The Hamilton Bulldogs were looking to a season filled with as much serenity as can be expected in a developmental league. With a parent club that had an established roster and an influx of new talent graduating from the CHL and collegiate ranks, the Bulldogs were looking to return to the upper echelon of the AHL based on a stable roster.
But that was quickly derailed as the injury bug found its way into the Canadiens locker room. The club has been riddled by injuries so far this season, necessitating the call-ups of key players from Hamilton like Matt D’Agostini, Ben Maxwell, and recently veteran netminder Marc Denis.
In Hamilton, Kyle Chipchura has been out of action for over a week with a groin injury. He is joined on the injured list by center Mathieu Aubin, who is out long-term with the dreaded high ankle sprain, which he suffered during a recent fight.
With D’Agostini and Maxwell in Montreal and Chipchura on the shelf, the Baby Habs are missing three-quarters of their top-scoring quartet. Free agent signee Yannick Lehoux leads the club with 29 points in 28 games. D’Agostini has been on fire this season with 14 goals in 20 AHL games (25 points).
Most impressively, D’Agostini has played with a fire and dedication to both ends of the game – and all corners of the rink. That tenacity has been displayed in all facets of the game, as D’Agostini has embraced a leadership role on this club, scoring on the power play (5) and the penalty kill (2), and earning a plus-seven rating. His loss has been deeply felt by the Bulldogs, but it truly has been Montreal’s gain. Since his Nov. 27 call-up, the 6’0 forward has been huge for the Habs, with five goals in nine games, including four in his first four.
While D’Agostini may have played himself out of Hamilton, a pair of new arrivals are showing that they are finding life in the Steel City quite enjoyable. Max Pacioretty and Ryan White have jumped into the roster with both skates and have accounted for 18 and 15 points respectively this year.
Defensively, Yannick Weber has adjusted nicely to the professional ranks. He’s got 13 points in 26 games, while being a plus player. And that’s been well received by the Bulldogs who lost a key component of their blueline earlier this season when Pavel Valentenko returned home and signed a contract with the KHL. The contract he had already signed with Montreal has caused a bit of a problem. The Canadiens retain his rights and were very high on the promising young blueliner – but his decision to bail on the organization may have caused irreparable harm on a team that’s still stinging from watching Alexei Yemelin slip through its grasp.
Matthieu Carle has also shown continued development as a blue-line quarterback and offensively gifted defensive presence. In 19 games he’s accounted for three goals and seven assists. A minus-two rating points to his continued need to refine his game in his own end, and he’s working his way back to full speed following a concussion suffered in the pre-season.
It hasn’t been a smooth transition for all newcomers to the roster, though. J.T. Wyman, following four years in the collegiate ranks, hasn’t been able to regularly show the power-forward promise that he’s displayed in glimpses. He’s accounted for just one goal and two assists in 15 games. Brock Trotter, in his first full professional season, has scored five goals in 23 games, slowly finding his way offensively.
Illness and injury to Carey Price has opened up an opportunity for Cedrick Desjardins to get some playing time. Veteran pick-up Denis has played in the majority of the club’s games – and their second-place standing is evidence of the sense behind that move. But that has limited Desjardins’ opportunities for development time. He has been able to learn behind the veteran, but would like to improve upon his 4-5 record. Desjardins’ overall numbers have been solid: 2.73 GAA and .910 save percentage and they’re comparable to Denis’ – all except for Denis’ 12-6-0-2 record.
In the end, the Bulldogs have to be happy with their overall standing and imminent future. At the moment, they’re four points behind the Manitoba Moose for first place in the AHL’s North Division. Maxwell will likely be returned to the AHL, while D’Agostini should find his way back down as well – with the expectation that he’ll be a late-season call-up to the big club.
With the offensive firepower of those two back in the line-up, plus the eventual return to health of two-way stalwart Chipchura and offensive dynamo Aubin, the club looks poised for a successful second half of the year, with an eye to a long playoff run.
The one thing that could temper this optimistic view is a trade. The Canadiens have stockpiled an impressive collection of talent throughout its organization. But with an eye towards capping the club’s centennial season with a Cup, some of this team’s depth – Chipchura’s name has been more frequently mentioned in trade speculation – could be sacrificed if the right deal comes along.
But for now, Hamilton would just be happy if the organization could find a cure for that pesky injury bug.