HAMILTON, ON – The Hamilton Bulldogs hadn’t scored in three consecutive games coming into tonight’s tilt with the Rockford Icehogs, and given Rockford’s far superior record, expectations were low. So when the ‘Dogs fell behind 1-0 less than two minutes into the first period, you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was the same old script repeating itself.
But on this night, the Bulldogs had some bite, finally snapping their drought on a controversial Patrick Holland marker. Holland deflected a Gabriel Dumont shot past Alec Richards, and though replay seemed to indicate the buzzer had sounded before the puck crossed the line, the goal stood, evening the score through 20 minutes.
Though they were outshot, Hamilton generated a number of quality chances in the first period, likely more than they had in their entire previous outing against the Toronto Marlies. Thus there was reason to be optimistic, and the team built a lead on a rare powerplay marker with Dumont tipping in a Frederic St. Denis point blast.
After Robert Mayer made a number of key quick reflex saves (35 total stops on the night) to keep Rockford from adding a second marker of their own, Olivier Fortier found a loose puck and open side of the net staring up at him off a Philipps Lefebvre centering play and buried his first of the season. That insurance marker was all the team needed, as Hamilton snapped a 3-game losing streak, posting just their second win in their last 10 outings. Dumont’s goal and assist make him easily the hottest ‘Dog offensively, particularly at home with the team’s previous game at Copps Coliseum being Dumont’s career night of three goals and five points.
Newest ‘Dog Jason DeSantis made his team debut, playing on a pairing with Jarred Tinordi, and was solid, logging big minutes in all situations. Hamilton is back in action tomorrow night at home again as they take on Lake Erie. Be sure to tune into Abe Hefter’s Locker Room show on Montreal’s CJAD 800 AM radio from 6 PM to 7 PM, as I’ll join him to tee up the game at 6:45 PM.
HAMILTON, ON – “We need to get back to .500. That’s our goal for Christmas,” is what Cedric Desjardins told a small media scrum following a Hamilton Bulldogs victory back on December 11th. With the team having won only one game in four attempts between then and tonight, the clock was ticking; Hamilton’s record stood two games below .500 with just two games remaining till December 25th, leaving no margin for error. And on this night, it was not to be, with the team coming up short offensively once again and dropping a 2-1 decision to the St. John’s Ice Caps.
The standout for the ‘Dogs in this game was Brendan Gallagher who converted a no-look Olivier Fortier pass into a highlight reel goal – his 9th marker of the season. Nathan Beaulieu also had a strong game, but was unable to keep his points-streak alive. Desperately searching for more offense, coach Sylvain Lefebvre even shifted Patrick Holland to the blueline – where he plays on the man advantage – beside Beaulieu, but it did not produce the desired results.
Unfortunately, despite outshooting the Ice Caps 27-25, the sputtering Hamilton offense was all too familiar of a scene. The lack of a dynamic scoring veteran forward has hurt the club as it is forced to rely on rookies and secondary players to lead the charge. The team is particularly lacking down the middle, forced to convert wingers to the center position on its top units. There is hope general manager Marc Bergevin will seek to replace Darryl Boyce, who was released early from his PTO, with a player who better fits such a role, but it was easier to find one last summer than it will be mid-season – even during an NHL lockout.
“We have to realize what kind of team we are. We’re not a team with a bunch of 50-goal scorers. We have to outwork teams,” said Gallagher on a night where he was the only one to bulge the twine. This may be true, but Hamilton is also a team with a young defense core who could use a few cushion-y leads to develop in a less pressure-packed environment than the current one where it seems any single mistake can end a game.
The loss drops the ‘Dogs to 10-13-1-2, the furthest they’ve been from their goal of a .500 record in two weeks courtesy of their third defeat in a row. Development is a work in progress for this young squad, and the fact that the injury list on this night included Aaron Palushaj (shoulder), Blake Geoffrion (head), Mike Commodore (groin), Greg Pateryn, and Frederic St. Denis (flu) isn’t helping get the team in getting back into the win column.
The injury situation on defense allowed the newly-signed Cody Wild to make his Hamilton debut, and he didn’t look out of place, jumping in the rush at times and nearly contributing to an equalizer in the third after crashing through the crease. He took a spot on the second powerplay unit with Brendon Nash.
The ‘Dogs will have to keep taking this season one game at a time, growing and learning with each bump and bruise along the way. They won’t have much time to dwell on this defeat, however, as they’re back in action for a final pre-Christmas match-up tomorrow evening.
TORONTO, ON – The Fall of 2012 saw the professional debuts of a number of bluechip prospects with the Hamilton Bulldogs. There was no greater hype, however, than that surrounding two of the Montreal Canadiens’ most recent first round picks in Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, high profile defensemen who play quite opposite games.
Few doubt Tinordi’s eventual progression into a sound NHLer. From his 6-foot-7 frame to his recognized leadership as captain of the OHL’s London Knights, he is the makings of a character defensive blueliner that can be so important to a winning team. The questions as he moved to Hamilton surrounded whether his lack of offensive production made him too one-dimensional, and if he’d be able to keep up with a faster pace of play at the next level.
Tinordi scored 16 and 14 points over his two years in the Ontario League respectively, so big numbers weren’t to be expected in the AHL, but he hasn’t looked uncomfortable with the puck at all. Of course, there is the occasional awkward defensive zone bobble which isn’t uncommon for a young man continuing to grow into his large body, but his four points thus far on the season are only one back of Morgan Ellis and two of Brendon Nash, both considered to have more offensive upside. He scored his first professional goal on December 16th, a marker temporarily taken away and given to Gabriel Dumont, but later returned to Tinordi whose point shot deflected in off a defenseman rather than the pesky ‘Dog in front. The one goal matches the total he scored in his entire first season in London.
Though he won’t turn 21 until February, Tinordi’s off-ice presence is already felt in the Bulldogs’ locker room. With injuries to veterans Aaron Palushaj and Blake Geoffrion, and Darryl Boyce‘s tryout contract not being extended, the American d-man was rewarded with the team’s third A added to his sweater, at the least on a temporary basis. Teammate Frederic St. Denis was quoted as supporting the decision, identifying Tinordi as a “great leader,” in an interview with Dogs’ play-by-play man Derek Wills, and saying he earned the letter with his voice among teammates.
Tinordi still needs time to shore up some defensive zone play, but any concerns about skating haven’t proven problematic, as he is actually quite agile for his size. Though he is more physical than, say, Hal Gill, there is also hope that he takes the body more frequently once he becomes more comfortable with positioning and pace against better competition.
Whereas much of what Tinordi has accomplished can be credited to his attitude and motivation, success has always seemed to come all too easy for fellow prospect Nathan Beaulieu. His father, Jacques, is a Canadian Hockey League coach (currently heading Alex Galchenyuk‘s Sarnia Sting), and Nathan had the benefit of playing under pops for his first year with the Saint John Sea Dogs. When he had to emerge from his comfort zone under a new coach – now Montreal Assistant Coach Gerrard Gallant – he enjoyed being part of a thoroughly stacked roster that posted a 53-12-3 record. Beaulieu’s 45 points in 66 games that year ranked 7th on his team, ahead of names like Jonathan Huberdeau and Zack Phillips.
In his draft year, Beaulieu’s production remained consistent, as the Sea Dogs improved their record further to finish 58-7-3 in a year they would go on to capture the Memorial Cup. How easy were the points coming? Beaulieu’s +/- had ballooned to +44, and with Huberdeau now leading the way offensively, he was putting up strong numbers sometimes even on off-nights.
The following season saw Beaulieu improve upon his prior point-per-game numbers on an as-dominant-as-ever Saint John roster. So what is the concern with the 6’2″ 194 lbs rearguard? The main issue has seemed to be between the ears, where the Ontario native had been accused of giving up on plays (see: last year’s Canada-Russia WJC game), taking lazy or undisciplined penalties, and occasionally making risky passes in his own end.
There has been a bit of that in Beaulieu’s adaptation phase, though he started the season out showing impressive skill as one of Hamilton’s more dependable defenders (he maintained a +2 rating through October). The points, however, weren’t coming for the first time in Beaulieu’s career, and he hit a bit of a rut. The Bulldogs were no Sea Dogs or Team Canada, and Beaulieu had to deal with stronger opposition for the first time in years. Did his play trail off a bit because of inconsistency in his game? Simple frustration? Was it the normal learning curve of a rookie?
We may never know, as a turning point seemed to be the calendar switching over to December. Prior to this month, Beaulieu’s stat line read just 2 assists through 16 contests. In December, he has impressively been a point-per-game player thus far, registering his first professional goal along with 7 assists in 8 games. He has been rushing the puck with more confidence, and though he still at times makes ill-advised breakout passes, his overall game is coming along with the point production.
Off the ice, Beaulieu and Tinordi are quite familiar with each other, having been teammates in numerous development camps and squaring off at the Memorial Cup and World Junior Championships. They seem to have developed a good friendship, chatting frequently and usually leaving the dressing room together at game’s end. While they’re a rather unlikely pairing on-ice given they’re both left-handed shots, and though they both have some work still to do before reaching the NHL, their complimentary skill sets should have them continuing their journeys together in Montreal Canadiens sweaters before too long.
[For live coverage of Hamilton Bulldog home games straight from Copps Coliseum, be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DanKramerHabs. Next up: Friday ,December 21st at 7:30 PM against St. John’s. And keep checking http://www.AllHabs.net/ for frequent Bulldog updates!]
TORONTO, ON – The early season struggles of the Hamilton Bulldogs have been a popular topic of discussion among Hab fans who find themselves virtually as locked out as the players themselves. In a normal season, with less focus on the AHL squad, the concerns of most would be placated by the valid excuses of the team’s youthful inexperience, some undisciplined depth players, and a lack of bona fide scoring talent. But this season, though we’re just 20 games in, the scrutinizers are already talking about Sylvain Lefebvre‘s suitability as a Head Coach or management’s effectiveness at assembling a balanced roster.
The reality of the situation is – just as things always are with the big club – the team’s difficulties have been greatly overblown. With 20 points, they do sit tied for 2nd to last in the American Hockey League, but they remain just 1 game below .500 and also hold games in hand on most of the other clubs. In fact, last night’s 1-0 win over the Lake Erie Monsters was big for keeping pace with other teams even at such an early point of the year, moving within 6 points of their divisional rival in 4 fewer games. This is also important as the Monsters are currently holding down the 8th and final playoff position in the AHL’s Western Conference, meaning it is far too early to give up hope on the baby Habs’ season.
In many ways, last night’s game illustrated much of both the good and bad we’ve seen from Hamilton this year. As many predicted it would be, scoring is a challenge for the Bulldogs who lack veteran stars to lead the offense. Yes, Aaron Palushaj and Louis Leblanc are proven at this level and have NHL experience, but the loss of Blake Geoffrion has left the team searching for new sources of goal-production. Finishing ability is not a strength of the team, even of leading point-producer Brendan Gallagher, and it was apparent last night with just one goal on 45 shots, due to a combination of a hot opposing goaltender and few second chance opportunities with limited traffic in front of the net. But when your golden opportunities land on the stick of a Kyle Hagel, or Mike Blunden holds down a spot on your top powerplay unit (over a player like Leblanc) – both of which occurred yesterday evening – it is to be expected that goals are hard to come by.
With veteran Zack Stortini sitting as a healthy scratch (being one of those underperforming depth players whose lack of discipline has hurt the club), it was an unexpected source that could have hurt the squad with an untimely penalty. The Bulldogs were already down a man when netminder Cedrick Desjardins was bumped by the traffic in the crease. Angered by the lack of a call, mid-play, Desjardins rose and slammed his blocker and stick against the crossbar, knocking the net off its moorings and stopping play, leading to a delay-of-game call.
Explained Desjardins after the game, “There was a lot of traffic in front and I couldn’t see anything, so I was frustrated. I put my team in a situation, so I had no choice but to bail them out.” And that he did, with some of the Monsters’ best chances of their 29 shots coming during that 5-on-3 advantage in the 2nd period.
On the positive side, the team’s defenders and group of defensive forwards were successful in shutting down the Lake Erie attack with it certainly not being Desjardins’s busiest night or most difficult shutout. The recently inked Mike Commodore has been getting increasingly comfortable on the back end and brings a calming veteran influence to a group of youngsters.
The hero on this night was – eventually – Steve Quailer, with a brilliant individual rush on a powerplay that had been dying for one to go in. After making a nice move to enter the zone, Quailer drove to the net, and though the finish wasn’t quite what he was going for – the puck was swatted into the net by a sweeping defender’s stick – it filled the arena with joy, allowing stuffed animals to rain down and litter the ice on the team’s charitable Teddy Bear Toss night.
“I was going for the Forsberg move, but he (the defenseman) actually made a good play and jammed my stick. The goalie followed me and it went in, so it was pretty lucky I guess,” admitted Quailer post-game. Lucky in this instance perhaps, but Quailer did what few ‘Dogs have this season aside from Gallagher, which was charge the net, and that – plus the fact that the marker came with the man advantage – is something that the team must work on doing more of in the games to come.
After assembling their first back-to-back wins since the opening 2 games of the season, the ‘Dogs now head out on a 4-game road trip. They return to Hamilton on December 21st for a two-game stand pre-Christmas.
Despite questions about who would score for the team this season and an injury to starting goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, the second youngest team in the American Hockey League got out to a 2-0-0 start to the season. Perhaps concerns about the lack of veteran stars, the inexperience on the back end, and the heightened competition in the AHL this season had been overblown.
Two games do not a season make, and just as quickly as the ‘Dogs had gotten off to a perfect start by scoring seven goals (plus a shootout winner) in two nights and receiving stellar play from back-up Robert Mayer, they found themselves on the wrong end of two subsequent decisions, trounced 5-0 by the Toronto Marlies, and then 3-1 by the Rochester Americans. To make matters worse, the team lost star forward Louis Leblanc to an ankle injury in the Toronto game, and he is expected to miss the next 4-6 weeks of action.
All must understand that it isn’t time to panic by any means. Already, Hamilton has had no less than eight skaters make their first American Hockey League appearances, with Morgan Ellis having debuted as a ninth in a limited role on Tuesday, still rounding into shape after rehabbing a nagging injury. It’s entirely to be expected for a young team to be maddeningly inconsistent at times – dominating at some, and going through extended slumps at others. What’s important is that the club focuses on development, and with the experienced coaching staff in place and the close monitoring of the likes of Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin, it shouldn’t be a significant concern. The measuring stick will be the changes in the games of the young professionals between now and March or April.
Even through the two losses, there remain positives that Habs and Bulldogs fans can hang their hats on. Despite the scores over the last two matches, the shot totals were much more reflective of play, and they were quite close. Simply, the bounces weren’t going the ‘Dogs way, and the defensive system was porous at times, something not unexpected of a newly assembled young squad still gelling with its newly hired coaching staff.
Aaron Palushaj has shown glimpses of getting back to be the dominant AHL star he has been in the past, trying to fill the role of go-to offensive producer. Blake Geoffrion has been as feisty as ever, while also generating chances in the offensive zone. But it doesn’t stop with two veterans either, as many of the younger players have given notice that their adaptation period may be shorter than expected. The play of Michael Bournival has notably stood out, he who scored his first professional goal Tuesday night. His game isn’t pure offense, slotting into a two-way role and seeing ice in every situation, earning his coach’s trust very quickly. As early as the second game of the season, he actually led all Bulldog forwards in time-on-ice. Then there’s Brendan Gallagher, for whom the offense hasn’t come just yet, but who has largely looked like the Gallagher fans expected. That is to say a “little engine that could” – a small fireball who goes hard every shift and does not let up when charging the net.
A pleasant surprise has been Patrick Holland. Many attributed his WHL statistics to playing with a pair of talented 20-year old linemates, but he has been an early offensive catalyst at the AHL level. Through four games, he is tied with Palushaj for the team-lead with three points, but more importantly brings natural offensive playmaking skills to a team loaded primarily with balanced two-way players.
On defense, despite having yet to register his first AHL point, Nathan Beaulieu looks every bit to be the player Montreal hoped to be acquiring when they drafted him. He may not have P.K. Subban‘s physical dimension, but he brings the same kind of dynamism with the puck and is an even smoother skater. He has demonstrated great confidence in rushing the puck even as a green rookie and never hesitates to pinch in on the powerplay or given any real opportunity in the offensive zone. His transition to an older league at the age of 19 has been a successful one to date, and no one should doubt that the points will come.
Jarred Tinordi‘s adaptation hasn’t been quite as smooth at all times, though it isn’t hard to see the raw strength and potential that lies in him. Tinordi’s challenge, like many his size who are still growing into their bodies, will be with the pace of play as he has been caught out of position occasionally and has bobbled the puck on multiple occasions. At other times, his physical presence has been there, he has shown leadership in sticking up for his teammates, and he has used his long reach effectively in defending one-on-one, so it should only be a matter of time before he puts more of his overall game together. No one should be concerned that he sits at a team-worst minus-4, as it is also a reflection of the fact that he has generally been Sylvain Lefebvre‘s second most-used defender after Frederic St. Denis.
On the injury front, certainly Leblanc’s loss is a big one to the team, also perhaps serving as an example given he was hurt during a scrap that came out of frustration. The good news is that this incarnation of the Bulldogs is as deep as any in recent memory, and Leblanc being out allowed Joonas Nattinen – a still inexperienced player with much attainable upside remaining – to make his season debut. Considering Alexander Avtsin and Alain Berger are also with the team and have yet to play, the squad can handle any short-term injuries with ease this year.
Hamilton is next in action on Friday evening for their already-third matchup of the season against the Toronto Marlies. The Abbotsford Heat then visit Copps Coliseum on Sunday which will give fans a look at top prospect Sven Baertschi. The ‘Dogs will look to get back into winning ways, but there shouldn’t be any pressure on the team to round into shape at such an early juncture. Fans are looking for a quick fix to take the pain of there not being an NHL season away, but with the level of talent on the squad, a little patience will most certainly produce positive results by year’s end.
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.
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 Quailer, Blake 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.
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 Avtsin, Alain 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.
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 Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Henrique, Jake Gardiner). Teams find themselves stocked with depth, not having to worry about NHL injuries and call-ups decimating their rosters.
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 Gallagher, Michael 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 Prust, Colby 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.
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 Corbin, Etienne 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.
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)
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 thatMichel 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 CodyReichard, 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.
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 Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Andrei Kostitsyn, Ron Hainsey, Mike Komisarek, Jason 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-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Adam 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.