It’s to be expected that a team will struggle to win games when they get swarmed with injuries to key players. Injuries take their tole on teams, especially when said team lacks depth, goaltending, coaching, and is filled with rookies, and the Hamilton Bulldogs are a perfect example of all 4.
The AHL was filled with young stars locked out from their NHL clubs. Some teams had only a couple NHL players, while other teams like the Oklahoma City Barons had as many as 8 suit up for their club. Due to injuries, the Montreal Canadiens currently have 4 Bulldogs on their roster, and since the lockout ended, 6 Bulldogs have been called up by the Habs (the 6th being Mike Commodore who has since been released from his PTO contract). The Bulldogs have dressed 42 different players this season, which would explain the team’s lack of chemistry.
The AHL isn’t team-friendly, it’s not like if the team has a bad year then it gets a good draft pick in the summer. The NHL affiliate teams are generally run by the organization’s General Manager, so usually the blame of a bad season in the AHL is thrown on the NHL teams’s manager. Not to worry Hab fans, Marc Bergevin deserves no blame for the Bulldogs’ season. Hamilton’s struggles are the aftermath of Pierre Gauthier’s lack of intelligence as a general Manager. Give Marc Bergevin credit, he did so many good things for the Bulldogs, but the NHL calibre AHL rosters proved too much for Hamilton’s banged-up team. Montreal only had a couple of returning players from last years team heading to the Bulldogs. Louis Leblanc, Blake Geoffrion, Mike Blunden, Gabriel Dumont and Frederic St. Denis were the only players to start the year with the Bulldogs who suited up for the Habs last year. Marc Bergevin made some key signings to help bolster the roster by inking AHL veterans Cedrick Desjardins, Darryl Boyce, Zack Stortini and Mike Commodore. Bergevin also made two trades in attempt to help the Bulldogs by sending Brendon Nash to San Antonio for Jason DeSantis for help on the powerplay, and also acquiring the very decorated Dustin Tokarski from Syracuse for struggling Cedrick Desjardins.
Injuries proved to be costly for Hamilton. Cedrick Desjardins was battling a groin injury early in the season and was unable to play the first handful of games for Hamilton which forced Robert Mayer and Peter Delmas to start the early portion of games. Losing Louis Leblanc to a high ankle sprain early in the season after his solid start was a huge blow to the Bulldogs’ offense (his injury has nagged him all year). Greg Pateryn broke his elbow and forced the inexperienced Hamilton defense to adapt quickly to professional hockey. Blake Geoffrion’s freak injury really crippled the Bulldogs who were already struggling on offense. Aaron Palushaj went down mid-season to a shoulder injury and upon returning to the team, was picked up on waivers by the Colorado Avalanche. Brendan Gallagher was leading the Bulldogs in points when he was called up by the Canadiens. Hamilton was flooded with injuries, but ever since January 6th when the NHL came to agreement on the new CBA (not the official date the CBA was signed, just the date the NHL & NHLPA agreed) the Bulldogs have been significantly more competitive posting an 11-13-2 record. The stellar netminding from Dustin Tokarski has been a huge upgrade for the team.
All this being said, the Bulldogs haven’t been a complete disaster. Hamilton is tied with Peoria for 25th in goals against, and are ranked 17th in penalty killing with 82.8%. Defense hasn’t been the primary concern for Hamilton this season, but the offense has been a nightmare. Hamilton has scored 129 goals this season which is 13 fewer than the 29th place Abbotsford Heat. With an embarrassing 10.7% powerplay efficiency, the Bulldogs rank dead last with the extra man.
It’s no coincidence that the Bulldogs’ head coach Sylvain Lefebvre is a defensive minded coach. Lefebvre fired his assistant coach Ron Wilson earlier this season. Sylvain had this to say of the firing, “This was a difficult decision to make, but due to a difference in philosophy, we felt it was best to part ways.” Donald Dufresne is the only assistant coach remaining with the Bulldogs, but Patrice Brisebois and Martin Lapointe have also been on the ice with the team during practices giving the young ‘Dogs advice and leadership. All four of these hockey minds have helped the Canadiens defense prospects immensely. Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn, Morgan Ellis and even Antoine Corbin have all had very promising rookie seasons. Tinordi and Pateryn both played their 1st NHL games with the Canadiens last week which speaks volumes to the development team in Hamilton and the Canadiens organization. But again, the Bulldogs’ struggles have been on offense, being unable to score goals.
Now I have only been able to watch about 10-15 ‘Dogs games this season, but I have watched all the highlights and paid close attention to the statistics of each individual game. In my opinion, Sylvain Lefebvre deserves to be fired. Kyle Hagel and Zack Stortini have been gift-wrapped ice time they definitely do not deserve. Neither of those goons are top 6 forwards even in the AHL, but Lefebvre has played each of them as if they are elite offensive players. The powerplay in Hamilton has been a nightmare, no matter who has been on the PP, it has been painful to watch. The “system” that Lefebvre has implemented to his team, seems to be different every single game. He doesn’t seem to challange his players to compete.
The back-to-back games against the IceCaps on the weekend was proof of how lousy a coach Lefebvre is. His decision to start Robert Mayer in the first game proved to be a costly one as Mayer let in 3 goals on 6 shots. The Bulldogs were terrible that night losing 5-0 and only mustering 23 shots on goal. The following night seemed like a completely different team as the ‘Dogs led the Icecaps 3-1 after the first period. Hamilton looked poised for the win leading 3-2 with less than 5 minutes left in the 3rd period, but St. John’s didn’t quit. The IceCaps would quickly tie it, and then score the game winning goal with 28 seconds left in the game. Hamilton surrendered 36 shots in that game and could only fire 19 on the St. John’s net. Lefebvre just couldn’t seem to motivate his players. A timeout and proper ice time management could have at least got the Bulldogs to overtime, but I guess the rookie head coach had a “better” idea.
For the Hamilton Bulldogs’ season to go the way it did, about 100 things had to go wrong, and it seems as though at least 98 of those things happened. To place all the blame on Sylvain Lefebvre for Hamilton’s season is foolish, but he has done nothing to help the Bulldogs improve as hockey team. I believe he deserves to be fired, maybe at the end of the ‘Dogs season, Marc Bergevin will in fact give him the boot. The Bulldogs next year will have a new crop of rookies battling for a spot in Hamilton, and with the return of the rookies from this season going into their sophomore year as pros, the Bulldogs will definitely be a playoff contending team. A new coach who encourages offense will be a huge improvement from the defensive minded coach the ‘Dogs had this season.
Regardless of who coaches in Hamilton next season, the Canadiens have so many good young prospects coming up, and with the Habs’ huge stockpile of draft picks in this summer’s draft, it is hard to imagine a bad Bulldogs team in the years to come. I will say it once and I’ll say it again, the Canadiens future is bright.