Hamilton Bulldogs Report

By Jim Harnock

    With the number of major changes and personnel shuffling
that has gone on in Hamilton this AHL season, it’s amazing to that the Bulldogs
have been able to continue on the best season in franchise history.
    The first adjustment the team was forced to make was in
December, when they lost two players who had improved their game significantly
from day one of the season, both called up by their NHL club — forward Marcel
Hossa to Montreal and defenseman Alexei Semenov to Edmonton.  Hossa
had a very strong start for the Canadiens, notching 5 goals in his first
four games, but he has cooled off considerably, not having scored since. 
As with any rookie defenseman, Semenov has had his ups and downs, but seems
to be settling in to his role with the Oilers well and may be in Alberta
for the long haul.
    Then came January and the really big changes.  On
January 17th, Claude Julien was announced as the new head coach of the Montreal
Canadiens, replacing Michel Therrien.  As luck would have it, this was
announced as I was in the air, on my way to Orlando.  This move was
not totally unexpected, as there had been rumblings for a few weeks that
Therrien was on thin ice and that Julien was at the top of Montreal’s list
as a replacement.  That being said, Julien was considered Oiler property
and thus Edmonton had the power to nix any offer from Montreal — a move
that would hardly have been surprising given how well Julien had developed
prospects for the Oilers in his time as head coach of the Bulldogs and could
possibly have been the next Edmonton head coach — but instead, they gave
their blessing, rewarding the hard-working coach with the opportunity to
coach at the NHL level.  Now, I said early that “as luck would have
it” I was on my way to Florida when this was announced.  My statement
wasn’t entirely ironic, as I was able to watch Julien coach the Canadiens
against the Lighting in Tampa on January 22nd, his third game as an NHL head
coach.  Also the last two weeks of January, Francis Buillon, Jani Rita,
Fernando Pisani, Bobby Allen and Mariusz Czerkawski were all recalled by
their respective NHL clubs.
    Since then, things just keep getting worse for Hamilton.
    Allen was returned to the team, but then suffered an injury. 
The team’s number one centre, Benoit Gratton, was knocked out of the line-up
with an injury as was goaltender Ty Conklin, right around the same time Montreal
made the Hackett trade and recalled Mattieu Garon.  Then Montreal recalled
Mike Komisarek and Donald Audette.  Most recently, Marc-André
Bergeron has been recalled by Edmonton and Jason Ward, the team’s leading
scorer, has been recalled by Montreal.
    Whew.
    Queue the parade of replacement ECHLers (Mike Bishai,
Jay Vancik, J.J. Hunter, Kristian Antilla, Mike Morrison and Ryan Risadore),
the small group of underperforming NHLers from the Canadiens (Mariusz Czerkawski,
back from a stint with the Habs, Sylvain Blouin and Bill Lindsay), the fringe
players on pro try-out offers (Gary Roach, Tyler Rennette) and Kari Haakana
on a conditioning stint that seems rather permanent.
    The Hamilotn Bulldogs rapidly went from being a team stacked
with the best prospects from two storied franchises to being a team stacked
with a handful of top prospects, a handful of has-beens and a handful of
never-will-be’s.
    But still the Bulldogs roll on.  Since the coaching
change, Hamilton has a record of 15 – 5 – 2 – 1, improving their season record
to 48 – 11 – 6 – 4 and already clinching them a playoff spot.  Hamilton
players ranks in the top five AHL leaders in goals, assists and total points
(Jason Ward), +/- rating (Marc-André Bergeron, Francois Beauchemin),
rookie scoring (Jarret Stoll), and rookie +/- (Jarret Stoll).
    Part of the reason for the team’s continued success despite
the roster upheaval is due to the work ethic and competitive nature of players
like Michael Ryder and Jarret Stoll, who seem to bring the same intensity
to the game no matter who they play with as well as the steady, no-frills
defensive play of guys like Beauchemin and now Kari Haakana, who has settled
down from a rough start with the team.  And, of course, new head coach
Geoff Ward is another big reason.  Sometimes a mid-season coaching change
will do more harm than good, but in this case, the new head coach had been
an assistant to Julien since 2001 and thus the development program and coaching
style of the new bench boss is a close echo to that of the old.
    Perhaps the single most important factor in Hamilton’s
unprecedented success in 2002-2003 has been consistency.  There is a
core group of players that have been very steady not just in their point
production, but in their overall play — some create offensive chances, some
create havoc on the fore check, some play reliable defence, but all bring
a level of consistency that allows the constantly-evolving roster to adapt
and succeed.  These players give their revolving line mates a sense
of stability, a sense that little mistakes — or even a big one here or there
— won’t be nearly so costly as they would be were the “Consistent Core”
not present.

The Consistant Core

RW Jason Ward (31-41-72)  –  despite being a below-average
skater, Ward’s steady offensive contributions, whether they be recorded on
the score sheet or simple creating chances, have been a real plus for the
team this year, especially in the absence of Benoit Gratton.  Ward is
currently with the Habs and while it’s doubtful he’ll be the big power forward
Montreal badly needs, under Claude Julien, he should become a serviceable
third or fourth liner at least.

C Jarret Stoll (17-27-44)  –  outstanding two-way play is
something every team needs and the Bulldogs have one of the better players
of this type in Stoll.  Staring the season as the third-line centre,
injuries to team mates have given him the opportunity to play a more offensive
role, which he’s managed to do without sacrificing his defensive duties. 
Thought by many (myself included) to be a replacement-in-training for Edmonton’s
pending UFA Todd Marchant, Stoll has played in 4 games with the Oilers this
season.

RW Jani Rita (18-25-43)  –  though he hasn’t had the offensive
explosion many expected of him, Rita has improved on last season’s stats
in fewer games (43 points in 52 games this season versus 42 points in 76
games last season), but his speed, stick handling and hard fore checking
is what really puts him in the core.

RW Michael Ryder (29-31-60)  –  Ryder is what every Oiler
fan hoped Michael Henrich would be — a guy who came back from a stint in
the ECHL with a chip on his shoulder and the determination to prove he belonged
in the AHL, if not the NHL.  I was honestly surprised that Jason Ward
call the big call ahead of Ryder.

D Francois Beauchemin (5-20-25)  –  offensive threat? 
Not really, but Beauchemin, along with Bobby Allen (who would have made this
list had his season not been shortened by injury), has been the team’s best
and most consistent defenseman.  He’s another guy who spent time in
the ECHL before coming back to the AHL and really establishing himself this
season.

    There are certainly other players on the roster who deserve
some consideration to be considered part of the core, but these are the five
I feel most worthy of praise.  Will they all go on to become NHL stars? 
I doubt it.  Will they become decent NHLers?  Some of them. 
Of the five, only one — Ryder — has not yet played at least one NHL game,
but with both parent clubs almost certainly losing players from their active
roster this summer (Marchant in EDM certainly, Brisebois and Audette in MTL
probably), there will be jobs available, but if I had to put money on any
of them, I’d probably single out Stoll and Rita.  Not because I’m and
Oiler fan, but because I see in Stoll a complete player who is exactly what
the Oilers need and Rita because the Oilers organization has already shown
more interest and confidence in him than the Canadiens have in Ward, Ryder
and Beauchemin.

Bulldogs Notes:

  • Forward Raffi Torres, acquired by the Oilers along with Brad Isbister
    in the trade that sent Janne Niinimaa to NYI, has been assigned to the Bulldogs
    and will make his home debut on Wednesday, March 19th vs. Saint John.
  • Former Bulldog D Ales Pisa led the Edmonton Oilers in +/- rating with
    a +11 at the time of his trade to the New York Rangers.  As many who
    have read my past articles know, I love Ales Pisa — NYR fans really got
    a good one here.
  • Jason Chimera, Hamilton’s top scorer last year, is currently eleventh
    in rookie scoring, one point behind Branko Radivojevic of the Coyotes and
    15 back of rookie leader Henrik Zetterberg (DET), despite averaging nearly
    a full two minutes of ice time per game less than any of the top ten rookies.
  • Recently-recalled G Mathieu Garon has played three full games for Montreal,
    winning two (including one shutout), and has a GAA of 0.98.
  • Jason Ward, recalled by the Canadiens, is starting his third stint
    in the NHL.  He has 3 points and 22 penalty minutes in 44 career NHL
    games, all with Montreal.