Minor league hockey is a cyclical venture. As a feeder league to the NHL clubs, success is usually followed by diminished returns once top players make the jump to the next level. The highs from the 2007 Calder Cup championship were followed this year by a season without playoffs in Canada’s Steel city.
Meanwhile, the organization’s ECHL affiliate is currently in the Kelly Cup Finals.
AHL season review
The Hamilton Bulldogs entered the 2007-08 season on a high as the defending Calder Cup champions. Alas, a successful season can sometimes be the death knell for an AHL franchise and such was the case for the Bulldogs, who saw many of their top players promoted to the parent Canadiens.
“That’s what we’re here for – to develop players for the next level,” said Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens’ Director of Player Recruitment and Development. “You’re going to lose players but that’s just part of the job.”
The Bulldogs were competitive, but ultimately were unable to weather the steady flow of players from their ranks. Gone from last year’s Calder Cup-winning franchise were such vital cogs as forwards Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, Kyle Chipchura, and Maxim Lapierre; and blueliner Ryan O’Byrne. Factor in injuries to key contributors like Mikhail Grabovski and the rotating netminding situation involving the Calder Cup MVP Carey Price, Jaroslav Halak, and Yann Danis, and most nights the defending champions would have a hard time recognizing their previous incarnation.
Last season, Corey Locke led the squad in playoff scoring with 22 points in 22 games, second only to the Chicago Wolves Darren Haydar. This season, Locke picked up the pace from last year’s playoffs pacing the club with 72 points in 78 games, including 30 goals. The former fourth-rounder also posted an impressive plus-four rating on a club that fell short of the playoffs and had a negative goal differential of -27.
Continuing his strong development and picking up the offensive slack left behind by the aforementioned departures, Matt D’Agostini played well in both ends, ending the season with a pleasantly surprising 23 goals and 30 assists. Unfortunately, his minus-22 rating betrayed a need to work on both sides of the red line.
One key strength for most successful clubs is consistency in between the pipes. That was something in short supply with this campaign’s Bulldogs. In total, four different goaltenders reached double digits in terms of games played. Danis, fresh from signing another contract with the Habs, paced the pack with 38 appearances, resulting in 11 wins, 19 losses, and four shootout losses. Danis earned a 3.28 GAA with a less-than-stellar .893 save percentage.
Of the four goaltenders, the one least expected to be in Hamilton at the beginning of the season was the one who performed the best. Prior to his NHL call-up, Halak appeared in 28 games, posting a 2.10 GAA (second in the AHL) good for a 15-10-2 record. He built this record upon a stellar .929 save percentage. The remainder of the games were split between free-agent signee Cedrick Desjardins (12 games, 4-4-1, 3.04 GAA, .909 save percentage) and Price on a conditioning stint (10 games, 6-4, 2.69 GAA, .896 save percentage.)
In the end, the Bulldogs finished fourth in the Western Conference’s North Division with a record of 36-34-3-7. Their conference standing of 11th was a full 12 points out of the last playoff spot.
Having missed out on the Canadiens roster, Mikhail Grabovski was expected to power the Bulldogs’ attack this season. However, a long-term ankle sprain thwarted those plans and kept the young forward out of the lineup for the better part of the season. However, once he got in the lineup he showed the Bulldogs what they were missing – and what the Habs will eventually be getting. In just 12 games, Grabovski scored eight goals and added 12 assists for 20 points, good for 12th in team scoring.
Last season, Duncan Milroy, a second-round selection in the 2001 entry draft, finally had a breakout season with 25 goals and 58 points in 64 games, which earned him a five-game call-up with the big club. Unfortunately, that long-awaited breakthrough may have just been an aberration as the Edmonton, AB native regressed this season to a more customary 39-point campaign with just 16 goals (prior to last year, Milroy recorded seasons of 16 and 15 goals in Hamilton). For a team that lost so much top-end talent, Milroy was looked upon to be a leader in terms of point production; that said, the loss of so much top-end talent may explain his dramatic reduction in terms of point production.
There were some solid rookie debuts in Hamilton this season, most notably on the back end. Mathieu Carle, an offensively gifted blueliner taken in the second round of the 2006 entry draft, transitioned nicely to the professional ranks with seven goals and 17 assists in 64 games. Expected to be a power play quarterback at the next level, three of Carle’s goals came with the man advantage.
Another blueliner made a pair of solid transitions: to the professional ranks and to the North American culture. Hard-hitting blueliner Pavel Valentenko earned a reputation as one of the most hated players in the AHL for his all-out style, aggressive body checking, and willingness to get into people’s faces. En route to earning that rep, the young blueliner also proved he knows what to do with the puck once he gets it. In 57 games, Valentenko scored just once, but set up 16 others. He also finished the season a respectable plus-two. Most importantly to the Habs, Valentenko made the transition to the North American scene fairly smoothly. With an abundance of Russians and Belarusians in the ranks, the Habs have a number of examples of how to transition well (see Kostitsyn, Sergei) and what bumps to avoid along the way (see Kostitsyn, Andrei).
A late addition to the lineup was college signee Brock Trotter, who left the University of Denver mid-season, eventually signing with the Canadiens. Having been off skates for a period of time before signing his pro contract, Trotter took a few games to find his skating legs. Once he did, he showed solid promise at the AHL level, chipping in for three goals and adding six assists, ending up with a plus-two rating in 21 games.
In the end, a lack of offense played a significant role in the Bulldogs’ fate. Only one player reached 30 goals (exactly), one player scored more than 20 (D’Agostini, 23), and just six others cracked double digits (Jonathan Ferland, 16; Milroy, 15; Brett Engelhardt, 13 – eight of which came while he was a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins; Eric Manlow, 12; and Kyle Chipchura and Greg Steward, 10 each).
Other players weren’t able to take the next step and become key contributors for the Bulldogs. Cory Urquhart, an offensive specialist, only cracked Hamilton’s lineup for 21 games. Forwards Mathieu Aubin and Ryan Russell, along with defenseman Jon Gleed all spent more time in Cincinnati with the ECHL affiliate than sticking with the AHL franchise. And in all, only six players appeared in the Bulldogs lineup for more than 70 games.
Although the Bulldogs’ season was less than stellar, the ECHL affiliate has enjoyed great success this season. The Cyclones are tied 1-1 against the Las Vegas Wranglers in the Kelly Cup finals.
The Cyclones have been led all season by a pair of rookies signed to AHL contracts: David Desharnais and Tomas Beauregard. Desharnais has 25 points in 17 games to lead the ECHL playoffs. This is a continuation of his ECHL-leading performance during the regular season in which he racked up 106 points buoyed by 77 assists in 68 games. Beauregard scored 31 goals and added 34 assists in 59 games.
Aubin’s lack of production at the AHL level was a bit of a disappointment. Drafted for his offensive potential, the 6’3 forward tore up the ECHL with 30 goals and 57 points in 47 games. In 20 AHL games, Aubin only scored two goals and added four assists. Returning for the Cyclones’ playoffs, Aubin has played a key role with eight goals and 13 points in 17 games. Gleed and Russell have also performed well in Cincinnati’s playoff run: Gleed with a plus-two in 15 games, while the strong forechecking Russell has scored two goals and added three assists in 10 games.
Another AHL signee, Cedrick Desjardins, who has been in the system for the past two seasons, has performed exceptionally well in this year’s playoffs with eight wins and two losses in 12 games. Desjardins playoffs show a 1.98 GAA and .934 save percentage.