By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
HAMILTON, ON – One year ago, I wrote an article referring to the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs as potential 2013 Calder Cup contenders. Flash forward to today, and that looks like a foolish prediction given the team’s 30th place overall finish this past season.
It’s easy to see what went wrong. A rookie head coach struggled to get his feet under him early on, and before he knew it, the rug had been swept from beneath him with injuries to both Blake Geoffrion and Aaron Palushaj – the two veteran forwards who were supposed to lead his young team in scoring. The offensive forward who had looked so dominant between the two wingers the season before – Louis Leblanc – was mired in a deep sophomore slump. The other veterans brought in to help a squad full of rookies – Darryl Boyce and Zack Stortini – played so poorly that it was tough to believe they had ever laced up skates in the National Hockey League.
On defense, it wasn’t a banner season for either of the team’s experienced vets. Frederic St. Denis got off to a very slow start, and then battled injuries. Brendon Nash‘s play had him slipping down the team’s depth chart to the point where he was moved for more of a specialist in Jason DeSantis in a failed effort to spark the team’s powerplay, a situation that only became tougher when DeSantis was forced to take personal leave to attend to an ailing parent.
And who could have foreseen goaltending troubles? Cedric Desjardins was as established an AHL netminder as one could have hoped for, but was quickly outplayed by Robert Mayer, a ‘tender that almost no one thought was in the plans beyond the current campaign a year ago.
The rest of the squad was composed primarily of rookies, most of whom had successful introductions to professional hockey. When the lockout ended, losing Brendan Gallagher certainly didn’t help Hamilton’s chances of a second half rebound, but his play in Montreal was a testament to how well he had made the transition from the junior ranks. As were the brief call-ups of Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn, and Nathan Beaulieu, the latter of which was one of the AHL’s top blueliners over the season’s final months.
With so many things going wrong last season, it would be easy to lose hope as a ‘Dogs supporter. But such despair would be misplaced, as the team has quickly gone about readying itself to right the ship, and the 2013-14 edition will be looking to bite back. General Manager Marc Bergevin hasn’t hesitated to bolster the group that finished last season with a number of interesting UFA signings, leaving the current depth chart as follows:
Patrick Holland – Martin St. Pierre – Christian Thomas
Mike Blunden – Michael Bournival – Louis Leblanc
Sven Andrighetto – Joonas Nattinen – Nick Tarnasky
Stefan Fournier – Ben Duffy – Steve Quailer
Nathan Beaulieu – Greg Pateryn
Darren Dietz – Morgan Ellis
Magnus Nygren – Drew Schiestel
The core roster has familiar faces at every position. However, all of Patrick Holland, Michael Bournival, Steve Quailer, Nathan Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn, and Morgan Ellis were professional rookies a year ago. By season’s end, Holland was among the most dangerous ‘Dogs offensively, Bournival a responsible two-way player in the mold of Tomas Plekanec, and Pateryn and Beaulieu formed a legitimate AHL top pairing. Certainly, a big part of the team’s success will depend on the continued development of these returnees.
But the depth chart is also sprinkled with new faces throughout. At forward, the big fish was the signing of Martin St. Pierre, a seemingly perennial AHL all-star who, at 29, has appeared in 38 career NHL games split among three different teams. While undersized, St. Pierre – coming off a year of 26 goals and 59 points in 76 games – is a significant upgrade on Joey Tenute who finished 2013 as the team’s #1 centre and has signed with Malmo in Sweden for 2013-14.
The other new veteran is Nick Tarnasky, a pugilist who will contribute far more than either Zack Stortini or Kyle Hagel managed to last season. Twenty-eight year old, 6’2″ Tarnasky won’t hesitate to drop the gloves to defend a teammate, seen in his 138 AHL penalty minutes last season, but also has greater skill with the puck than a Stortini or Hagel, having scored 16 times in 74 contests for Rochester last year.
Perhaps the most surprising acquisition was that of Christian Thomas, who Bergevin ceded Danny Kristo to the New York Rangers in order to acquire. Kristo joined Hamilton late last season to great fanfare once North Dakota’s year came to an abrupt end. While making the jump from college hockey to the American League can be a difficult one, Kristo did little to impress Bulldog faithful in his short time in Steeltown. That, combined with off-ice behavioural questions, may have motivated Bergevin to deal, and in Thomas, Hamilton adds another professional sophomore, who isn’t the biggest at 5’9″, but plays a tough game not unlike Brendan Gallagher. While he may not quite match Gallagher’s ferocity around the net, he compensates with an extra offensive weapon of a quick and heavy arsenal of shots, used to net 19 goals in his first AHL season. Thomas should be an important part of this year’s Hamilton offense.
Four players should be making their AHL debuts at forward for the ‘Dogs. The first is Sven Andrighetto, a 2013 3rd round pick as an overage player who had begun to tear up the QMJHL after completing his adjustment from junior Swiss leagues to North American style hockey. Another player without the biggest of frames, Andrighetto is highly skilled and has the potential to fill a top six role on the squad once he adjusts to bigger, tougher, and faster competition.
The other three are undrafted players that earned NHL or AHL contracts coming out of Montreal’s July Development Camp in Brossard. Ben Duffy is last season’s QMJHL scoring champion, and earned a contract following a two-goal performance in the scrimmage on camp’s final day, centering a dominant line with Erik Nystrom and Sebastian Collberg. He brings depth to the squad, even if he’ll be battling to avoid starting in the ECHL in training camp, looking to be a more significant contributor than a Stefan Chaput on last year’s team. Stefan Fournier is a big body who can play a physical game but also put up points, scoring 16 goals in 17 games in the QMJHL playoffs before helping the Halifax Mooseheads capture the Memorial Cup. Finally, Stephen MacAulay was a teammate of Fournier’s in Halifax, both in their overage CHL seasons as 20 year olds. MacAulay is more of a two-way forward who – just like Fournier – has been recognized for off-ice leadership and work ethic.
With the Canadiens renewing their ECHL affiliation with the Wheeling Nailers, there remains room to add a forward or two for extra depth should the right fits arise. There is also the possibility that the team’s top forward last season, Gabriel Dumont, is returned to the AHL, though he’d need to clear waivers to do so, and thus there is a chance that either the Canadiens decide to retain him, or that he is claimed by another organization. Another name to keep in mind is Alex Belzile, a player who impressed on a late-season call-up tryout from Wheeling, and who was then invited to Development Camp in July, but has yet to sign for the coming year.
On defense, it is clear Bergevin must continue his shopping for reinforcements. The current top five members of the depth chart are either first or second year AHL’ers, and thus a veteran presence is needed to stabilize the group and share the tougher minutes. Some available names include former Hab Jay Leach, Garnet Exelby, Jim Vandermeer, and Jeff Woywitka.
There are two bright new faces on D with reasonable NHL upside. Darren Dietz capped a solid junior career with a season in which he led all CHL blueliners in goals (24) and participated in the Memorial Cup with the host Saskatoon Blades. A 5th round pick in 2011, he backs up his offense with a sound physical package and will quickly battle a player like Morgan Ellis in the injury call-up hierarchy.
Every bit as intriguing is Magnus Nygren, who brings a similar value proposition to the table with toughness and a booming point shot, but who has the benefit of a couple of years experience playing against men in the Swedish Elite League after having been drafted as an overager in 2011. The 23-year old will make his North American debut after 13 goals in 51 games for Farjestad earned him the title of the SEL’s top Swedish blueliner last season.
The most recent addition, Drew Schiestel, fills a depth AHL/ECHL ‘tweener role left vacant by the unqualified Joe Stejskal. The once Buffalo 2nd round selection was taken far earlier than anyone had projected in the entry draft and at 24 has yet to make his NHL debut.
Missing from the above depth chart is Jarred Tinordi, who will battle with Greg Pateryn for the right to start the season in Montreal at least as long as it takes Alexei Emelin to recover from knee surgery (likely at least till late November). Also absent is Dalton Thrower, who as a late birthday would be eligible to play in the AHL this coming season (like Beaulieu last year). Thrower is coming off a difficult season for Saskatoon, and is thus more likely to return for a final year in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants, who acquired his rights from the Blades after the Memorial Cup.
A glaring weakness in the above depth chart is in goal. Robert Mayer performed well above expectations last season, wrestling the “#1a” tag from Cedric Desjardins, and then competing with Dustin Tokarski for ice-time. Still, he is nothing more than an “average” goaltender even at the AHL level, and would be relegated to back-up duties in an ideal situation.
Tokarski’s case is an interesting one, as the 23-year old still has potential as a future NHL goaltender, but may not see the Canadiens organization as a good fit for his development. Tokarski put up sensational numbers after being acquired by the Bulldogs, with 3 shutouts in 15 games, and a sparkling .927 save percentage and 2.22 GAA. But still coach Sylvain Lefebvre balanced his workload with Mayer’s, unwilling to give the former Tampa Bay Lightning prospect the lion’s share of duty. Adding to this, when the Canadiens needed a goaltender to sit on the bench in the Stanley Cup playoffs following an injury to Carey Price, it was Mayer who got the call to back-up Peter Budaj, rather than Tokarski. The re-signings of both Budaj and Mayer to two-year deals, plus the drafting of Zachary Fucale in the second round this past June further complicate things for Tokarski, who remains a restricted free agent after the Habs qualified him last month.
Enter Mike Condon, a Princeton University standout who was signed to a two-year entry-level deal to further cloud the goaltending pipeline. After completing his college career, Condon appeared in just four ECHL and five AHL regular season games last year, but his .943 and .919 save percentages respectively are enough for one to think that there is some promise to his future. If Tokarski returns – an increasingly bigger IF with each passing day – Condon is likely to start in Wheeling, splitting duties with Peter Delmas, but without Tokarski in the picture, the Bulldogs would be gambling on two highly unproven netminders.
Off the ice, the changes were even more plentiful for the Bulldogs, starting with the introduction of a new Assistant Coach in former Hab Stephan Lebeau. The Bulldogs had just a single Assistant Coach last season following the early dismissal of Ron Wilson (citing philosophical differences with rookie head coach Sylvain Lefebvre), instead opting to rotate player development coaches Patrice Brisebois and Martin Lapointe at times behind the bench. Lebeau is a bit of a peculiar hire considering he is coming out of Bishop’s College – where he coached for the past five seasons – after just two years as a QMJHL head coach. He has no experience at the professional level, on a staff where already Lefebvre has just completed his first season as a head coach at any level (after just two years as an AHL assitant and three years as an NHL assistant) and assistant Donald Dufresne‘s most recent campaign was his first in professional hockey after 10 years as an assistant with Rimouski. The direction seems clear: this is Lefebvre’s team, and improvement will have to come as he grows into the role, managing his staff his way, for better or for worse.
Adding to this were changes to the rest of the off-ice staff, as the Bulldogs attempted to change the team’s culture in letting go virtually the entire equipment management, training, and medical staff. Replacing them are much of the former staff of the Rimouski Oceanic, including Eric Levesque and Francis St. Pierre, both having helped out during Montreal’s development camp, though no formal announcement has been made.
These hires are important in surrounding the impressive group of young men who will be passing through Hamilton over the next few seasons. In addition to the above roster and mentioned players, the Bulldogs may benefit from some added scoring come April. Recent draftees Charles Hudon, Brady Vail, and Tim Bozon will be eligible to join the team once their junior seasons are over, and will be full time members in 2014-15. The first two got a taste of AHL action at the end of last season, and contributed even at such a young age, while Bozon represented France at the World Championship, facing off against much older men. Another player who would likely come in to support a playoff run is Sebastian Collberg, who played in two end-of-season games for Hamilton last year, but will return to Sweden for one final season after having signed his entry level deal with the Canadiens.
All of this should make for some exciting hockey this season in Hamilton as the team turns the page on a tough and disappointing 2012-13 campaign. For any Hab fans in the GTA region, the opportunity to watch and follow their team’s stars of tomorrow is not to be missed.
The Hamilton Bulldogs 2013-14 schedule has not yet been released, but the team is currently offering a phenomenal deal to attend 4 games – including the always popular home opener and Toy Toss nights – for under $15 a ticket. For more info, see here.