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IceCaps game report

Marlies vs Bulldogs: Mayer Backstops Dogs to Home Opener Win

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – A packed house filled the lower bowl of Copps Coliseum as the Hamilton Bulldogs upended the Toronto Marlies 4-1 in the first home game for Montreal’s AHL affiliate this season, improving to 2-0-0 to start the year.

Mayer has stood tall two games into the season (Photo by Jennifer Kuhn)

Many were disappointed when it was revealed an injury would prevent Cedric Desjardins from starting the season with the Bulldogs, but undoubtedly the biggest benefactor from this situation is Robert Mayer.  On at least this night, Mayer – who many have criticized to be lacking confidence in his game at times – was spectacular, turning aside 39 shots, including many highlight-worthy stops, and having his shutout bid broken only by an accurate Jake Gardiner howitzer in the third period.  Deservedly, Mayer was recognized as the game’s first star for his efforts.

The ‘Dogs got off to a bit of a slow start, caused in part by early penalty trouble, but they took cues from their goaltender, and Louis Leblanc – fresh out of the box – buried a pass from Darryl Boyce in the dying moments of the first period.  The play was started by Jarred Tinordi with a good breakout pass from his own end, earning him an assist and thus his first pro point.

Hamilton was outshot 16-6 in the first, yet escaped up 1-0, and the line of Steve QuailerBlake Geoffrion, and Brendan Gallagher had opportunities to add to it.  But ultimately it would be Patrick Holland – with his first professional goal – who found a loose puck in front of the net and doubled the Bulldogs lead.

If the Geoffrion-centered line was Hamilton’s tops through a period and a half, it largely disappeared for the remainder of the game.  Fortunately, other players took over, with Aaron Palushaj being the most dangerous forward for either side throughout the third period. His goal put the game out of reach at 3-0, but he could have had one or two others with the way he handled the puck in the attacking zone.  Of importance, his marker came on the powerplay, an area in which Hamilton had looked really weak up till that point, and definitely something the team needs to improve upon.  But Palushaj converted a precision pass from Holland, finishing the play with a hard snipe, and went on to earn honours as the game’s “Hardest Working Bulldog” (a feature Hamilton runs in addition to the three stars) for a thoroughly impressive 20 minutes.

Corbin has impressively fit right in on Hamilton’s blueline (Photo by Journal de Montréal / Jean-François Chaumont)

There were a significant number of Leaf jerseys in Copps Coliseum, and the Toronto faithful were given something to cheer about on Gardiner’s goal at 10:12.  But the ‘Dogs skaters did a solid job shutting it down the rest of the way, with their impressive defensive unit strutting its stuff.  Jarred Tinordi notably had some good shotblocks and clears, though he also bobbled the puck on a few occasions.  Greg Pateryn certainly follows the adage of playing the man and not the puck, and stood up a few Marlie forwards.  Antoine Corbin impressed, and seems to be establishing himself as a deserving AHL’er after earning his contract through a training camp invite.  And lastly Nathan Beaulieu‘s skating and skill level were on display at several points during the evening with rushes that might remind many of P.K. Subban.

Louis Leblanc with his second of the night sealed the deal into an empty net, and thus game 1 of a home-and-home (to be completed Saturday) went to  the ‘Dogs.  Despite expected animosity when these rival clubs face-off, there wasn’t a significant amount of rough stuff on this night, with just one near-fight between Brendon Nash and Nazem Kadri, the latter of whom used his opponent’s helmet as a weapon at one point, jabbing from behind.  Tempers did flare after the final whistle, which led to Zack Stortini rushing back into the fray from near the Hamilton bench, but the referees were very quick to step in before anything got out of hand.

The Bulldogs kept the same lineup as their season opening shootout win, meaning Alexander AvtsinAlain Berger, and Joonas Nattinen (who may still have the flu) were scratched, while Cedric Desjardins and Morgan Ellis have yet to be cleared to return to action.

 

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Feature

Bulldogs Preseason Raises as Many Questions as Answers

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON — This ain’t your father’s American Hockey League.

The lockout hanging over the National Hockey League this season means the AHL is as competitive as it’s ever been.  Teams are loaded with fringe veterans who no longer have a second league to float between (think Mike Blunden, Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion.)  Clubs have sent down young stars who are full-time NHL’ers but still eligible to play in the league (think Jordan EberleRyan Nugent-HopkinsAdam Henrique, Jake Gardiner).  Teams find themselves stocked with depth, not having to worry about NHL injuries and call-ups decimating their rosters.

How will the offense of Bournival and Gallagher translate? Will Nattinen produce more consistently? (Photo: Canadiens.com / NHL)

It may not be quite the challenge of winning the Stanley Cup, but contending in the AHL this year will be a tall order for any organization (well, except maybe the Edmonton Oilers.)  There is/was a lot of buzz around the Hamilton Bulldogs coming into the season, and rightfully so.  The players making debuts with the squad include two first round picks in Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, junior scoring stars Brendan GallagherMichael Bournival, and Patrick Holland, and proven college studs in Steve Quailer and Greg Pateryn.  But while the skill and potential of this club is undeniable, training camp and preseason has triggered certain doubts in the minds of those following the squad.

Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin wasted little time this summer identifying the types of players he appreciates the most and felt the organization lacked.  He bolstered the toughness on the Montreal roster through the signings of Brandon PrustColby Armstrong, and Francis Bouillon, and retaining the services of Travis Moen.  But his signing of grinders didn’t end there, with the additions of Zack Stortini and Darryl Boyce, and the retention of Mike Blunden, all on contracts destined for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Was there a need for the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate to become tougher teams to play against?  No doubt, but it isn’t unreasonable to wonder if the club maybe went overboard on that front when there is still a need for skilled goal scorers in the organization.  Given the lockout, we can ignore the potential hole in Montreal’s top 6 for now, and instead focus on Hamilton where goals have been tough to come by throughout training camp.

The Bulldogs opened their preseason on Saturday against the Toronto Marlies, falling 3-1.  Tryout Stephen MacAulay scored the only Hamilton goal, with many of the team’s stars (Leblanc, Gallagher, Bournival…) watching from the press gallery.  Monday saw a rather complete forward lineup for the Bulldogs, but the results were little different as the team came up on the short end of a 2-0 score.  The ‘Dogs lines, of course still a work in progress, were as follows:

Steve Quailer – Michael Bournival – Brendan Gallagher
Aaron Palushaj – Blake Geoffrion – Patrick Holland
Mike Blunden – Louis Leblanc – Darryl Boyce
Joonas Nattinen – Stephen MacAulay – Zack Stortini

In a normal season, this team would be a force to be reckoned with.  I previously proclaimed them as potential cup contenders.  But if we look at the AHL as virtually half-NHL / half-AHL this season, we can understand why scoring may actually be an issue.  Players like Palushaj and Geoffrion are proven AHL scoring stars, but have struggled to produce when called up to the big league, which would make statistical setbacks for them this year understandable.   The hope, however, is that they and Louis Leblanc can carry the load in the short-term while the team is patient with the adjustment process of the rookie line of Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher – which, as a positive sign, has shown some nice chemistry when together.

Who will score for the team?  Will Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher be anything more than intense two-way forwards as pros?  Scoring at this level isn’t the same as doing so in juniors, and there are many who have picked up points in lower leagues only to project as third or fourth liners further into their careers.  There is no forward on the roster who has a certain future as a top-6 player at the NHL level, so it is hard to identify a player the team can send out there when it desperately needs offense.  Grinders are necessary, but wouldn’t a scoring vet have been a better fit in rounding out the roster than the late-added Darryl Boyce or Zack Stortini on a club with plenty of tough customers and penalty killing pros already?

Of course, it’s only preseason. Just as there is no reason to panic or overreact to an NHL team losing exhibition games, no one should give up on Hamilton’s season based on these two results.  But the fact that the difficulty scoring was also noted during the four Red-White intrasquad games the team played raises the issue as a legitimate concern.  It is necessary to be patient with the younger players and not rush them even as AHL stars, but no one should be surprised if the Bulldogs stumble out of the gates a bit during the adaptation process.  Gallagher will be fine.  So will Bournival and Leblanc.  But fans need to temper their expectations of these players given the high level of competition they will be facing and their young age.

Beaulieu’s skills were on display on the powerplay, but the ‘Dogs couldn’t bury one Monday night. (Photo: HUGO-SÉBASTIEN AUBERT, LA PRESSE)

The positives?  The Bulldogs look pretty sound defensively and between the pipes.  Nathan Beaulieu was arguably one of the better Bulldogs through 2 games, rushing the puck well and looking sharp in the offensive zone.  None of the three tryout blueliners, Antoine CorbinEtienne Boutet, or Kevin Gagne, looked out of place, which will mean some tough decisions for management as to who is retained, and yet another unexpected question to be answered.  Frederic St. Denis will be the team’s anchor on the back end, and Hamilton play-by-play man Derek Wills says the hard-hitting Greg Pateryn reminds him of a young Mike Komisarek.

Another question is in goal.  There is no doubt Cedric Desjardins will be Hamilton’s number 1, and he was given both preseason matchups off.  Both Robert Mayer and Peter Delmas were solid in their outings, and either can be a competent AHL back-up, so it is possible the team decides to keep all three on its roster for the time being.  With the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins already having assigned goaltender Patrick Killeen to Montreal’s ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, neither Delmas or Mayer would be a guaranteed clear starter there anyway.

All of the above goes without saying that, should the NHL resume at some point during the season, the landscape of the AHL will change dramatically.  With 23 players on NHL deals already with the Canadiens, it is possible the Bulldogs wouldn’t lose too many players, which can’t necessarily be said of all clubs.  The Toronto Marlies team that beat the Bulldogs twice is coming off a season where they went right to the Calder Cup Finals, and the club then added dominant AHL scorer Keith Aucoin to its roster over the summer.  So should we really be worried?  Of course not.  We’re not even a single meaningful game into the season.  Final cuts have yet to be made to the roster, but they should be on their way.

Still the play of the young prospects up till now is giving fans lots to think about and debate.   With no Habs’ camp results to fret over and proclaim the sky to be falling, in the spirit of Thanksgiving weekend, perhaps the overwhelming number of chronic Canadiens worrywart fans should be grateful for the entertaining, unpredictable, and certainly challenging road ahead.

 

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Feature

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.

 

PLAYERS REMAINING AT HAMILTON BULLDOGS TRAINING CAMP (5 OCT  2012)

FORWARDS (18)
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

DEFENSEMEN (9)
Beaulieu, Nathan
Boutet, Etienne*
Corbin, Antoine*
Ellis, Morgan (injured)
Gagne, Kevin*
Nash, Brendon
Pateryn, Greg
St-Denis, Frederic
Tinordi, Jarred

GOALTENDERS (3)
Delmas, Peter
Desjardins, Cedric
Mayer, Robert

 

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Feature

Huge ‘Dogs Camp Shows Commitment to Depth

by Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, AllHabs.net

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.