points on the weekend.
HAMILTON, ON – Wednesday night was just another day at the office for Dustin Tokarski. The undersized and soft-spoken but fiery tempered and fiercely competitive netminder went about his usual business of making it a personal objective to match his rival save for save. Only on this night, the guy in the other net wasn’t a career minor pro or an unproven up-and-comer. It was Jonas Hiller, he of a league-leading five shutouts thus far this season. Oh and the team in front of Hiller barreling down on Tokarski just happened to be the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks.
One might say it’s the stuff movies are made of. The kid who hasn’t gotten an NHL start in two years. The underappreciated trade acquisition that has had to repeatedly fight tooth and nail for AHL playing time despite repeatedly proving he was simply better than Robert Mayer. The RFA who was only given a one-year contract when his back-up got two seasons, and who sat on the bench watching as Peter Budaj got both halves of Montreal’s post-Olympic break back-to-back. Steps in one Wednesday night, hours after his organization goes out and acquires a more proven NHL netminder in Devan Dubnyk, only to send the ex-Oiler down to Hamilton. And wins. Not only wins, but makes 39 saves, and then still has to outduel Hiller in a shootout. He had earned the opportunity to get the start. And he earned the victory.
Two more important points collected for the Habs while their franchise netminder remains sidelined, thanks in part to a guy who has been the Hamilton Bulldogs’ MVP since he was acquired in a deal for Cedric Desjardins a year ago January. And while the man they call ‘Tick’ was strutting his stuff before a much larger audience, Robert Mayer was holding the fort down on the farm, turning in solid performances in back-to-back wins last weekend to get Bulldog faithful thinking the post-season might be attainable after all.
The path ahead still won’t be easy, however, and gearing up for an always difficult three-games-in-three nights this weekend, the ‘Dogs can count on two key new faces. First, as already mentioned, the Canadiens made a move to bring in Devan Dubnyk for future considerations. Rather than claiming him on the waiver wire, the trade allowed them to immediately send him to the ‘Dogs, and also got Nashville to pick up more of his salary – a portion of which was already being paid by the Edmonton Oilers. Dubnyk, 27, has struggled mightily this season, as a pedestrian .894 save percentage in 32 games with the Oilers ballooned into a .850 in just two games for the Preds, but it remains that he was considered at least a solid back-up for three years prior. He hasn’t played an AHL game since 2009-10, a season where he maintained a .915 save percentage in 33 games for the Springfield Falcons.
Certainly, he’s an upgrade on Mayer, though both goalies will get work until Price is healthy enough to allow Tokarski to take the 401/403 route back to Canada’s Steeltown. Coach Sylvain Lefebvre has already confirmed that it will be the new acquisition getting the start Friday night against Oklahoma City in a pivotal match for Western Conference positioning. Not lost on Dubnyk is the fact that the visiting Barons are the affiliate of his former club – the Oilers – who he will want to prove wrong for giving up on him.
The other addition to the Hamilton line-up didn’t arrive by trade, but is another player who has dressed exclusively in the NHL over the past few seasons – since 2008-09 in his case. It was evident as far back as last summer that the ‘Dogs lacked a veteran presence on the blueline, and with 21 games remaining in their regular season, hopefully it won’t be too little too late as 29-year old Davis Drewiske steps in to fill that role.
As Jarred Tinordi looks to remain in Montreal for the remainder of the season, and Darren Dietz is sidelined once again in what has been an injury-plagued rookie year, the ‘Dogs had resorted to inking ECHLer Jordon Southorn to a tryout for depth on the blueline. The arrival of Drewiske has coincided with the release of Southorn – without having played a game – but more importantly is what it does to the top of the team’s roster on D.
Without Tinordi, the ‘Dogs had reunited Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu, essentially going “all in” on a single standout pairing. Through two games, it had worked almost perfectly, as Pateryn collected a goal and an assist, with eight shots and a +2 rating, while Beaulieu amassed one assist, seven shots, and also a +2. But as three 3-in-3s highlight a surcharged final stretch – that also includes a nine-game road trip – it would be too much to ask the duo to play 25 or more minutes night-in night-out. Drewiske, then, gives the Bulldogs options for a second reliable pair, completing a top four with Morgan Ellis.
Drewiske and Dubnyk will be instrumental if the ‘Dogs are to close the seven point spread that currently separates them from the eighth and final playoff position. While the offense showed signs of life in the last two wins, the team has gotten by by coming out on top of low-scoring tilts for much of the season, and every point is essential here on out with as many as nine teams still in contention for likely just the seventh and eighth spots in the West.
All three games this weekend are at Hamilton’s First Ontario Centre, and thus a great opportunity for the home team to vault themselves ahead in the race. Tickets are still available for the contests via HamiltonBulldogs.com.