The Hamilton Bulldogs are looking at the status quo this season. And considering the way they finished last season with a surprise run to the Calder Cup championships, the team wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Bulldogs have a new General Manager in a move that represents a shift from the Habs’ traditional management structure. In the past the Canadiens GM would also be the GM of the farm team. This year, presumably due to the increasingly deep pool of prospects in the minor league system, marks this first time that two people will hold these roles. Bob Gainey, of course, remains in Montreal, but the Canadiens’ VP-Hockey Operations Julian Brisebois will assume control of the Hamilton franchise.
At 30 years old, Brisebois is the youngest GM in the AHL, but he’s supported by a well-regarded returning coaching staff. Both head coach Don Lever and assistant coach Ron Wilson are back to defend their AHL title.
Although this position offered the biggest surprise of sorts, goaltending is at once both the most unsettled position and strongest position the club has — and it could conceivably change over the next few months. Last year the Bulldogs were set with Yann Danis as the starter and Jaroslav Halak serving as his backup. Flash forward a year and Danis is still in the picture in Hamilton having re-upped over the summer, but he no longer can be considered the clear starter. In fact Danis’ stock has dropped a fair over the past couple of years – once considered part of the Habs’ goaltending future, he went unclaimed through waivers after being cut from the Canadiens’ camp.
The talented, but inconsistent, Danis looks to be the backup this year – and that’s a testament to the depth of the Canadiens’ goaltending pool. The question is who will be the team’s starter?
The question on most Habs’ watchers’ minds is: Price or Halak? And despite the fact that wunderkind Carey Price broke camp with the Habs and the pleasant surprise that is Halak was sent down, that doesn’t mean this is a permanent situation. General Manager Bob Gainey has indicated that both players’ contract flexibility – specifically, the fact that both can be called up and sent down without passing through waivers – could be exploited this year. That would suggest that if Price isn’t getting adequate time between the pipes in Montreal, he could be sent down for conditioning stint in Hamilton, and vice versa for Halak.
Halak wrested control of the Bulldogs’ starting role last year, relinquishing it only when he was sent up to the NHL as an injury replacement for Cristobal Huet. He played exceptionally well down the stretch and was integral to the Canadiens’ late-season charge for playoff spot. In 16 NHL games, Halak posted a 10-6 record behind a 2.89 GAA and .906 save percentage. And that was after a stellar AHL stint in which he racked up a 7-6 record behind a sparkling 2.05 GAA and .932 save percentage.
But as spectacular as Halak’s numbers were, Price did him one better. The 20-year-old netminder enjoyed a season for the ages last year, leading Team Canada to World Junior gold and playing exceptionally well in the WHL. Once his Tri-City club’s season was over, he made the jump to the AHL and claimed the Bulldogs’ net for his own, leading the team to the Calder Cup posting a 15-6 record in 22 games, with a 2.06 GAA and .936 save percentage. He also earned a pair of shutouts in the post-season, and proved that he was ready to play.
With Montreal head coach Guy Carbonneau anointing Huet as the starter, the question remains whether Price would be better off getting 30 or so games in as a backup at the NHL level, or playing his full professional season in the AHL ranks. Either way, whether it’s Halak or Price starting and Danis backing up, the Bulldogs look set between the pipes this season.
Added into the mix is last year’s signee Cédric Desjardins, who currently is on the Bulldogs’ roster – at least until the goaltending picture above him gets cleared out. Signed to an AHL contract, Desjardins could be loaned to another team or farmed out to the ECHL Cincinnati franchise, depending on the team’s moves.
This position appears to be set for Hamilton, considering the recent sending down of rugged blueline anchor Ryan O’Byrne. Thanks to his two-way contract, the Bulldogs received the 6’6, 225-pound blueliner back in Hamilton this season. If so, the move may be temporary, as many feel the Victoria, BC native is ready to make the jump, and should be the first to be called up in an injury situation.
That said, the Bulldogs’ blueline is deep with experience – something new for the club. Andrew Archer, recent free agent signee Jamie Rivers, Mathieu Biron, and J-P Côté provide the maturity, which should help younger prospects like the aforementioned O’Byrne, Jon Gleed, and recent junior graduate Mathieu Carle make the transition.
Carle may be the most exciting to watch in the bunch. Drafted for his offensive abilities, the rookie blueliner should play a prominent role on the power play and could bring some offensive punch to a defensive corps that is lacking in point potential.
The Bulldogs return most of their forwards, including seasoned veterans like Corey Locke and Duncan Milroy, both of whom made it through the waivers process after being cut by the Habs in camp. Familiarity should breed even greater success, as the forward unit remains essentially intact from last year.
In fact, Hamilton has already weathered the losses that they’re expected to suffer this year. Last year, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mikhail Grabovski, and Maxim Lapierre all spent time with the Habs. Coming out of camp, Kostitsyn and Grabovski have NHL spots locked up, while Lapierre was a surprise cut.
The biggest surprise of the camp was that Kyle Chipchura broke camp with the Canadiens. He had an impressive run at Habs’ camp and his chances of sticking were bolstered when free agent signee Janni Lahti was sent down early in September.
But with the exit of one Kostitsyn comes the arrival of another. Andrei’s younger brother Sergei graduates from the OHL and will be looked upon to provide solid offensive production with the Bulldogs this year. After finishing third overall in league scoring last year, Sergei’s offensive potential is well established. What will benefit the Bulldogs is his ability to play all facets of the game, including penalty kill and the point on the power play.
With veteran offensive presence in the form of Locke and Milroy – the former, still searching for that work ethic and consistency; the latter finally getting it last year and taking an offensive leadership role – joining newcomer Sergei Kostitsyn, the club should be well set to compete in most games.
One surprise was the demotion of Lapierre. Reports out of the camp suggested that Lapierre didn’t display the same level of grit and determination that won him the hearts of coaches and fans alike last year, and this could be a much-needed wake-up call that will benefit him in the long run when he returns to the club.
The club’s unsung hero last year was rookie forward Matt D’Agostini, but don’t expect his contributions to go unnoticed this year. Another year under his belt and D’Agostini should show why he’s the favored son of some of the scouting staff. He’ll be called upon to play a more regular offensive role and should blossom with the opportunity.
Mathieu Aubin looks to take a greater role in Hamilton last year. Caught in the numbers game last year, the 6’3 center has all the offensive ability in the world, but needs to work on his footwork and defensive play. With more ice time should come an improvement in play and he could surprise many this year with his play.
In addition, players like Jonathan Ferland and Francis Lemieux provide the Bulldogs with that solid defense-first sensibility that is important to any club.
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