As the AHL horse race reaches the quarter pole, thoroughbreds breaking away from the pack have been few and far between for the Montreal Canadiens’ farm club, but no one’s ready to be sent to the glue factory either.
Stumbling out the gate, regaining their footing for a brief run, and now finding themselves on shaky footing again, the Hamilton Bulldogs’ season has been all about finding themselves. And this young franchise is blessed with a cache of young talent that has yet to reach its potential. Needless to say, there’s room for improvement.
“If I was happy with the guys, then we wouldn’t be three games under .500 now, would we,” laughed Don Lever, the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs.
A veritable turnstile between the pipes that has seen five different players suit up in just 18 games, and injuries have left the Bulldogs with a 7-10-0-1 record and looking up at the rest of the American Hockey League’s North Division.
But several of the Montreal Canadiens’ prospects have been making strides and the Bulldogs can see brighter days ahead.
The strength of the team, and one could say the organization, is its depth between the pipes. The Baby Habs have played musical chairs between the pipes, with Olivier Michaud ending up the odd man out, but not because of his play.
“It’s a numbers game — because we have these prospects he’s being pushed out simply because of the numbers,” explained Trevor Timmins, the Montreal Canadiens’ director of player personnel. “With both the [Montreal Canadiens’ backup Cristobal] Huet and [Edmonton Oilers’ Ty] Conklin situation you had an NHL goaltender going down for rehab so how do you argue with that? Maybe [players] get a bit frustrated with the numbers game, but they have to respond and earn the playing time.”
Michaud appeared in eight games, posting a 2-4-1 record, a .890 save percentage and a 3.48 goals against average. He was also spelled by the return of last year’s starter, Yann Danis, following a successful introduction to the NHL.
Danis took advantage of Huet’s injury to make a name for himself with the parent club. After posting a shutout in his first NHL game, Danis has gone on to appear in five games, posting a 3-1 record, a .909 save percentage and a 2.61 GAA. His return to the minor ranks was even more dominating, appearing in four almost-perfect games for a 3-0 record, a miniscule 1.34 GAA and a .958 save percentage.
“He was given an opportunity and a lot of the time that’s all a player needs. Sometimes a player needs an injury to get an opportunity and he’s made the most of it,” Timmins explained. “The pressure that he’s faced and the performances he’s given us is great and it can only help him long term.”
Also finding time between the Baby Habs’ pipes has been Oilers’ prospect Jeff Deslauriers, who has a 1-2 record in his three games. The rotating goalies have taken their toll on the team, but Lever refuses to accept any excuses.
“It’s been hard, but it’s part of the reason why we’re here. Conklin, Danis, Huet all coming down for rehab is part of the reason why we’re here,” Lever said. “Our guys should not have problems. Sometimes I think they get to thinking that with guys like that behind them that they’re going to make every save and by the time they figure out that they have to work, the guys have already had 10-12 shots on them.”
Michaud returns to the ECHL’s Long Beach Ice Dogs where he’ll assume the starter’s role in place of the injured Jaroslav Halak. Out for the next four to six weeks, Halak was penciled in as the Ice Dogs’ starter, Lever said. In three games, Halak posted a 1-0 record with one shutout on his way to a 1.07 GAA and .957 save percentage.
“There are only so many spots for a goaltender and it’s good that we have depth – but the problem is there are only so many spots where they can play,” Timmins explained. “They have to earn their time. It makes for competition, but competition is good and we like having this healthy competition within the organization. You have to push yourself to be the best.”
On the blue line, one of the biggest questions coming into the season would be how would Ron Hainsey reacted to being sent down again, and passed over by all the other teams after being waived. But, according to Lever, all those concerns have been unfounded.
“I’ve had no problem with Ronny’s work ethic,” Lever said. “I told him at the beginning of the year that as long as he worked for me, I’d give him every chance to improve his game, but if he was going to come here with a bad attitude, then we’d have problems.
“He’s shown unbelievable leadership qualities, which has shocked us. In fact, I’ve left the ‘A’ on his sweater.”
Offensively, Hainsey has stepped up to lead the team, tied for second overall in team scoring, one point behind team leader Jean-Francois Jacques. Hainsey’s two goals and 11 assists has him tied with fellow Bulldog Andre Benoit for seventh overall in the AHL in terms of scoring among blueliners.
Benoit, who signed as a free agent with the Habs earlier this year, had an impressive training camp and early start to the season, but has been slumping as of late.
“He’s slowed down a bit. He’s now been scouted by the other teams and they’ve learned how to cheat on him a bit,” Lever said. “But it’s nice to have a player with his vision on the team.”
Benoit has netted four goals and nine assists in 18 games, and has been a power play force, potting three markers from the blue line.
Up front, the team expected to lose some firepower thanks to the graduation of leaders such as Alexander Perezhogin, Tomas Plekanec, and Chris Higgins, along with the trade of Marcel Hossa and the decision to let Jason Ward go via free agency. Those five made up a significant part of the team’s offense last year and the players who were looked to pick up the slack have met with mixed results.
Andre Kostitsyn has not made the offensive jump that was expected – and needed – of him to date in his sophomore season. In 18 games the gifted winger has only scored four goals and four assists and is tied (with Hainsey) with a team-worst -9 plus/minus rating.
“I’m trying to be consistent with him. He’s probably played two really solid games out of 18 and he’s going through the same problems that he had last year before he took off. We’re hoping he follows that same pattern again,” Lever said. “He has an NHL shot, but he hasn’t been able to get himself into areas where he can use it. We’re working with him, showing him on the computer where to go, but it’s been a slow process.”
But while he may be firing blanks offensively, he appears to be paying more attention to his own end of the ice.
“His defense is improving. Early in the year he was very sloppy and that’s where a lot of his minuses came from. He has shown improvement without the puck,” Lever added.
Time and language have been the biggest obstacles in Kostitsyn’s development and the organization is hoping that as he improves his English, so too will his play on-ice get better.
“We lost some development time when he stayed and played in Russia the first year after he was drafted,” Timmins said. “He still hasn’t mastered the English language, which holds him back a little.”
“His biggest issues have been communication and his ability to maintain a solid work ethic,” Lever added. “He understands [English], but he’s kind of embarrassed to use it. The conversations pretty much go one way. His girlfriend is arranging for English classes and he’ll go with her when he’s in town. He’s finally showing the initiative he needs to show.
“It’s been tough, but now that Raitis Ivanans is here it kind of helps to bridge the gap.”
Diminutive forward Corey Locke was also looked to pick up the offensive slack, especially in light of the rules changes which appeared to be tailor-made for his abilities. However, while Locke’s skills aren’t in question, his commitment and effort have been.
“I’m getting the power play production out of Locke, but it’s the five-on-five that needs to get better,” Lever explained. “The reason why he was so successful in junior was his work ethic and now he has to bring that to this level. He gets to resting on certain shifts and he needs to work the same way he worked when he was in junior. He’s got good vision and is a nice player.”
Timmins added that Locke, who has scored six goals and 13 points in 18 games, has all the tools and just needs to believe in his abilities and match that with effort.
“I live just outside of Ottawa so I’ve seen him play a lot and what I liked about him was that he has a lot of character to go with a lot of talent,” Timmins said. “He’s slowly learning that he can be a top player in the AHL in his second year. He’s got a chance. I’m not saying that he’ll be a regular NHLer, but he has a chance.”
Whereas Locke has talent to spare and a questionable work ethic, his polar opposite may be forward Maxime Lapierre, who recently had a one-game call-up with the parent Montreal Canadiens. Lever said that Lapierre’s attitude should serve as an inspiration for others on the roster.
“His reward was to be called up. There’s a kid that just works, works, works. If Corey sees what Maxime’s effort got him and decided to apply that to his game, then imagine what [Locke] could do,” Lever explained. “With Maxime it’s almost the opposite situation – you have to slow him down a bit. I guess Lapierre has been the biggest pleasant surprise with his consistency. He has been a bright light. Of course, we only had Danis for three games and he won them all – so that was a pretty bright light too!”
Timmins said he was pleased with Lapierre’s performance, which has seen him score two goals and five assists in 16 games, with a -1 plus/minus rating.
“You know he’s going to give you 200 percent on every shift. He’s a physical presence and he’s an energy guy,” Timmins explained. “Work-wise, he earned [the call-up]. He needs some more development time, but he’s on track.”
Lever said he’s looking forward to the continued development of his young team and continues to navigate the murky waters of a shared-player environment. The Oilers and Canadiens have an agreement that sees the Edmonton franchise contribute some players to the club. And, except for a few issues, Lever said the experience has been fairly smooth.
“We’ve been kind of fortunate with the players. We had a little trouble when [the Oilers] had three players on the blue line on our roster,” he said. “You look at it and we had [Jean-Phillipe] Cote, [Andrew] Archer, Benoit, Jeff Paul, [Johnathan] Aiken, and Hainsey, and they had sent us [Andre] Roy, [Danny] Syvret, and Dan Smith. That’s nine guys – let me tell you that was stick-handling to keep everyone happy and get everyone time.
“We are the Hamilton Bulldogs and that’s how we approach it. We wanted to promote a team concept and the fact was that the better they played, the better chance they had of playing.
Going forward, the team will benefit from the natural process of aging and experience, Lever said. “We’re young down the middle with Locke in his second year and both Lapierre and [Marc-Antoine] Pouliot first-year players,” he added. “In fact, we’re the youngest team in the league, so it’s going to take a lot of patience to get us where we want to go. And with our goaltending we haven’t had time to develop much consistency.”
And Timmins cautions fans from getting too worked up about early-season results.
“It’s pretty early and we’re not too far into the season,” he added. “It takes 20 games for players to get a feel for things and to get comfortable in a system.”
Timmins added that the injury situations in Montreal and the success of rookies like Perezhogin, Higgins, and Plekanec in the NHL reflects well on the depth and quality of the franchise’s prospects.
“I think with the success of our players at the big team in Montreal you can see how successful our farm club in Hamilton has been at developing players,” Timmins said. “When you have those players come up and contribute to the Montreal Canadiens as well as they have is says a lot about the program.”
Of course, while Lever is happy for the success for those Habs’ rookies, that’s not to say he wouldn’t have minded seeing them on his bench this year, for selfish reasons.
“When I look at it I had thought I was going to get a couple of players who made it to Montreal [Higgins and Perezhogin]. The good thing is that it gives [other] players more playing time, but it doesn’t make my team better now, does it?” he concluded, laughing.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.