Hamilton Bulldogs Season Preview

By Jim Harnock

    The 2002-2003 season will be a year in transition for the Hamilton Bulldogs, and not in the traditional “we’ll stink this year, so bear with us” meaning of the term.  In fact, the transition here is that one NHL affiliate is in the process of moving out and another is in the process of moving in.
    When the Edmonton Oilers announced they’d agreed to a sweetheart deal that would see their AHL team re-established in Toronto for the 2003-2004 season, Hamilton hockey fans fretted that they would lose yet another hockey team (since I’ve lived in the area, Hamilton has lost an OHA team, two OHL teams and an AHL franchise), but with the loss of their Quebec City team, the Montreal Canadiens stepped in to fill the void the Oilers would be leaving.
    But that’s next year.
    What do we have this year?  This year, the Hamilton Bulldogs are the love child resulting from an Oiler/Canadien union.  Each team has 15 roster spots to fill with their top prospects and beyond those 15, players will either be farmed out to other AHL franchises (as the Canadiens have recently done, sending players to the Utah Grizzlies) or assigned to the ECHL.

    Now that we’ve covered the basics of the operational changes, let us now focus on the really important stuff – the on-ice changes.

At Forward…

    Gone is the Bulldogs’ leading scorer from last season, Jason Chimera (77 points in 77 games), having signed a one-way contract with the Oilers and generally thought to be the heir apparent to Ethan Moreau’s third-line winger role.  Gone is 01-02 team leader in goals, Brian Swanson (34 goals, 73 points in 65 games), also on the Oilers’ NHL roster, though being on a two-way deal, he may see some AHL ice-time once Josh Green comes back from his injury.  Gone is Kevin Brown, the team’s third-leading scorer and leader in power-play points, let go to free agency.
    The top three players from last season are no longer with the team for various reasons, but there is no shortage of bodies to fill the lines.  The question is, will they do more than just simply fill out the roster?  Will they make up for the loss?
    Perhaps the three players most likely to fill the scoring gap left by the departure of Chimera, Swanson and Brown are second-year Bulldog Jani Rita, a speedy Finnish winger who plays a tenacious forechecking game that has drawn comparisons to former Oiler Esa Tikkanen, winger Marcel Hossa, brother of Ottawa’s Marian, who is looking to build on a solid 32-point season and the lanky Fernando Pisani, who managed to equal his 00-01 output in the first 30 games of 01-02.
    Certainly the late addition of former Kootenay Ice captain Jarret Stoll should shore up the centre ice position, the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness last year.
    If you’re looking for the offensive dark horse, you’ll want to turn your attention to these two players: Josef Balej and Tony Salmelainen.  Balej is a player who has produced well in junior and has shown he can be a consistent threat at that level, but remains a question mark at the pro level.  Salmelainen, the smallest player on the roster, has spent the past three seasons playing professional hockey in Finland (with HIFK Helsinki and Ilves Tampere).  Though his size may hamper his stats, which were not terribly impressive in Finland, his outstanding training camp for the Oilers marks him as one to watch.
    Montreal prospects are displayed in red text, Edmonton prospects in blue text.

#
NAME
POS
SHTS
HT
WT
57
BALEJ, Jozef
RW
Left
6-1
187
18
BISHAI, Mike
C
Left
5-11
185
34
DEWAN, Adam
LW
Left
6-4
215
13
DiCASMIRRO, Nate
LW
Left
5-11
205
44
GRATTON, Benoit
C
Left
5-11
194
9
HINZ, Chad
C
Left
5-10
190
81
HOSSA, Marcel
LW
Left
6-2
211
41
MAROIS, Jerome
LW
Left
6-1
199

O’DETTE, Matt
LW
Left
6-5
228
25
PISANI, Fernando
RW
Left
6-1
185
14
PLEKANEC, Tomas
LW
Left
5-10
200
22
RITA, Jani
LW
Left
6-1
206
26
RYDER, Michael
RW
Left
6-1
195
8
SALMELAINEN, Tony
RW
Right
5-9
176

STOLL, Jarret
C
Right
6-1
199
16
WARD, Jason
RW
Right
6-3
200

On Defence…

    Perhaps the two departures that hurt the team most – defensively, at any rate – were team captain Alain Nasreddine, who was signed as a free agent by the New York Islanders, and AHL All-Star Sven Butenschon, who signed with the Florida Panthers after leading the Hamilton defence in scoring last season.  Also gone from last season’s defence corps are steady defender Alex Henry, who has earned himself a spot on the Edmonton blueline, hard-hitting Jan Horacek, who has returned to Europe and the offensively-challenged Chris Hajt, signed by Washington after not being tendered a qualifying offer by the Oilers.
    Alexei Semenov, who came close to earning the Oiler roster spot taken by Alex Henry, is back in Hamilton for the time being, as is another player who was considered to be a front-runner for an NHL roster spot, though with Montreal, Mike Komisarek.  The size of these two players – 6’6” and 210 lbs for Semenov, 6’4” and 240 lbs for Komisarek – give the Bulldogs a fairly imposing blueline duo and should they be paired together, expect opposing forwards to be manhandled rather thoroughly.
    Also notable is the return of Alexander Liubimov, who was on the Bulldogs roster for the first three games last season, but didn’t see any ice time before being reassigned to the Odessa Jackalopes of the Central Hockey League.
    Ales Pisa has recently been assigned to Hamilton by the Oilers, but expect he and Alex Henry to switch places before Christmas, as Pisa is on a one-way deal that pays him an NHL-level salary no matter where he plays.

#
NAME
POS
SHTS
HT
WT
2
ALLEN, Bobby
D
Left
6-1
205
24
BEAUCHEMIN, Francois
D
Left
6-0
206
21
BERGERON, Marc-André
D
Left
5-10
190
6
CARPENTIER, Benjamin
D
Left
6-2
195

KOMISAREK, Mike
D
Right
6-4
240
51
LIUBIMOV, Alexander
D
Left
6-3
196
4
PISA, Ales
D
Right
6-0
194
33
SEMENOV, Alexei
D
Left
6-6
210

In Goal…

    With Eric Fichaud signing in Montreal and Alexandre Daigle signing in Pittsburgh, this season is a little like Night of the Living Dead, isn’t it?
    Ending his retirement, Fichaud joins the Bulldogs this season, taking the spot vacated by one of the AHL’s top net-minders last season, Marc Lamothe, who signed on with the Detroit Red Wings in the off season.  He’ll be working with Ty Conklin, who returns to the Bulldogs this season after losing out to former Bulldog Jussi Markkanen in the battle to see who would back up Tommy Salo.  The third-string goalie is currently Kristian Antila, playing his first pro season in North America, but the entire goaltending situation could change any moment.  The Canadiens are currently carrying three goalies on their NHL roster (Theodore, Hackett and Mathieu Garon) and should they need the roster spot before trading Hackett, Garon could bump both Fichaud and Antila right down to the ECHL.

#
NAME
POS
SHTS
HT
WT
30
ANTILA, Kristian
G
Left
6-3
207
1
CONKLIN, Ty
G
Left
6-0
180
31
FICHAUD, Eric
G
Left
5-11
171