The Hamilton Bulldogs will wrap up what could generously be called a very
disappointing 2012-13 campaign this coming weekend. Barring them running
the table and a couple of other teams losing, they will wind up dead last not
only in the AHL’s Western Conference but also the entire league. Where did
it all go wrong for the Bulldogs?
NHL Lockout: Taking a rookie-laden roster into the AHL is a risky
proposition at any time. However, in a season where the NHL is in a
lockout, it’s a death sentence. Where other teams were getting quality,
impact NHL’ers back, Hamilton got Michael Blunden. With all due respect to
Blunden, who has played a useful role with Hamilton this year, his playing
ability isn’t up to snuff compared to what other teams received from their
parent clubs. That put the Bulldogs behind the proverbial 8-ball right off
Goalie Struggles: This is the one area that I thought Marc Bergevin
did well to shore up in the offseason. Cedrick Desjardins was brought in
to be the starter after putting up some eye popping numbers with Lake Erie in
2011-12. Instead, he struggled with consistency and somehow managed to
lose the starting job to the much-maligned Robert Mayer. Mayer, to his
credit, is putting up similar numbers to last season despite playing on a weaker
team, but he still is nothing more than a depth backup goalie at best.
Dustin Tokarski, acquired in a mid-season trade for Desjardins, has played well
up until his last few outings but by the time he was acquired, Hamilton was too
deep in the basement for him to make too much of a difference.
Lack of Impact Veterans: The Bulldogs lost Alex Henry, Brian Willsie,
Garrett Stafford, and Joe Callahan in the offseason. Unfortunately, next
to nothing was done to replace them as the club opted to give the rookies prime
minutes right away. Darryl Boyce and Mike Commodore stumbled through
mediocre tryouts while Zack Stortini has been overplayed while bringing very
little to the table. Every successful minor league squad has a group of
quality veterans who can help shoulder the load and this team has lacked that.
Joey Tenute, signed midseason, has provided somewhat of an offensive lift but he
alone wasn’t enough to make a difference. On the blueline, Greg Pateryn
was one of the defence corps’ elder statesmen regularly. I think that says
more than enough right there.
Difficulties Adjusting: It’s quite common for prospects, even some of
the more prominent ones, to struggle early on in their rookie AHL season as they
adjust to playing at the pro level. This happened for pretty much all of
the newcomers (Brendan Gallagher being the lone possible exception).
Patrick Holland, a 109 point player last year in the WHL, needed 33 games to hit
the ten point plateau. Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi both had ugly
plus/minus ratings early on as they made their ‘rookie mistakes’ that led to
extra goals allowed. (There are several other examples with all of the
rookies they’ve used but I’m sure you get the point.)
Regression from the Returnees: Aaron Palushaj was a point-per-game
player in 2011-12. This season, before going to Colorado, he failed to
produce at the rate of half of a point-per-game. Louis Leblanc had 22
points in 31 games this season; barring a hot streak in the final weekend, he’ll
have played twice as many games this campaign without even equalling last years’
production. These two were expected to be catalysts for the team
offensively and both of them flopped in that role.
I don’t want to throw coaching into its own point but the new staff deserves
a lot of the blame as well. There have been numerous head scratching
lineup decisions, the special teams are a nightmare, and it’s hard to give any
praise when the team is about to finish dead last in the league. However,
the above factors also played a huge role in the Bulldogs’ struggles and not all
of that can simply be heaped on the coaches’ shoulders. There’s more than
enough blame to go around.
Fortunately, despite this nightmarish campaign, things are looking up for the
2013-14 squad. Here are some early potential positives for next year:
Rookies Rebounding: Holland, Beaulieu, and Tinordi were noted as
rookies who struggled early on. However, in the second half of the season,
those players picked up their play considerably. So too has Michael
Bournival who is the active team leader in scoring. Presuming they’re all
back next year, their level of play at the start of next year should far surpass
their early season performance from October. That’s going to lead to some
Goaltending: Presuming that Tokarski makes it through waivers next
year (goalies usually aren’t plucked off the waiver wire in late September/early
October), this is an area that should be a strength. They will have a new
backup as Mayer is off to the Swiss league as well so there is a prime
opportunity for an upgrade there as well.
Marc Bergevin: This season was a learning experience for him not only
at the NHL level but also at the AHL one as he is the Bulldogs’ GM. There
were some mistakes made in the composition of this roster from a success
perspective (playing the rookies more is good for development but bad for wins).
I believe he’ll learn from his mistakes and help surround the young core, one
that could include promising rookie Danny Kristo, with some more productive
veteran players. He will also have a better feel for team needs beyond the
lack of experience.
It’s a tough time to be a fan of the Hamilton Bulldogs, this season has been
tough to say the least. But, fortunately, brighter days are ahead for this