The Baby Habs have been suffering pain this season — but it’s not of the growing variety. Instead, like the parent club, the Hamilton Bulldogs have seen their roster decimated by injuries throughout the season. Add to that the fact that several top players have also been called up to the parent club to replace injured players, and you have a big problem in the making.
At one point this season, the club was so depleted that they iced a line comprised entirely of players on professional try-out contracts. But while prospects have been given opportunity, none has truly grabbed the ball and run with it.
Despite the difficulties and the revolving-door season to date, coach Guy Boucher has had his club more than just being competitive — they’ve been surprisingly successful. The Bulldogs are second in the North Division with a 16-7-2-3 record. They’ve achieved this by the grace of a defense-first philosophy — one espoused by Boucher, but also mandated by necessity.
The key to a successful defense lies in its last line. The Bulldogs have a premier tandem between the pipes. Cedrick Desjardins is second overall in the league with a 1.45 GAA and has eight wins in 14 games, with a superlative .944 save percentage. In fact, earlier this month, the 24-year-old Desjardins posted a shutout streak of 212 minutes and 37 seconds. That streak challenged a decades-old streak of 249 minutes and 51 seconds set by the legendary Johnny Bower in 1956-67.
Curtis Sanford has been almost as impressive. He’s appeared in three more games than his younger partner, and finds himself eighth in the AHL with a 2.19 GAA and a .917 save percentage, en route to a 8-5-2 record.
Desjardins and Sanford have benefited from a premier defensive corps led by the highly-touted P.K. Subban. The 20-year-old has appeared in every game so far in his first professional campaign, and Subban has already shown that he can be an impact defenseman. He is fourth on the team in scoring with five goals and 10 assists in 28 games, but what’s been more impressive has been his commitment to the defensive end — an aspect of his game which has long been called into question. So far, so good for the Bulldogs as Subban leads the team with a plus-14 rating. He’s also shown an affinity for putting the puck on the net, firing 67 shots at the opposition and playing a key role on the power play.
Subban’s been supported on the blueline by a pair of young prospects: Mathieu Carle and Yannick Weber. Carle and Weber have played in 23 and 24 games respectively for the Bulldogs and both have shown a solid sense of defensive responsibility despite their predilection towards the offensive game. Both find themselves at plus-four and the 21-year-old Weber has played with a bit of an edge earning 24 PIMs.
Both players have made their way down the 401 this season as injury call-ups to the Habs. In fact, Weber was the first call-up of the season, and went for a three-day stint in Montreal. Neither player has enjoyed phenomenal success in Montreal, but both have been key to both the club’s limited offensive production and the defensive play that’s allowed the sometimes-meager scoring to stand up in victories.
Up front, the club has led in scoring this season by a pair of second-year pros who have remained with the Bulldogs all season. Brock Trotter and Ben Maxwell are one-two on the scoring list, with 23 and 17 points respectively. Trotter’s totals of eight goals and 15 assists is good for just 20th overall in the AHL, but his plus-10 rating is good for second on the team (behind only Subban).
Fan favorite David Desharnais has made the most of his opportunity this season. The diminutive forward actually leads the team in goal scoring with nine in 14 games. Were it not for a foot injury that sidelined Desharnais for the team’s first 13 games, he would easily be the team’s leader in scoring. During the time he’s been on the ice, he’s proven to be an impact player at the AHL level — averaging more than a point per game with 16 points in 14 games. The 5’6 forward earned a brief call-up to the Habs, but was unable to find the score sheet in his one game. While his size remains a knock against him, Desharnais has proved his has the offensive flair to succeed in the professional ranks. Whether he can continue to enjoy that success in the bigger, faster NHL remains to be seen, but he’s proven so far to be a dynamic addition to the Bulldogs roster and has shown that he will be key to any future success the club may have.
Trotter and Maxwell have been solid this season, but the true revelation has been Ryan White. The former third-round selection, now a second-year pro, helped to make Kyle Chipchura redundant. White has played in just 15 games for the Bulldogs, scoring three goals and adding five assists. He’s also showed his skill at rugged play, with 33 PIMs under his belt. The former Hitman did not out of place during his 13-game tenure with Montreal this year, but scored just two assists.
Pyatt — originally thought to be a throw-in to the trade that saw standout defensive prospect Ryan McDonagh (and young forward Chris Higgins) head to New York — has proven to be much more than an afterthought. Much maligned at the time, Pyatt’s shown the work ethic, grit — and a surprisingly deft touch around the net — that has led to him becoming a regular at the NHL level. in 11 games with Hamilton, Pyatt’s accounted for six goals and nine points.
The Baby Habs have benefited from the play of other less-likely contributors: J.T. Wyman’s physical play earned him a call-up to the NHL. The former collegian is fifth on the team with four goals and 10 assists, and despite his size and physicality, he’s shown a great deal of on-ice intelligence, staying away from the penalty box. Ryan Russell has 13 points in 28 games, eight of them goals. The Bulldogs also recently welcomed back Swedish import Mikael Johansson who scored his first goal of the season after spending over a month on the shelf with an injury.
For the club to enjoy success the remainder of the season, both clubs — the Bulldogs and their parent club — have to put the injury bug behind them. They’ve been able to overcome a phenomenal number of injuries to date, but eventually the thinned-out roster will catch up with them unless the sick bay clears.
The team commitment to defense has been a huge boon for all the club’s prospects. A more rounded game has proven to be a strong addition to one’s professional resume and eases the transition to the NHL level. The Bulldogs lead the AHL with only 59 goals against and a solid defense and brick-wall goaltending has allowed the team to flourish.
Assuming the Canadiens get healthy, the Bulldogs will benefit from some top players returning to the club and a championship run isn’t out of the question.