Hamilton Bulldogs 2006-07 season preview

By Jason Menard

The mantra for the Montreal Canadiens this year appears to be stability. And while this may not mean a repeat of the excitement from the past few years in Hamilton, it does mean that the club will benefit from a talented and deep roster as it attempts to reach the American Hockey League playoffs.

Last season, the Hamilton Bulldogs organization was one in flux. Not only did the team have to deal with a significant amount of its top-end talent cracking the NHL roster, it was also forced to deal with an exodus of Dallas Stars prospects, replaced by an influx of players from the Edmonton organization. Combine those factors with an injury situation in both Montreal and Edmonton that necessitated an almost continual crease-shuffling that saw six different netminders between the pipes in Hamilton.

Cue the changes. The Habs have assumed full authority of the Bulldogs franchise, largely due to the abundance of talented prospects in need of a place to play. Adding to this is the stability at the NHL level which will see little to no room for AHL players to crack the opening night roster, creating a situation where roles and line-ups can be defined early on in the season.

Somewhere, Hamilton coach Don Lever is smiling.

Last season, Hamilton finished the year with a 35-41-0-4 record, but this year’s squad is looking to far surpass that record – even contending for the division lead. And that sense of promise starts between the pipes.

Yann Danis returns as the nominal starter for a third sojourn with the Bulldogs. After enjoying some success last year as an injury fill-in with the Habs, Danis’ game was negatively impacted by the constant up-and-down movement. This season, although undoubtedly preferring to start the season in Montreal, he can be assured that he will see regular action with the Bulldogs.

Danis will be ably backed-up by Jaroslav Halak. After a late-season call-up from the ECHL, Halak recorded three shutouts in just six games, and ended the season with a 7-6 record with a stunning .927 save percentage and 2.29 GAA. Also making a pitch for playing time – and probably first in line for a call-up from the ECHL in an injury or trade situation – is Cedrick Desjardins, a free-agent pick-up who backstopped the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts to the 2006 Memorial Cup.

Up front, the Bulldogs look to return a significant amount of its forward depth to the roster, with the addition of some potent two-way punch on a regular basis. Although there have been whispers that either Guillaume Latendresse or Andrei Kostitsyn may find a spot on the Canadiens’ roster, the fact is that one or both of them would clearly have to outplay a top-six level forward. More likely, they will return to the junior ranks and the Bulldogs, respectively. This season, the biggest additions to the roster will be former Canadian junior team captain Kyle Chipchura and Quebec junior standout Mathieu Aubin.

Chipchura enjoyed a cup of coffee with the Bulldogs last season, joining the club for its final eight games and showed the strong two-way play that’s been a hallmark of his game. In just a few games, Chipchura finished with a +4 ranking and earned three points. There has been some chatter out of Montreal that Chipchura may find himself in a third or fourth-line role this season, but the more likely scenario is that he’ll spend at least one year in the AHL adjusting to the pro game.

Aubin enjoyed a breakthrough season last year with Lewiston, racking up 47 goals and 103 points in just 70 games. He’ll be counted on to replace the scoring void caused by the loss of Oilers prospects Jean-Francois Jacques, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, and Brad Winchester who combined accounted for 65 goals last season, while learning the defensive aspect of the game.

Returning to the club again will be the enigmatic Corey Locke. Blessed with talent, but a source of frustration to brass and fans alike for his wavering dedication to his craft, Locke showed flashes of the offensive prowess he so often demonstrated in the OHL en route to being named Canadian Hockey League player of the year. He finished the season with 59 points in 77 games, but – more importantly to the squad – he discovered his own end and learned more about the defensive side of the game. Locke is limited only by his own commitment to practicing and improving. The game is made for smaller, quicker players of Locke’s ilk, and this could be his breakout year.

Also new to the club will be former Guelph Storm captain Matt D’Agostini and Peterborough Petes stalwart Greg Stewart. Both players played key roles in the recent success of their respective OHL franchises and will be counted upon to play solid, two-way hockey, likely on the third or fourth lines.

Francis Lemieux, an undrafted free agent last season, looks to continue his solid development. He, along with long-time Bulldog Duncan Milroy and Cory Urquhart – who spent significant time in the ECHL – will be counted on to provide veteran leadership. Lemieux has the most potential in the group to be called up in a third or fourth-line role, much in the same way of potential Bulldogs Jonathan Ferland and Maxim Lapierre, who are firmly ensconced on the bubble in Montreal.

The most interesting – and potentially dynamic — addition to the Bulldogs up front comes from Russian sensation Mikhail Grabovski. The 22-year-old Belarusian certainly isn’t lacking in confidence, declaring himself ready for the NHL following a solid season in the Russian Super League and a breakthrough performance in the World Championships. However, much like the club’s Kostitsyn brothers and Juraj Mikus, who recently committed to playing junior in Quebec, the team would like to see Grabovski spend a year in North America, learning the language and the game on this side of the Atlantic.

The club’s Achilles heel, however, may be on the blue line – long a sore spot in the organization and one that the team made a concerted effort to rectify with this year’s drafting of David Fischer, Mathieu Carle, and Cameron Cepek. And while they have the stellar goaltending required to mask that deficiency, the club is still searching for more depth along a very thin blue line. With the injury to Habs defenseman Francis Bouillon, Jean-Phillipe Coté was expected to stick with the big club. However, with a stellar preseason performance to date, Swiss rearguard Mark Streit may have leapfrogged Coté into the role of injury replacement. That said, Coté might stick as a seventh defenseman in the NHL, unless the club determines that his development would be better served in the AHL.

With or without Coté and Streit, the Habs headed back to school to call in the reinforcements for Hamilton. The club signed former Cornell University blueliners Jon Gleed and Ryan O’Byrne. The pair will spend their first professional season in Hamilton, joining returnee Andrew Archer. The back end will most likely be filled by free-agent signees, as the club is continuing its search for experienced depth to help guide the young blue line.

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