Bulldogs Offer Up Early Surprises

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

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 BennettBrendan RanfordZack 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.

Added organizational toughness proved too much competition for Ian Schultz (Photo: Agence QMI)

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 StortiniGabriel 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 PalushajBlake 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 GalchenyukSebastian 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.



Avtsin, Alexander
Berger, Alain
Blunden, Michael
Bournival, Michael
Boyce, Darryl
Dumont, Gabriel
Farnham, Bobby*
Gallagher, Brendan
Geoffrion, Blake
Hagel, Kyle
Holland, Patrick
Leblanc, Louis
Lefebvre, Philippe
MacAulay, Stephen*
Nattinen, Joonas
Palushaj, Aaron
Quailer, Steven
Stortini, Zack

Beaulieu, Nathan
Boutet, Etienne*
Corbin, Antoine*
Ellis, Morgan (injured)
Gagne, Kevin*
Nash, Brendon
Pateryn, Greg
St-Denis, Frederic
Tinordi, Jarred

Delmas, Peter
Desjardins, Cedric
Mayer, Robert



Huge ‘Dogs Camp Shows Commitment to Depth

by Dan Kramer, Senior Writer,

Ouellet could replace Brian Willsie for the ‘Dogs

MONTREAL, QC — At long last, Montreal Canadiens hockey has returned.  Well… sort of.  No, the Collective Bargaining Agreement issues still haven’t been settled.  No, we still don’t know when the next NHL game will be played.  But in the interim, Habs fans should follow the example General Manager Marc Bergevin laid out when he stated last week that his attention is shifting for now to the Hamilton Bulldogs.

As was officially reconfirmed yesterday, the Bulldogs will open camp tomorrow with physicals and media availability in Brossard.  They will then shift to Sherbrooke for some scrimmages, before beginning preseason action in Ontario.  The group on hand for day 1 of camp is far larger than normal for an AHL squad, with 43 names compared to last season’s 16, mostly due to the fact that most players were retained by the Canadiens for at least another week or so to see NHL preseason action.

The size of this year’s camp can also be attributed to a different philosophy on the part of Bergevin and his team as compared to the previous regime.  With last week’s signings of former Atlanta Thrashers first round pick Daultan Leveille, offensive AHL journeyman Stephane Chaput, and long-time dependable Bulldog Olivier Fortier, the club showed its understanding of a need for depth even at the American League level, clearly planning to take advantage of its affiliation with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers to keep bodies in reserve.  That trend continued with no fewer than 13 players being added to the camp’s roster on an invitation basis, up from just four unsigned invitees a year ago.

In previous seasons, when injuries and call-ups decimated the AHL roster, the Canadiens management was left in dire straits.  The club desperately searched high and low for quick-fix college or other league players it could sign to temporary mid-season tryout agreements just to ice a big enough roster.  The team was forced to look for AHL players it could acquire on the trade market to fill roster spots.  Clearly, Bergevin plans to be more prepared, with 42 players attending the ‘Dogs camp despite having a full 23-man roster on locked out NHL contracts.

Certainly it’s doubtful that all 13 of the invited players end up staying within the organization.  At least three of the players seem bound for Wheeling whether they are signed or not, as goaltender Scott Darling and forward Zack Torquato already have ECHL deals there, and defenceman Cody Wild was under contract with the squad last year, though he spent most of his time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.

Michel Ouellet is an interesting name that likely rings a bell to you.  Yes, it is that Michel Ouellet, a 30-year old veteran with 190 games of NHL experience.  The ‘Dogs are very young and fresh this season and could use a veteran leader up front, and though Ouellet’s best days seem behind him – he once scored 19 goals and 48 points in a season with the Pittsburgh Penguins under one Michel Therrien – he remains a competent offensive AHL player who could pick up the slack left by Brian Willsie‘s departure for Europe.

Two other players of note are one who attended a Habs Development Camp this summer and impressed sufficiently to earn a call back this Fall in goaltender Cody Reichard, and another whose invitation to the Montreal camp was confirmed some two months ago in forward Brendan Ranford.  That Reichard was retained surprises me some, as even in the previous camp, he seemed outclassed by fellow invitee Brandon Maxwell, but goaltending coach Pierre Groulx must have seen something he felt he could work with.  Ranford, already 20, is currently lining up as an overager for the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, where he is a teammate of Hab prospect Tim Bozon.  An undersized energy player with decent offensive instincts, the 2010 7th round Philadelphia Flyers selection potted an impressive 40 goals last season.

Bennett’s size may compliment smaller ‘Dogs forwards (Photo: Vancouver Giants)

While there is always room for surprises, the only other tryout perhaps worth mentioning at this juncture is 21-year old forward Spencer Bennett.  Taken in the fifth round by the Calgary Flames back in 2009, Bennett was a teammate of Brendan Gallagher‘s for half a season with the Vancouver Giants in 2010-11.  A fellow BC native, Bennett joined Gallagher in skating with the Giants when their training camp opened this Fall.  At 6’4″ and 200 lbs, he has the frame of a power forward and put up good numbers in his final junior season before being limited to just 13 games last year due to freak injuries which included a broken wrist suffered in practice.

‘Dogs camp looks to be highly competitive this year, with a group unseen at this level likely since the last lockout (a squad which included Tomas PlekanecChris HigginsAndrei KostitsynRon HainseyMike KomisarekJason Ward, and more, though even that year “only” 33 players were invited to camp).  Competition means AHL rookies like Patrick Holland and Steve Quailer will have to earn their spots ahead of some more experienced players to start the season in prominent roles.  The depth will be important for the club to remain competitive given that, until the lockout ends, they will have to compete with the likes of Ryan Nugent-HopkinsJordan EberleAdam Henrique, and Jeff Skinner.  Thus, for both Hamilton’s success this season and the enjoyment of hockey fans everywhere, let’s hope the NHL and NHLPA returning to the negotiating table tomorrow yields a first bit of true progress.