Hamilton Bulldogs 2011-12 season preview

By Ian Bross
Photo: 2011 first-round pick Nathan Beaulieu was among the first prospects to be sent home from training camp. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Hamilton Bulldogs were winners of the AHL‘s North Division in 2010-11, enjoying a record of 44-27-2-7 during the regular season. They were eventually defeated in Western Conference finals by the Houston Aeros in seven games.


Forwards

Hamilton will enter the 2011-12 season without a handful of their top scorers from a year ago.

Nigel Dawes, a late-season acquisition from the Chicago Wolves, finished the 2010-11 campaign with the most points of any Bulldog. Though he only skated in 19 games with the team, Dawes had 14 goals and 14 assists in that span.

Other, more familiar faces will be conspicuously absent as well. Max Pacioretty made his mark early on last season, playing his way to the Canadiens roster where he is now a fixture. As did David Desharnais, Hamilton’s most productive player up front in recent years. Meanwhile, Aaron Palushaj, whose 57 points were the most of any player who began 2010-11 with Hamilton, has stuck with Montreal for the entirety of the preseason. In the event he does not make it right away, it should only be a matter of time before he is summoned by the big club.

Hamilton will look to get a boost from returning forward Brock Trotter, coming off a one-year stint in the KHL with Riga Dynamo. Trotter, who will turn 25 in mid-September, was the second-leading scorer in Hamilton in 2009-10. The Bulldogs will also benefit from the addition of veteran Brian Willsie. Along with appearing in 381 games in the NHL, the 33-year-old has registered 174 goals and 192 assists for a total of 366 points in 473 AHL games.

Other key Hamilton regulars still vying for spots up front with the Canadiens are Ryan White and Andreas Engqvist. Either could land in the team’s bottom-six forwards.

Among those who will be back in action for the Bulldogs are Alexander Avtsin and Gabriel Dumont. Neither player starred in 2010-11, but both can be expected to see their roles increase significantly in 2011-12. After an unsettled rookie season as a 19-year-old, Avtsin’s talents should rise to the surface. And Dumont, with a year of experience, will be better equipped to challenge for a top-six spot.

Several forward prospects will attempt to make the jump from junior hockey, including Louis Leblanc and Philippe Lefebvre of the Montreal Juniors, and Alain Berger of the OHL‘s Oshawa Generals. Philip DeSimone, a former third-round pick of the Washington Capitals, was signed by Hamilton to a one-year contract after skating with the team on a tryout. DeSimone played four years in the NCAA with the University of New Hampshire, registering 10 goals and 31 assists in his senior campaign. Also a new arrival, Finland‘s Joonas Nattinen, will attempt to carve out a spot for himself in North American hockey with the Bulldogs.

Others in the mix include Michael Blunden, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Ryan Russell, Olivier Fortier, and Andrew Conboy. Dany Masse, Hunter Bishop and Ian Schultz will vie for spots with Hamilton after spending time in the ECHL.

Defensemen

On defense, captain Alex Henry will be back, along with Frederic St-Denis and Brendon Nash. Joe Stejskal, who debuted late in 2010-11, will compete for a full-time opportunity.

Meanwhile, a few of last year’s notable blueliners will not return to the team in 2011-12. Yannick Weber will likely be with the Canadiens — even if it is as a forward. Kyle Klubertanz, who had more points than any other defenseman on the team (having played a complete season), has decided to go back to his former club overseas, Djurgardens in the SEL. And Mathieu Carle, who, notably, played almost the entire season, was sent to the Anaheim Ducks two days after re-signing with the Canadiens in July.

In exchange for Carle, the Canadiens received fellow blueliner Mark Mitera, who should have a similar degree of influence on the Bulldogs, albeit in his own way. Mitera, a defense-first rearguard, should log significant ice time.

Still participating in Canadiens’ training camp are Jeff Woywitka and Raphael Diaz. Woywitka played 63 games last season for the Dallas Stars. He has played in 315 games in the AHL and registered 124 points. The 25-year-old Diaz was signed by the Canadiens from EV Zug in Switzerland. Both players are likely to be casualties of the depth at the defensive position in Montreal, which should pay dividends for the Bulldogs.

Others who will be in the mix include Olivier Dame-Malka, formerly of the Lewiston MAINEiacs, and 26-year-old Zack Fitzgerald. The 5’10, 192-pound Dame-Malka played in three seasons in the QMJHL, most recently totaling 55 points along with 116 penalty minutes. Also accustomed to sitting across the rink from his teammates on the bench, Fitzgerald was the AHL leader in penalty minutes in 2009-10, and amassed 229 last season with the Charlotte Checkers.

Goaltending

The competition in goal for the Bulldogs will be relatively open. The Canadiens signed Nathan Lawson to a one-year, two-way contract in July. The 27-year-old Lawson is the most experienced among Hamilton’s netminding corps, having played in the AHL since 2008-09.

Robert Mayer will try to bounce back from a disappointing start to his AHL career. Without a bona fide starter a la Curtis Sanford in front of him, he will have a chance to establish himself. Last season, Mayer struggled with consistency. He possesses the talent to be a go-to goalie, but has not yet proven he is capable of playing in the league. Mayer could potentially be the odd man out in 2011-12, after Montreal signed Peter Delmas to a three-year, two-way contract. Initially invited to Canadiens’ camp on a tryout basis a year ago, Delmas earned the deal after a strong performance in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers.


Coaching

For the second consecutive season, the Bulldogs coaching staff has undergone a facelift. Randy Cunneyworth and assistant Randy Ladouceur have been promoted to serve as assistants under Montreal Canadiens Head Coach Jacques Martin.

Taking over behind the bench in Hamilton will be Clement Jodoin, most recently the head coach of Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL. Jodoin held his role with the junior club for four seasons. Prior to that, Jodoin has held numerous coaching positions at various levels. He was the the recipient of the Brian Kilrea Coach of the Year Award in 2007, after leading the Lewiston MAINEiiacs to the QMJHL President’s Cup and a Memorial Cup appearance. He is no stranger to the Canadiens organization, where he held various positions between 1997 and 2003, including assistant coach and Director of Player Development. Jodoin also served as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1987 and the Quebec Nordiques from 1992 to 1994.

Jodoin’s assistant will be Ron Wilson, who briefly coached the Bulldogs prior to current Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher. Wilson returns to the role he held for five seasons in Hamilton, including 2006-07, when the Bulldogs won the Calder Cup. He has been assistant coach in the AHL for 15 seasons.

Prospects

A number of prospects skated with the Canadiens in training camp, but few hinted they were ready to breakthrough as professionals, either with Montreal or Hamilton.

Two players who earned a long look, however, were Michael Bournival and Brendan Gallagher. The latter in particular, received high praise from players and coaches alike, even garnering a lofty comparison to Montreal captain Brian Gionta from head coach Jacques Martin. Gallagher and Bournival were ultimately returned to their respective junior teams in Vancouver and Shawinigan.

The first prospects returned to their teams were Dustin Walsh (Dartmouth, NCAA) and Darren Dietz (Saskatoon, WHL). Also cut, from the QMJHL, were Olivier Archambault (Drummondville), Morgan Ellis (Cape Breton), and Nathan Beaulieu (St. John). And from the OHL, Jarred Tinordi.