Last season the Hamilton Bulldogs went from the penthouse to — well, not exactly the outhouse, but it’s safe to say that the team had a pretty good view of the facilities. Of course, that’s price paid for winning the 2007 Calder Cup championship and sending a horde of prospects to become the foundation of the 2007-08 Eastern Conference regular season champions.
This year, a strong and stable NHL parent club combines with an impressive influx of young talent to see the Bulldogs return to the top of the American Hockey League.
There has been a fair amount of turnover in the Bulldogs’ forward corps. It was a case of out with the old regime and in with the new. Long-time Bulldogs such as Corey Locke and Duncan Milroy have said goodbye to the Steel City and Bob Gainey/Trevor Timmins-era draftees are filling those key roles. Even last year’s captain Ajay Baines headed west in the off-season to join Anaheim’s organization.
The first round of cuts is over and players like Max Pacioretty and Ben Maxwell are still with the big club. However, both are expected to be playing key roles in the new Hamilton era. Pacioretty was signed after just one year of college, and the organization is very high on his performance. In addition to the aforementioned duo, both Gregory Stewart and Matt D’Agostini are still at the Habs’ camp. This quartet is expected to be the backbone of this year’s edition of the club, with Stewart and D’Agostini expected to be among the first call-ups to the NHL.
Other new additions to the Bulldogs’ line-up include Ryan White, J.T. Wyman, Yanick Lehoux, Ryan Flinn, and Olivier Latendresse. Brock Trotter, signed out of the University of Denver mid-way through last season, is looking to build on a promising start in his first full campaign. Finally, Mathieu Aubin will look to stick with the AHL club full time this year after bouncing back and forth between the ECHL and AHL.
The forwards are deep and talented, with a solid diversity of speed, size, and talent. However, this influx of new talent could take a while to gel, especially considering Pacioretty and Wyman and just out of the collegiate ranks, and Maxwell and White are one year removed from the juniors. One thing that would help this tradition would be strong leadership, but the return of their best potential leader is currently in the air, as Kyle Chipchura stands a solid chance of earning a role in Montreal.
As deep as the forwards are, the defensemen — long an Achilles heel of the organization — could be even stronger. Currently Alex Henry, Yannick Weber, and Matthieu Carle remain at Canadiens training camp — although Carle is currently suffering from a concussion. Hard-hitting Pavel Valentenko has been returned to the Bulldogs and he’s joined by recent acquisition (in return for the aforementioned Locke) Shawn Belle, and Chad Anderson.
Those six offer the club an interchangeable mix of talented blueliners who should represent the foundation of the club. Carle, assuming he returns to Montreal, will anchor the power play and will benefit from the arrival of Swiss standout Yannick Weber — fresh off a Memorial Cup chase.
Over the past couple of seasons, there’s been a revolving door installed in the Bulldogs’ crease. Carey Price, Jaroslav Halak, Yann Danis, and Cedrick Desjardins have all spent time between Hamilton’s pipes — sometimes to the detriment of team continuity. This season, Price and Halak are pretty much set in Montreal, Danis has left the organization, and Desjardins is ready to continue his rise from undrafted status to ECHL playoff MVP.
With the organizational loss of both Desjardins and Cristobal Huet (in a mid-season trade last year), the Canadiens signed free agent goalie Marc Denis to bolster the club’s depth. He will battle Desjardins for playing time and will also provide the NHL squad with a veteran safety blanket in case one of the two youngsters in Montreal falters.
With all the movement on the ice, the club has some stability off the ice, as Don Lever enters his fourth season behind the bench in Hamilton. The Baby Habs are hoping that history repeats for his Hamilton coaching career after missing the playoffs last season. Lever missed the playoffs in his first season with the Bulldogs and went on to win the league championship the next year.
Lever brings two decades of coaching experience to the table, both as a two-time AHL head coach (Rochester, Hamilton) and as an assistant in the NHL. His experience will be an asset as the club transitions to a new roster, with new players in key roles.