Off-Season Game Plan: Hamilton Bulldogs

The Montreal Canadiens won’t be looking to improve only their NHL roster as Free Agency opens at 12 PM on July 1st. Their AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, also require revamping after a difficult season.

by Dan Kramer
@DanKramerHabs

Sylvain Lefebvre‘s reign in Hamilton hasn’t been an easy one. The former Colorado Avalanche assistant coach took the job as Hamilton’s bench boss to gain experience at the helm of a club, but two seasons later, he has yet to taste the post-season in such a capacity. Some success late in the 2013-14 season saved his squad from an embarrassing second straight last place finish, improving his win percentage from .421 in year one to .487 this past season, thanks in no small part to excellent goaltending from team MVP Dustin Tokarski.

But if we’re to be fair to Lefebvre, he hasn’t exactly had the horses to ice a winning line-up. Particularly at forward, he has not been blessed with the most talented of prospects – perhaps half a season of Brendan Gallagher aside – and peculiarly almost every veteran the team has ink’ed to support the youth has failed to pan out.

On July 1st last year, Marc Bergevin thought he had landed a big fish. Martin St. Pierre may have past his prime, but he was still a seemingly perennial AHL all-star and proven offensive force in the league. He was immediately handed the captaincy, and few could have predicted the disappointing season the centre would have. His 48 points in 71 games made it the least productive year of his career, and his lack of intensity even saw him sit as a healthy scratch late in the season.

This isn’t to absolve Lefebvre himself from all blame, as his first two years as a head coach have certainly been a learning experience. He saddled St. Pierre with a shell of Patrick Holland – whose game inexplicably took a nosedive following a promising rookie season – and showed little flexibility in mixing up his set duos, even as they struggled to produce offense with any consistency. The powerplay struggled for much of the year, even with the shifty Nathan Beaulieu and sharpshooting Greg Pateryn available to man the points. And even when it was obvious to any impartial observer that Tokarski was one of the few reasons the team was capable of being competitive, the coach continued to platoon his should-be-starter with the less-inspiring Robert Mayer.

Does any of this matter? Isn’t what counts most that when guys like Gallagher and Beaulieu are called up to Montreal, they are ready to contribute? Well, yes and no. The parent club definitely comes first, and so developing NHL-ready talent takes priority over winning in the AHL. But developing that winning instinct, tradition, and habit, and gaining valuable playoff experience at a professional level, will only serve to help better prepare them on how to enjoy success as they make the transition to the big league.

Thus, it is important for Bergevin to consider the 2014-15 Hamilton Bulldogs as he goes shopping on Canada Day. Here’s a look at the team’s needs by position.

FORWARDS

Sven Andrighetto – XXX – Gabriel Dumont
Charles Hudon – Jacob De La Rose – Christian Thomas
Tim Bozon – XXX – Patrick Holland
Connor Crisp – XXX – Jack Nevins

Of course, lines are far from determined, but the above indicates a glaring weakness at centre. Dumont can play down the middle, just as much as De La Rose may be slotted on the wing, but these positions seem to be their most likely projections for the coming year. Counting on a second line with two rookies – one only 19 – is the kind of thinking that has gotten the Bulldogs in trouble in the past, so the club may be looking to add up to two top six forwards, in addition to filling out depth roles.

Also under contract are a few question marks in Stefan Fournier and Daniel Carr, with the former struggling to prove he can be a regular at this level in his rookie campaign, and the latter a new UFA signee about to get his feet wet in the pro game. The team will undoubtedly be parting ways with UFAs St. Pierre and Nick Tarnasky, though it wouldn’t be a surprise if an offer was made to retain the services of Mike Blunden, who is a quality bottom six player and was an important part of the team’s leadership core.

Among players who were on AHL deals a year ago, only Justin Courtnall truly deserves consideration for a new deal, he who brought intensity and workmanlike qualities to a third or fourth line, but with limited offensive potential. And then there’s Tim Bozon, who seems to be progressing well and might be penciled into a spot, but is not a certain case as he continues his courageous return from a severe bout with meningitis. All the more reason to ensure you’re stocked with sufficient depth to ice a competitive team.

If the market for available AHL vets was slim a few days ago, it picked up considerably this week as teams opted not to make qualifying offers to some they deemed to have longshot NHL futures. Here are eight names (among many) to consider:
Ben Street: 27-year old played 13 games for the Flames; while above point-per-game in AHL last season.
Ryan Stoa
: 27-year old big centre, coming off productive AHL season.
Carter Camper: Undersized 25-year old, has put up big AHL numbers.
David Steckel: After parting with Ryan White, Montreal could use depth in 4th line centre call-ups in Hamilton.
Zac Dalpe: 24-year old 6’1″ Ontario native; struggled to produce in NHL. Would be a risk of losing him on waivers.
Jim O’Brien: 25-year old was a first round pick; solid 6’2″ frame, coming off tough season.
Nicolas Deschamps: 24-year old Quebec native, got first taste of NHL action last season thanks to strong AHL year.
Nick Drazenovic: 27-year old turned fringe journeyman has shown he can put up points in the AHL.

DEFENSEMEN

Mac Bennett – Greg Pateryn
Davis Drewiske – Darren Dietz
XXX – Morgan Ellis

What the group of defensemen looks like depends in part on the moves made in Montreal this off-season, but a current projection might see both Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi among the Canadiens’ top 7 and thus on the NHL roster, leaving the likes of Pateryn and Drewiske to start the year in the AHL.

Thus far, Dietz and Ellis haven’t proven to be anything more than depth d-men playing against older and tougher competiton than their junior days, but both still have the potential to round out a top 6 with the right partners. Drewiske and Pateryn provide veteran experience at this point, but the team could stand to add at least one more solid AHL blueliner (in addition to a depth guy or two on AHL deals) to insulate the younger players.

Also signed is Dalton Thrower, who certainly factors into the mix, but will likely need to beat out the likes of Dietz or Ellis so that the team can balance its young players with the experienced. Another wildcard is Magnus Nygren, who hasn’t wavered in his refusal to return to Hamilton, but who could push one of Tinordi or Beaulieu to Hamilton to start the year if he cracks the big club out of camp.

Four names to consider to beef up the back end:
Brendan Mikkelson: 6’3″ offensive rearguard hasn’t made NHL at age 27, but could replace Beaulieu’s offense.
Andrew Campbell: 26-year old 6’4″ Ontario-native and a lefty, was stuck behind significant depth in L.A.
Maxime Fortunus: 30-year old Quebec-native is a righty, but has major AHL experience.
Marc-Andre Bourdon: 24-year old Quebec-native has shown he can be a fringe NHL’er; coming off injury.

GOALTENDERS

XXX
Mike Condon

One has to wonder exactly what Bergevin meant when he said prior to the NHL draft that he wouldn’t be shopping to improve his goaltending on July 1st. Certainly, when he signed Dustin Tokarski to a two-year deal, with the first year being two-way, the intent was to have him return as Hamilton’s starter in 2014-15. The rest, as they say, was fate, as Carey Price‘s injury thrust a spotlight on the young netminder, getting him noticed around the league.

What this means is that the likelihood of Tokarski clearing waivers to rejoin the ‘Dogs is slim. And yes, despite his two-way deal, Tokarski’s age and experience mean that he would need to pass through waivers to play in the AHL next season. Peter Budaj isn’t about to be put on waivers (nor would he clear) either, meaning that in theory, Montreal’s GM needs to go shopping for a new Bulldog netminder.

Condon just completed his pro rookie season in the ECHL with sensational numbers, but he’d best fit as a 1B, paired with a strong veteran to ease his transition. Here are three names to consider:
Drew MacIntyre: 31-year old has started for the Toronto Marlies the last 2 years; would he jump ship?
David Leggio: 29-year old has always been at his best against the ‘Dogs in Hamilton; think Erik Cole in Montreal.
Mike McKenna: 31-year old journeyman has consistently posted strong save percentages in the AHL.

 

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