Last season, the doors of Copps Coliseum were revolving so fast the players’ heads were spinning and many ended up not knowing whether they were coming or going. This year, a more stable base of players had a telling impact on the Hamilton Bulldogs fortunes – and the team went from the outhouse to the penthouse in just one season.
With largely the same cast of characters, the Bulldogs finished 12th of 14 teams last year in the AHL’s Western Conference behind a 35-41-0-4 record. This season, the club finished a respectable sixth in the conference, with a 43-28-3-6 record. And if that turnaround wasn’t enough, the club has gone on a tear in the AHL playoffs, currently owning a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Wolves, with the series headed home.
And while this mercurial rise to the top of the charts may seem dramatic, it’s all built upon the stable foundation that was set a few years back by the NHL management regime, including the Montreal Canadiens’ director of player recruitment and development Trevor Timmins.
“This is what we’ve tried to establish over the years with ventures like our development camp,” Timmins explained. “From day one, a lot of these guys have been together, playing on the rookie teams, and they’ve been able to grow up together. They’ve been teammates throughout their professional lives and that helps them to develop a chemistry at every level they play at.”
Although the Habs missed out on the NHL playoffs, some of their brightest moments came in the glimpses of a promising future represented by AHL call-ups such as Mikhail Grabovski (5th round, 250th overall, 2004), Andrei Kostitsyn (1st round, 10th overall, 2003), Maxim Lapierre (3rd round, 61st overall, 2003), and – most notably – netminder Jaroslav Halak (9th round, 271st overall, 2003).
“We didn’t have a lot of depth in the past and that’s what hurt the club,” Timmins explained. “Now we’re starting to build up that depth and when we call [these players] up they don’t just occupy a roster spot, but they play a role.”
In addition, the Bulldogs’ AHL playoff success has been fuelled by a youthful injection between the pipes in the form of goaltender Carey Price (1st round, 5th overall, 2005), who played most of the season with the WHL Tri-City Americans.
“Pressure-wise he’s handled it well,” he said. “After all, how much more pressure can you face than a shootout at the World Juniors?”
In fact it’s not the workload that’s a challenge for Price, but rather the lack of work. “He’s getting used to not getting as many shots taken on him – he’s used to 40 to 50 and now sometimes it’s just 19,” Timmins said. “We’ve played him in the playoffs because we think he can handle it. We want to move forward at the big-league level, so we want to give our prospects every opportunity to succeed and eventually help us in Montreal.”
Price has wrested the starter’s role from Yann Danis (free agent, 2004), playing in 14 of the club’s 15 playoff games. With a 9-4 record behind a 2.37 GAA and .922 save percentage, Price has been a key component of the Bulldogs’ success in the AHL playoffs.
Although Price’s ascension has been the feel-good story of the playoffs, the player lost in the shuffle has been Danis. In fact, it was but last season when Danis was looked upon as a significant part of the Habs’ future between the pipes. He enjoyed early success at the NHL level as an injury call-up, but frequent call-ups and send-downs seemed to wreak havoc on Danis’ confidence. He was never able to get settled and it impacted his performance.
This year, he saw his status with the club usurped by Halak, and now the future promise of Price is a real and immediate threat to Danis’ livelihood.
“His biggest challenge is with the shooters in today’s game as it’s a little different game than before,” Timmins said. “There’s no holding anymore so the more rebounds you give up, the more chances you have of the other team getting to them, and as a smaller goalie he has to control those.”
The 6’0, soon to be 26-year-old Danis’ future is up in the air. “He has to be re-signed,” Timmins explained. “Obviously the choice will be his.”
In Timmins’ opinion, there is a role for Danis in the organization – although it may not be the one that Danis could have expected during last season’s early successful run. Also, the netminder has to regain any confidence he may have lost.
“With goaltending, confidence is always the key factor for them. You always need goaltending depth, but he’ll have to battle for a position,” Timmins added. “I think he’s still developing as well. Whether it’s Hamilton or Cincinnati (ECHL), you’re still trying to win hockey games.”
All in all, Danis’ season wasn’t all that bad, which justifies Timmins’ faith in his netminder. In 44 regular season games, he had 23 wins, 14 losses, and five shootout losses. And his 2.81 GAA and .925 save percentage were solid totals on the season.
Unfortunately for Danis – and fortunately for the Habs’ – Halak’s 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage in 28 regular season games were that much better. A 16-11 record earned him a call-up to the NHL ranks, where he led the Habs’ playoff charge with a 10-6 record behind a 2.89 GAA and .906 save percentage.
“I’m not surprised with the way Jaro played,” Timmins said. “What I am surprised at is that it happened so quickly. I mean, last year he was in the East Coast league and now he’s in the NHL. He’s very calm and poised and we’ve seen that about him since he was playing in the Under-18 tournament.”
If solid goaltending has been the chassis upon which the Bulldogs’ success has been built, then Kyle Chipchura (1st round, 18th overall, 2004) has been the solid frame that’s offered the club the confidence that comes from security all season long. Although known more for his defensive prowess, the Westlock, AB native is second on the club in playoff scoring with nine points in 14 games paced by four goals, and leads the Bulldogs with a +8 rating.
“When you have a guy like Chipchura, you have to realize that he plays a different role on the team,” Timmins said. “He brings leadership qualities, is a solid checker and is great at killing penalties.
“He’s a natural leader. On the ice and off, guys just follow him,” he added. “I just talked to Carey [Price]. He’s just come up from junior and living in a hotel, and he’s already spent a lot of time with Chipchura.”
During the regular season – his first full term in the AHL – Chipchura was tied for sixth in team scoring with 12 goals and 27 assists in 80 games. He was also good in all facets of the game, playing on the power play (one goal) and on the penalty kill (two goals).
And the fuel that powered the engine? Surprisingly for some, it’s been Corey Locke (4th round, 113th overall, 2003) – a player whose promise has never been lived up to by production at the professional level. One could hope that this playoff performance marks Locke’s coming out of sorts.
“Corey’s a skilled player, but he has to play on the top line. His problem is that his skating hasn’t come along,” Timmins said. “Maybe he will develop into a solid player in the future.”
Locke has led the club in scoring this playoff, with 14 points split evenly between goals and assists. This scoring outburst continues his solid regular season of 20 goals and 35 assists in 80 games. The former CHL player of the year may finally be ready to take that jump to the next level.
Topping the scoring charts during the regular season was another long-awaited performance from Duncan Milroy (2nd round, 37th overall, 2001). He finally broke through this season, leading the club with 58 points in just 64 games during the regular season, topping the second-place total that Locke posted in 16 more games.
“He figured something out this offseason – something triggered and he’s a better player for it,” Timmins said. Unfortunately, that lightning in a bottle appears to have dispersed in the second season, as Milroy’s only been able to find the back of the net once in 14 games, although he’s added seven helpers.
The rock on the blueline has been Ryan O’Byrne (3rd round, 79th overall, 2003), who made the jump to the AHL this season from the collegiate ranks. And although the Victoria, BC native stumbled a bit in the early going, he managed to hit his stride mid-season, and is now running towards an NHL roster spot.
“He’s been really good. It took him until Christmas to take off. Now he’s playing with men and he’s more confident,” Timmins explained. “He’s got tremendous size and ability to read the game.
“I think he may get some games next year with Montreal. But he’s going to have to learn to control those smaller, quicker players.”
At 6’5, 234 pounds, O’Byrne has the size that makes scouts drool. And he’s showcased a little offensive flair this season to go along with his defensive prowess. In the 14 games during the playoffs, the hulking blueliner has scored one goal and added five assists. During the regular season, O’Byrne was goalless, but added 14 helpers.
The Bulldogs have benefited from a number of other solid performances this season. One unsung hero has been rookie forward Matt D’Agostini (6th round, 190th overall, 2005). In 63 regular season games, the winger from Sault Ste. Marie, ON, scored an impressive 21 goals and 49 assists in 63 games. But what impressed Timmins most was the impact his absence had on the club.
“He has come along nicely as a freshman this year. He’s been a key part of the team,” Timmins explained. “During the regular season, when he was out of the lineup, the club struggled and when he was in the lineup he helped us win the tight games.”
With two goals and five assists in 14 playoff games, D’Agostini has continued his contribution to the Bulldogs’ cause. And with a full year of professional experience under his belt, Timmins feels that D’Agostini will be better suited to weather the trials of the AHL season.
“He’s come along well – a couple of times he’s hit a wall physically but that will come with time,” he said.
The Bulldogs were blessed with a number of other contributors during the season. From the 23 goals and 14 assists posted by Jonathan Ferland (7th round, 212th overall, 2002) in 78 games, to the offensive leadership provided by Grabovski and Kostitsyn, the Bulldogs earned full measure for their performance this season.
There may be more help along the way next season. Mathieu Aubin (5th round, 130th overall, 2005) only saw 17 games at the AHL level, along with 38 in the ECHL. In those games, he’s shown flashes of the offensive potential he brings to the game, which will be needed should Kostitsyn and Grabovski make the permanent jump next season to the NHL level.
“When given the opportunity to produce he’s a natural sniper. He’s a late birthday and it would have been nice to have an overage year under his belt,” Timmins said. “He’s been playing mostly in Cincinnati and he’s suffering from a lack of foot speed due to a lack of strength.”
And the injury bug bit Francis Lemieux (free agent, 2005) hard this season, which hampered his growth. “He’s had a tough season, he’s been injured a hell of a lot,” Timmins explained. “He hasn’t played as many games as needed to develop.”
The Bulldogs’ success this season at the AHL level wasn’t expected, but it has been the result of careful planning and shrewd play at the draft table. In addition, the club has been set up for perpetual success, benefiting from a deep group of prospects.
“With the new system, it’s vital for your team to have young players,” he said. “We need to continually stock the cupboard and I think we’re doing a solid job of that.”
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.