HAMILTON, ON – It was a quiet week on the ice in Hamilton, as the Bulldogs had only a single game, allowing some of their conference rivals to close out games in hand. Unfortunately they also allowed those teams to gain points on them in the AHL’s Western Conference standings, as their lone outing was a disappointing 3-1 loss to the cellar-dwelling Utica Comets.
It wasn’t for a lack of chances that the Bulldogs dropped their second game in the past three following a season-long six-game win streak. Removing the empty netter insurance goal, the shots on the night were even, and a Hamilton had a number of chances to get on the board early, but failed to cash in. Finding themselves down 2-0 through twenty minutes, the ‘Dogs simply didn’t have it in them to come back, struggling to beat netminder Joe Cannata despite the poor season he’s having.
Of greater significance to Habs fans were the three players called up to Montreal this week. Joonas Nattinen – who I’d highlighted as an unsung hero this season for the ‘Dogs – wasn’t given much of a chance to make his presence felt, centering the fourth line against the Toronto Maple Leafs but seeing his ice time limited to just 1:45. Nattinen will be an RFA this summer, and if he opts to explore options overseas, he will join the ranks of some of the most obscure players to ever wear the CH crest.
Nathan Beaulieu – called up along with Nattinen – has been given a better opportunity and hasn’t looked out of place on the Habs’ back end. His playing has come at the expense of Raphael Diaz – a curious choice to say the least – but his puck-handling and skating abilities are welcome additions and certain upgrades on veterans Francis Bouillon and Doug Murray. It is critical for the Canadiens to begin breaking in their prospect blueliners at the NHL level, as it is difficult to have multiple players making that transition all at once.
Lastly, Louis Leblanc was recalled after Nattinen was sent down to fill a bottom six winger role. Leblanc was Hamilton’s second leading scorer at the time of the recall, and their most productive player at even strength. His overall game wasn’t particularly impressive at the AHL level, but there were few forwards on the ‘Dogs’ roster truly deserving of a call-up, and the Canadiens do have a need to figure out Leblanc’s career trajectory beyond this season sooner rather than later. Leblanc got a slightly greater audition than Nattinen, playing 7:49 on a line with Michael Bournival (whereas Nattinen got Travis Moen and George Parros as wingers), and remains in the mix for the time being, with Ryan White and Alex Galchenyuk still sidelined with injuries.
With underperforming veterans like Bouillon, Murray, Rene Bourque, and Daniel Briere frequently in the Canadiens’ line-up, combined with Montreal’s poor play as a team of late, it isn’t inconceivable that other Bulldog players get NHL auditions before the season is through to inject some youthful energy and enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s the fact that Hamilton is in a tight race for a playoff spot that has made the Canadiens reluctant to pull the kind of moves that would gut their AHL affiliate. Is it just Michel Therrien‘s insistence on favouring is veterans, or is the organization putting heavy value on playoff experience for their young prospects in a case of “Ask not what your Bulldogs can do for you, but what you can do for your Bulldogs?”
In an ideal scenario, Hamilton would remain as hot as their 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games indicates for the next while, providing them a cushion of points on which they can rest their laurels. That would allow the Canadiens to free up some roster spots pre-trade deadline for call-ups, and not leave the Bulldogs shorthanded for too long, as at least some of the organization’s junior prospects would be nearing the ends of their seasons. Hamilton stands to gain the likes of Charles Hudon, Tim Bozon, Brady Vail, Dalton Thrower, and potentially Swedish imports Sebastian Collberg and Jacob De La Rose for a stretch run, and will need open spots for them to fill.
This weekend is a busier one for the boys from the Hammer with a traditional American Hockey League three-in-three. The team has seen exceptional ticket sales for it’s Friday night match-up against the arch-rival Toronto Marlies Friday night, completely selling out the lower bowl at Copps Coliseum, and now opening the upper bowl to fans as well. Considering it’s also $3 beer night, the building should be rocking, and thus if you’re in the Hamilton area, act quick and pick up tickets from www.hamiltonbulldogs.com.