Bulldogs make some moves

By Jim Harnock

Going into this past weekend’s back-to-back games against the
Philadelphia Phantoms and the Rochester Americans, both parent clubs of
the Hamilton Bulldogs made moves to address the team’s unwieldy roster –
two moves permanent, one temporary.

The Edmonton Oilers made the first move, opting to buy out the
contract of 6’3”, 196 lbs defenseman Alexander Liubimov. Drafted by
Edmonton in the third round of the 200 entry draft, 83rd overall,
Liubimov started last season on the Bulldogs’ roster before being sent
to the Odessa Jackalopes of the Central Hockey League where he compiled
3 goals, 20 assists and 112 PIM in 56 games. Though he has spent parts
of the past two seasons on the Hamilton roster, he has never dressed for
an AHL game. Liubimov has returned home to Russia.

Montreal made the second move, granting defenseman Martti Jarventie
permission to return home to Finland for “personal reasons” (apparently
his wife is there and recently had a baby) and, once healed from his
shoulder injury, to play out the season there. Jarventie, drafted by
the Canadiens 109th overall (fourth round) in 2001, was injured prior to
the start of the Bulldogs’ training camp and as a result has not dressed
for any games.

The Oilers loaned right-winger Michael Henrich to the Canadian entry
in the Deutschland Cup in a temporary move to reduce the Hamilton
roster. Henrich, who missed most of training camp and all of the games
so far recovering from an illness has been skating with the Bulldogs and
should crack the line-up after he returns from Germany. Incidentally,
ex-linemate Peter Sarno will also be playing for Team Canada in
Germany. Sarno, who has been unable to come to terms on a new contract
with the Oilers, has been practicing with the Espoo Blues in Finland’s
SM Liiga.

Though the season thus far has been fairly successful for the
Bulldogs on the whole, there are certain players on the team who
desperately need to step up and start playing like the top prospects
they supposedly are. Perhaps the number one person on that list would
be Alexei Semenov, who has not produced a single point in his nine
games. While doing very little offensively, he has also taken a step
backward defensively, regularly looking lost of the ice and committing
horrible neutral-zone giveaways. It seems strange to me to be seeing
this “de-evolution” of a player who was apparently very close to earning
a roster spot with the Oilers in the pre-season. At the end of last
year, I would have ranked Semenov as Hamilton’s second best defenseman,
only behind Ales Pisa, yet as it stands this year, he’s quickly sliding
to the middle of the pack. I suppose there’s one good thing for Alexei
in all of this – with Hamilton averaging under 2,900 people per game,
hardly anyone is there to see his mistakes.

One of five Bulldogs making their North American professional debut
this season is speedy right-winger Jozef Balej (pronounced “bah-LAY”).
Drafted in the third round, 78th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in
the 2000 draft, 20-year-old Balej has spent the previous three seasons
with the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL, racking up 105 goals and 85
assists for 190 in 176 games played. Not astounding offensive numbers,
but certainly adequate, with his final season being most impressive – 92
points, including 51 goals in 65 games. This season has had a bit of a
slow start for Balej, with only one goal in 9 games thus far, but he has
contributed three assists to the cause, including an assist on Jani
Rita’s most recent power play marker.

Watching Balej play, there’s really no question that he has a lot of
skill and some very soft hands. He’s a very good stickhandler and is
always dangerous in the offensive zone. He also possesses very good
speed and manoeuvrability, but really needs to put as much energy into
back checking as he does fore checking, especially with players like
Alexei Semenov and Marc-André Bergeron on the blueline who have been
playing sub-par defense. Perhaps the biggest problem with Balej’s game
is his strength or lack thereof.

Part of the reason he hasn’t
contributed more offensively is that nine times out of ten, he’s muscled
off the puck very easily, resulting in a turnover or at the very least
the stalling of Hamilton’s momentum. At 5’11” and 170 or so lbs, the
most important part of his development right now will be physical,
working on both upper and lower body strength that will allow his to at
the very least make those one-on-one battles for the puck a draw (there
is no way he’s the 6’1” and 187 lbs listed in the Bulldogs media guide –
I’m 5’11”, 165 and I’m roughly the same size as Balej, just with worse
knees). Once he improves his strength on the puck and his commitment to
back checking, I don’t see any reason why Balej could not be a regular
second or third line contributor for Montreal a few years down the road.