It’s been an eventful couple of years for Hamilton hockey fans.
Two years ago, a ‘Stay Dogs Stay’ program was the impetus to keep the American Hockey League Bulldogs, a team struggling at the gate, in Hamilton.
Last year came news the parent Edmonton Oilers were proceeding ahead with plans to move from Hamilton down the road to Toronto where an Edmonton businessman, Lyle Abraham, would take over the Oilers’ minor league operation and run it out of the CNE Coliseum starting in 2003-04.
So just when it seemed the 2002-03 season would be a lame-duck one in Hamilton, up stepped the Montreal Canadiens who had severed ties after three years in Quebec City.
The Bulldogs will be a culmination of two teams – the Oilers and Canadiens – this season, joining Springfield (Phoenix and Tampa Bay) as the two AHL teams with dual affiliation.
So six years after the Bulldogs reached the Calder Cup final, losing the 1997 final to Hershey Bears, Hamilton appears to have a nice mix of young and old for another run at the league championship.
Here’s a look at the AHL’s Eastern Conference, broken down into the three divisions.
HAMILTON BULLDOGS (Edmonton Oilers/Montreal Canadiens, 37-30-10-3, sixth in East, lost third round).
Coach: Claude Julien (third year).
The Dogs will have plenty of youngsters and veterans this season.
Among the vets who will be in Steeltown are Eric Landry, who led the Citadelles with 32 goals and 75 points last season.
Other veterans who should be in Hamilton this season are Brian Swanson, a second-team AHL all-star last season, Benoit Gratton and Peter Sarno.
Swanson (Edmonton) and Gratton (Montreal) should start the year in Hamilton. Jason Chimera, a first-team all-star last season, might secured a place on the Oilers’ roster along with Ron Hainsey and Marcel Hossa in Montreal.
The Bulldogs will also have experience in goal in the form of Eric Fichaud.
Fichaud, the former Leafs’ first-round draft pick, retired last October. He returned home to Montreal when a phone call came from Germany.
Fichaud finished the season in Krefeld and contemplated returning overseas until Habs’ GM Andre Savard came knocking.
Young talent expected to start in Hamilton are second-year pro Jani Rita, who scored 25 goals as a rookie, and rookies Jarret Stoll, who captained Canada’s juniors and Memorial Cup-winning Kootenay Ice last season, and Jozef Balej, who netted 51 goals for the Portland Winter Hawks last year.
MANITOBA MOOSE (Vancouver Canucks, 39-33-4-4, ninth in East, lost first round).
Coach: Stan Smyl (second year).
The Moose struggled with the goaltending last season, employing six different backstops, if only for 20 minutes in Kevin Swanson’s case.
They hope the situation is solved with the addition of Tyler Moss, who was 20-16-7 for Lowell last season. Moss’s .929 save percentage was third-best in the league.
Key returnees for the Moose include exciting Steve Kariya, who led the team in scoring with 25 goals and 62 points, Ryan Ready, who had five goals in seven playoff games, and Tyler Bouck and Herbert Vasiljevs, who are back off the DL.
Newcomers include Nolan Baumgartner, Jeff Farkas and Sergei Fedorov’s younger brother, Fedor, who has been raising eyebrows at the Canucks’ camp.
Fedorov, however, must learn how to play an overall team game.
SAINT JOHN FLAMES (Calgary Flames, 29-34-13-4, 12th in East, missed playoffs).
Coach: Jim Playfair (third year).
The Flames are hoping the enigmatic Robert Dome displays some of the flash which prompted the Pittsburgh Penguins to select him 17th overall five years ago.
The Flames added Dome, Martin Sonnenberg (20 goals, 50 points) and Darcy Verot (387 PIMS) from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in hopes of getting back into the playoffs.
Dome is the key. If he wants to play, he could be a star in the AHL. Thing is, there’s more passion in the Zamboni driver.
Micki Dupont is still in Calgary’s camp, but the defence is pretty much the same as last year’s with Steve Montador, Mike Martin, Rick Mrozik and Dave Huntzicker. Up front, Blair Betts, Dwayne Hay, Jason Morgan, Oleg Saprykin, Ryan Christie and Garett Bembridge are all back.
The key returnee is goalie Levente Szuper, who posted a 2.42 GAA for a non-playoff team. Szuper’s five shutouts were third-best in the league.
ST. JOHN’S MAPLE LEAFS (Toronto Maple Leafs, 34-27-17-2, seventh in East, lost second round).
Coach: Lou Crawford (third year).
Talk Leafs hockey and you can’t help but mention three debilitating losses over the summer – second-team all-star Nathan Dempsey, AHL leading scorer Donald MacLean and Bobby House, the Leafs’ leading goalscorer the past two years.
But Lou Crawford likes the makeup of his club. And he’ll like it even better when things shake down at Toronto’s camp.
Up front, Aaron Gavey, Paul Healey, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky and newcomer Josh Holden are battling for one job on the fourth line. Anders Eriksson and Rick Jackman are in the hunt for the seventh defenceman’s job.
Most of those could wind up in St. John’s joining Bob Wren (24-49-73).
Healey, for one, had 27 goals and 56 points in 58 games before getting recalled to Toronto last season.
Crawford really likes youngsters Brad Boyes, a two-time OHL player of the year, and Nathan Barrett, who the WHL’s scoring title last season.
More is expected of second-year men Chris Chartier, a former WHL top defenceman, and Luca Cereda, Toronto’s top pick in the 1999 draft.
ALBANY RIVER RATS (New Jersey Devils, 14-42-12-12, last in East, missed playoffs).
Coach: Dennis “Red’ Gendron (first year).
Want to know how bad it was in Albany last year?
The Rats finished with more losses (54) and than points (52).
Albany made several off-season veteran acquisitions in an effort to right the ship, the keys being Craig Darby, who led the AHL with 55 assists while playing in Quebec, all-star defenceman Ray Giroux, who scored 13 goals and 53 points last season, big Dave Roche who is coming off a 25-goal season and Ken Sutton, who has already been named captain. Giroux, Roche and Sutton skated for Bridgeport last season.
Highly-touted Brian Gionta and Christian Berglund are expected to make the parent Devils.
BINGHAMTON SENATORS (Ottawa Senators, expansion team).
Coach: John Paddock.
Paddock, the first head coach of the Binghamton Rangers back in 1990-91, comes over from Hartford and brings with him instant offence in the form of Brad Smyth, the league’s fourth-leading point-getter last season with 34 goals and 84 points.
Bad news for the AHL’s Senators was Ottawa’s trading of Jani Hurme to Florida Tuesday. But it was good news for Martin Prusek, whose play in training camp made Hurme expendable.
Prusek was a first-team all-star and the AHL’s best goalie last season following a league-best 1.83 GAA and .930 save percentage while toiling for Grand Rapids, where Ottawa farmed out its players.
The goaltending chores now rest with Mathieu Chouinard, a former QMJHL first-team all-star. Chouinard was 11-12-1 with a 2.48 GAA in Grand Rapids last season.
Coach: Steve Stirling (second year).
The expansion team which went all the way to the league final last season will have tougher go it this year. Gone are Giroux, Sutton and Roche, Jason Krog, Chris Armstrong, Jason Podollan, Branislav Mezei and Marko Tuomainen.
And Ray Schultz will probably stick with the Islanders.
Trent Hunter, who led the Tigers with 30 goals and 65 points, pesky Raffi Torres, Justin Mapletoft and Juraj Kolnik are on the bubble at camp.
Top newcomers include former AHL all-stars Brandon Smith, Alan Letang, Eric Manlow and Alain Nasreddine.
HARTFORD WOLF PACK (New York Rangers, 41-26-10-3, fourth in East, lost second round).
Coach: Ryan McGill (first year).
The Pack lost a couple of key players, namely Smyth, Jason Dawe and veteran rearguard Terry Virtue.
However, Hartford added two veterans in the form of Ted Donato (18-25-43 in 36 games for Manchester), owner of 684 career NHL games, and Joel Bouchard.
Key returnees are captain Ken Gernander, all-star defenceman Mike Mottau and goalie Scott Meyer, last year’s playoff hero.
Second-team AHL all-star Rico Fata and Jamie Lundmark have a shot at making the parent team.
SPRINGFIELD FALCONS (Phoenix Coyotes/Tampa Bay Lightning, 35-41-2-2, 13th in East, missed playoffs).
Coach: Marty McSorley (first year).
A great deal of attention will be on McSorley this season, answering countless questions on the Donald Brashear incident which ended the two-time Stanley Cup winner’s career.
After losing Dieter Kochan to Minnesota over the summer, goaltending could be an Achilles heel in Springy.
Patrick DesRochers, Colin Zulianello and Evegeny Konstantinov are all in the mix.
Minnesota also pried away Jean-Guy Trudel, a second-team all-star last season. Key forwards will be determined by late cuts from Phoenix and Tampa Bay – Jeff Taffe, Martin Podlesak and Darcy Hordichuck could come from Coyotes and Martin Cibak, Nikita Alexeev and either Alexander Svitov or Ben Clymer from the Bolts.
LOWELL LOCK MONSTERS (Carolina Hurricanes, 41-25-11-3, second in East, lost first round).
Coach: Ron Smith (second year).
Following an outstanding regular season, Lowell was eliminated from the playoffs by underdog St. John’s.
If the Monsters hopes to redeem themselves, they’ll have to do it with Jean-Marc Pelletier in goal now that Moss is in Manitoba. Not that Pelletier is chopped liver. He was 21-12-4 last season with a 2.57 GAA.
The top returnee is Mike Zigomanis, who was third in scoring with 18 goals and 48 points last season.
Leading scorer Jeff Heerema is in the running for a job in Carolina.
Veteran Ted Drury is playing in Germany, but the Lock Monsters signed Jeff Daw, Hershey’s leading scorer with 26 goals and 51 points, and Mike Watt, who has 24 points in 53 games for Philly last season.
MANCHESTER MONARCHS (Los Angeles Kings, 38-28-11-3, fifth in East, lost first round).
Coach: Bruce Boudreau (second year).
The Monarchs should ice a strong team once again this season.
Back is starting goalie Travis Scott, who was 21-12-3 with a 2.30 GAA last season, while former AHL MVP Derek Armstrong joins the team after a year in Switzerland.
Eric Healey, the Monarchs’ leading scorer last season with 24 goals and 58 points, is back along with top defenceman Joe Corvo, who finished with 13 goals and 50 points.
They’re joined by promising rookies Mike Cammelleri, who is forgoing his senior year at Michigan, Jared Aulin and Yanick Lehoux.
Coach: Tim Army (first year).
The Ferraro brothers are together again. While Peter Ferraro led the team in scoring last season with 21 goals and 58 points, twin brother Chris missed all but two games while he stayed by his ailing wife’s side.
Brian Sutherby, Washington’s top prospect, starts his pro career in Portland following a 45-point season in 36 games for the junior Moose Jaw Warriors last season.
And Portland hopes goaltender Maxime Ouellet continues to show steady improvement after coming to the Caps from Philly in the Adam Oates deal.
PROVIDENCE BRUINS (Boston Bruins, 35-33-8-4, 10th in East, lost qualifying round).
Coach: Mike Sullivan (first year).
The Bruins have a whole new look this year, but one key performer who is back is Andy Hilbert, who failed to stick in Boston.
Hilbert led the P-Bruins last season with 26 goals and 53 points.
Another key component to Providence who remains in Boston, but should be back, is goaltender Andrew Raycroft who was a workhorse last year going 25-24-6 with a 2.57 GAA.
Newcomers Matt Herr and Rich Brennan will help.
So will gifted defenceman Jonathan Girard, if he returns from Boston.
WORCESTER ICECATS (St. Louis Blues, 39-33-7-1, eighth in East, lost qualifying round).
The IceCats could provide the biggest challenge to the Bulldogs this season.
While captain Ed Campbell and good, young Barrett Jackman will almost certainly start in St. Louis, the IceCats’ blueline is still in pretty good shape after adding veterans Steve Bancroft, Aris Brimanis and Terry Virtue, an original IceCat.
Up front, AHL MVP Eric Boguniecki returns along with Jame Pollack, Marc Brown and Jeff Panzer. Justin Papineau has been outstanding in training camp and could start the season in St. Louis.
Dawe, a veteran NHLer, was also added from Hartford where he had 28 goals and 65 points last year.
Reinhard Divis, who was second in wins last season with 28, is back.
A deep lineup with plenty of talent.