Hamilton Bulldogs 2010-11 preview

By Ian Bross

The Hamilton Bulldogs are coming off a record-setting season. It was their second consecutive 100-plus point season, and the third in their history. The 14-year-old club set new season highs in total points (115), wins at home (25), wins on the road (27), and total wins (52).

The Bulldogs’ 2010-2011 pre-season got underway on September 30 with a solid, 3-0 victory over the Binghamton Senators.

Forwards

Several of Hamilton’s core forwards are still in the midst of a dogfight for coveted spots with the Canadiens.

The Bulldogs will retain the services of last year’s leading scorer David Desharnais, after the 24-year-old renewed his contract this summer for an extra season. Despite missing the start the 2009-10 season due to an injury, Desharnais managed to amass 78 points — a Bulldogs single season record. They will, however, be without second-leading scorer Brock Trotter, who is now a member of the KHL’s Riga Dynamo.

In his first minor professional campaign, off-season trade acquisition Lars Eller scored a total of 57 points as a member of the Peoria Rivermen, a total which would have placed him third in scoring in Hamilton. The 21-year-old’s performance has created a buzz since his arrival at NHL training camp, and thus he could crack the Montreal lineup. If not, the Danish forward could be a player of influence for the Bulldogs.

Ben Maxwell remains in the mix for an NHL opportunity. The 22-year-old has posted back-to-back statistically similar seasons. In each of the last two years, Maxwell has been credited with .79 and .77 points-per-game average, respectively. Meanwhile, he has appeared in a combined 20 games with Montreal and has not been able to register a point. If unable to breakthrough this time around, as a veteran of the AHL club, he will be counted upon as a go-to player.

A first-round draft choice in 2007, Max Pacioretty also has been given a chance with the Canadiens, having split his first two years as a professional between the NHL and the AHL. Battling injury during training camp and the NHL preseason, he is a fair bet to back in Hamilton where he should carry more of the offensive load. Fellow 21-year-old Aaron Palushaj will play his first full season in the Montreal organization. The second-round draft choice of the St. Louis Blues has the potential to breakout offensively in 2010-11.

Other promising hopefuls who could provide an extra spark: new arrivals, Alexander Avtsin, who brings abounding skill, and 6’4 Andreas Engqvist. And always one to be provide a spark, Ryan White could emerge in a full-time top-six role – unless he manages to stick with Montreal. Currently, the gritty, energetic forward is still in the hunt.

Andrew Conboy in his second stint, and J.T. Wyman in his third, will reprise their roles with the club. Gabriel Dumont, Ryan Russell, and Hunter Bishop should also be back. Russell and Bishop have both spent the preseason nursing injuries.

Not to be discounted: Olivier Fortier, 2003 eighth-round draft choice Jimmy Bonneau, trade acquisition Ian Schultz, and Dany Masse.

Defensemen

Last year’s cornerstone blueliner, President’s Award winner P.K. Subban is not expected to return to the Bulldogs this upcoming season.

Other members of the defensive corps are likely to return: Alex Henry, Yannick Weber, Mathieu Carle, and Frederic St. Denis. Carle — as well as Henry and Weber, should they come up short in pursuit of a job with the Canadiens — all have multiple seasons with the Bulldogs under their belt, and will collectively assume the top three positions on the backend. St. Denis, in what will be his second season, should round out the top four.

There will be a couple of openings as well. Competing for an opportunity will be University of Wisconsin graduate Kyle Klubertanz. After four years in the NCAA, the Wisconsin native has played in the SM-Liiga with TPS Turku, and Elitserien with Djurgardens IF. Along with Klubertanz, Brendon Nash, signed as an NCAA free agent, former member of the Hartford Wolfpack David Urquhart, and 28-year-old Neil Petruic are bottom-pairing candidates. The Bulldogs came to terms in late September with Petruic on a one-year deal. An eighth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2001, Petruic began his professional career in 2005-06 with Binghamton. At the AHL level, he has skated in 231 games.

Also vying for spots: former Springfield Falcon, 23-year-old Sebastien Bisaillon, and 21-year-old Marc-Antoine Desnoyers, most recently of the QMJHL‘s Drummondville Voltigeurs.

Goaltending

The netminding position was one of strength for the Bulldogs in 2009-10. In August, the Canadiens traded Cedrick Desjardins, owner of an AHL-best and team-record 2.00 goals-against average, to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 25-year-old’s career year saw him earn a marginally greater amount of playing time than veteran counterpart Curtis Sanford. Sanford also enjoyed marked success, and now appears to be in prime position to take over as starter. Suffering from a lower body injury, he has not been officially released from Canadiens training camp as of yet.

In exchange for Desjardins, the organization acquired 24-year-old Karri Ramo, who appeared in 48 NHL games over the course of two seasons with Tampa Bay before joining the KHL’s Avangard Omsk last season. Ramo will remain in Russia for the 2010-11 campaign — the remainder of his contract — and should audition for the number one spot between the pipes for Hamilton next year.

Also in the fray, Robert Mayer and Peter Delmas. Mayer, in addition to 31 games in the ECHL, has appeared in one game for Hamilton — last year’s season finale — a 3-2 shootout loss to the Toronto Marlies. The 20-year-old will likely dress as the Bulldog’s backup in 2010-11. A second-round draft choice of the Colorado Avalanche in 2008, Delmas, a tryout, has been assigned to Hamilton but has not yet been formally signed to a professional contract.

Coaching

After a successful year behind the bench in which he led the Bulldogs to a 52-17-11 record, Guy Boucher has advanced to the NHL as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In his place, the team has brought in former NHL forward Randy Cunneyworth. Cunneyworth previously served as head coach to the Rochester Americans for seven seasons before taking a job as assistant head coach with the Chicago Wolves in the past two seasons.

Joining Cunneyworth as his assistant is Randy Ladouceur, who possesses 10 years experience as an assistant coach in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes organization and Toronto Maple Leafs. Most recently, Ladouceur was head coach to the OHL‘s Niagara IceDogs.

Prospects

Montreal returned four junior prospects to their respective teams at the end of training camp: forwards Philippe Lefebvre and Brendan Gallagher, defenseman Morgan Ellis, and goaltender Nicholas Champion. NCAA defender Joe Stejskal of Dartmouth also participated, and has since been returned to the Big Green.

Two other highly touted prospects, the tireless 2009 first-round pick Louis Leblanc and brooding 2010 first-round pick Jarred Tinordi have moved on to the junior ranks after brief pre-season stints. After a year in the NCAA with Harvard, Leblanc is suiting up with the Montreal Juniors in the QMJHL, and Tinordi in the OHL the London Knights.