A summer of change throughout the organization has impacted the Hamilton Bulldogs both on the ice and off. A new coaching staff, several new additions from the junior ranks, and a few goodbyes have left the Bulldogs — like their parent Canadiens — restarting from square one.
The club got a head start on team bonding with a pre-season trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. And while pre-season statistics and records often mean very little in the long run, the Bulldogs have to be happy with a pre-season that resulted in four wins in four tries — including three shutouts.
Beyond the changes on and off the ice, Hamilton’s also had to deal with the uncertainty caused by the Phoenix Coyotes saga. With the threat of an NHL franchise entering the Steel City, the club’s 14th season could have been played under auspicious circumstances. However, as hopes for the arrival of an NHL franchise in Hamilton dissipates, the Bulldogs can focus on entertaining a rabid fan base — and improving upon their outstanding 2008-09 campaign that resulted in a 49-27-4 record, 102 points, and a third-place finish in the Western Conference. In fact, the club is so well loaded on all levels, a Calder Cup run — and a second championship after their 2007 victory — is a realistic opportunity.
While there has been an influx of new talent from the junior ranks on the club, the early-season drama is about one player who has not arrived — Sergei Kostitsyn. The younger of the two Kostitsyn brothers showed up to camp out of shape and, combined with questionable commitment over the past couple of seasons, earned him a trip west out of Montreal to Hamilton. Kostitsyn has refused to report to Hamilton and has requested a trade.
Last year’s leading scorer Yannick Lehoux has taken his 19 goals and 41 assists to the Swedish Elite League, but David Desharnais, Mike Glumac, and Ben Maxwell return to the team to pace the offense. This is a key season for the diminutive Desharnais, who needs to dominate at the AHL level to earn a call-up to the NHL. Last year, in 77 games, the 5’6 forward scored 24 goals and added 34 assists. Unfortunately, a broken foot that may required four to six weeks to heal, will set him back significantly.
Glumac led the team with 33 goals, and Maxwell, in his rookie campaign, scored 22 goals and earned a seven-game call-up to the Habs. All three, including Desharnais when he returns from injury, will be expected to improve upon their offensive numbers — although Maxwell, a late cut in camp, likely will see some time with Montreal this season.
The Bulldogs have the benefit of a deep forward corps. Brock Trotter will look to improve upon his 18-goal, 31-assist campaign and with Desharnais’ injury should have more of an opportunity to score goals. Andrew Conboy will look to throw his 6’4 body around after 15 games last season with the club after a 21-game campaign at Michigan State. Ryan White brings his combination of grit and opportunistic goal scoring to the club, and the roster’s filled out by players like Mathieu Darche — one season removed from a 73-game campaign in Tampa Bay — and Ryan Russell.
The injury bug is in full effect in Hamilton already. Tom Pyatt (obtained in the trade for Ryan McDonagh) is recovering from a concussion, Olivier Fortier is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury that requires surgery and will keep him out of the lineup for four months, and Swedish import Mikael Johansson is out with a groin injury. To help fill the void caused by the injuries, the Bulldogs recently signed Maxime Lacroix, a former Washington Capitals draft pick, who led the ECHL in playoff goal scoring and helped pace the South Carolina Stingrays to the league championship.
The club will also feel the loss of Kyle Chipchura — a team leader who is starting the season (albeit on the injured list) with the Canadiens. The Habs are hoping the Chipchura will be able to stick with the club this season, but he could also find himself returned to Hamilton later in the season.
Joining the young trio are players like returning vet Andre Benoit, who returns to the Steel City after a sojourn in Europe, and returning players like J.T. Wyman, Chad Anderson, Shawn Belle, and Frederic St. Denis. Alex Henry is on the roster, but is still recovering from a broken arm.
With the big three in place, the Bulldogs should be dominant on the power play and will be effective in transition. However, even that stability comes into question depending upon how the Habs fare in light of losing stalwart blueliner Andrei Markov for four months. Weber, who saw some action in the playoffs last season with the Canadiens, could be called up to fill the void. Weber, likely, will need a full season in Hamilton, but Carle could find his way to the NHL as an injury replacement.
The Bulldogs replace a departed Marc Denis, the club’s MVP last season, with another veteran netminder in the form of Curtis Sanford. Denis was frustrated last year being stuck behind a pair of young netminders at the NHL level in Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Sanford, himself, should be well versed in understanding that situation, playing in Manitoba with a glass ceiling named Roberto Luongo blocking his ascension to the NHL. Denis balked at his role, was unsuccessful in looking for steady employment, and now finds himself coaching netminders in the QMJHL. Sanford now assumes that veteran leader role and should serve as a solid mentor for the Bulldogs young goalies — including Robert Mayer (who is starting the season in Cincinnati) and returning backup Cedrick Desjardins.
A new — and all French-Canadian — coaching staff is in place. Likely being groomed to make the jump to the NHL, this new trio is led by Guy Boucher — fresh off a campaign that saw his Drummondville Voltigeurs compete for the Memorial Cup. Boucher also coached the Canadian under-18s to gold in 2008 and was an assistant last year for Team Canada’s gold-medal-winning performance at the World Junior Championship. He’s joined behind the bench by former New York Islanders assistant Daniel Lacroix and long-time McGill Redmen head coach Martin Raymond.
This coaching staff was hired after the club declined to pick up the option on former head coach Don Lever’s contract. Lever had been called up to the big club after Guy Carbonneau’s firing last season. Gone too is the man who stepped up to the interim role after Lever’s promotion — Ron Wilson, whose option was also declined.
Despite all the changes, the Bulldogs return three of their top four scorers from last season. Add to that the veteran presence of a netminder with over 100 games of NHL experience, and a blueline that should be among the league’s elite (even with the anticipated loss of Weber), and Hamilton should equal or better their record from a season ago. While the locals may be dismayed by the fact that the NHL hasn’t arrived at Copps Coliseum, there should be a Calder Cup-contending lineup on the ice, again.