TORONTO, ON — The Hamilton Bulldogs training camp is in full swing and already the group of 43 attendees has been whittled down to 29. Add in a lower-body injury that returned rookie defenseman Morgan Ellis to Montreal for treatment, and we may be within 5 cuts of a final season opening roster. That’s not to say it has been an easy process; already there have been a few surprises after four intrasquad games swept by Team White.
The most unexpected to me was the cut of Michel Ouellet. Released along with fellow tryout forwards Spence Bennett, Brendan Ranford, Zack Torquato, and Kyle Rank, I had Ouellet penciled into a potential top-6 role with the squad. The 30-year old has 190 NHL games of experience under his belt, which could have made him a valuable veteran on a team filled with rookies both up front and on defense. He has been a productive offensive player, with 52 NHL goals and 116 points to his name, and coming off of a season of 31 points in 55 games with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals. His presence might have taken some pressure off the younger players who may go through slumps as rookies are prone to do, but he was simply outplayed by too many others on a very deep training camp roster to stick around.
Another surprise was the contracted players who were part of the first wave of cuts. Ian Schultz has played exclusively for the Bulldogs for the past two seasons after being acquired in the Jaroslav Halak trade, filling a pugilist role. He has battled conditioning issues throughout his career, and many close to the team indicated he didn’t show up to camp in the best of shape again this Fall. That may be what cost him a spot, forcing him to try to earn a promotion back from the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers while Mike Blunden, Zack Stortini, Gabriel Dumont, and Kyle Hagel handle protecting the Bulldogs’ star players.
Olivier Fortier has been a valuable member of the Bulldogs for the past two seasons… when he’s been healthy. A responsible two-way forward, he has always earned his coaches’ trust, taking on large roles to earn time on penalty kills and powerplays alike. His injuries have derailed his development, which led to the Canadiens opting not to qualify him in June, before ultimately giving him a two-way AHL/ECHL contract later this summer. The fact that he is adept at everything but doesn’t excel particularly at anything likely cost him the chance to start with the squad again this year. That said, expect him to be a top call-up candidate.
It’s not a huge surprise that Stephane Chaput was sent to the ECHL, but he has AHL experience and has been a productive player, notching a few goals in training camp which many thought might have earned him a closer look. Ultimately, the play of tryouts Bobby Farnham and Stephen MacAulay, younger players with less experience, forced the team to keep them around for longer evaluations than Chaput, who is already signed to a two-way AHL/ECHL deal.
On defense, the ‘Dogs are blessed with a strong incoming squad of top notch prospects, but have some depth roles to fill. Yet, AHL experienced Joe Stejskal and tryout Cody Wild were among those assigned to the Nailers. Two D tryouts remain in camp in Antoine Corbin of the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders and Kevin Gagne of the Saint John Sea Dogs (yes, a teammate of Nathan Beaulieu‘s), both of whom began CHL overager seasons this Fall and would be eligible to be signed and make the jump immediately to the pro ranks.
But the surprises weren’t limited to the players on whom the axe fell. Team White, led by top prospects Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival, frequently playing with either Joonas Nattinen or Steve Qualier, won all four games against Team Red, anchored by the veteran big line of Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion, and Louis Leblanc.
In a sense, this could be a sign of a changing of the guard to come. Players like Palushaj and Geoffrion that have struggled to prove they have a future as consistent NHL’ers might soon find themselves slipping on the depth chart behind the Gallaghers, Bournivals, and Quailers, with the likes of Alex Galchenyuk, Sebastian Collberg, and Danny Kristo potentially not far behind. On the other hand, it’s certainly also possible that these experienced players are taking training camp slowly for now and – with spots assured – are saving their higher gears for when games start to count. All Hab and Bulldog fans should hope that is the case, as Geoffrion-Leblanc-Palushaj proved dominant at times last year and will be counted on as a top line to help the ‘Dogs succeed in a highly competitive AHL this season. The intensity should ratchet up a notch soon as preseason action begins this Thanksgiving weekend.
PLAYERS REMAINING AT HAMILTON BULLDOGS TRAINING CAMP (5 OCT 2012)
Ellis, Morgan (injured)