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In the second half of our interview with Derek Wills, the voice of the Hamilton Bulldogs, the focus shifts primarily to the players. Who are some of the key players for the Bulldogs this year? What are his thoughts on the newcomers such as Brendan Gallagher? Also, which youngsters have shown themselves to be good leaders in the locker room? Read on for those answers and more.
HabsWorld: Itís somewhat surprising to see Louis Leblanc, one of the higher returning scorers from last year, playing on what appears to be a checking line. Is the duo of Boyce and Leblanc going to be used primarily in a shutdown role or do you think theyíll have their opportunities to play a more offensive style?
[Note: These questions were submitted prior to Louis Leblanc's injury in mid-October. The good news is that Leblanc is expected to start skating again in the coming days.]
Derek Wills: "Before getting injured on October 20th, Louis Leblanc was playing on what the coaches called the third line with Darryl Boyce and Mike Blunden. With that said, all three of the guys on the line have NHL experience. In my opinion, the top three lines on the team are very well balanced, as a matter of fact, I refer to them as lines 1-A, 1-B and 1-C. One of the things that I love about Leblanc is that is effective as a top-six forward and as a bottom-six forward. That versatility will serve him well during what Iím confident will be a long NHL career."
HW: Who is the most NHL-ready blueliner of the five rookie defencemen starting the season in Hamilton?
DW: "Thatís a tough question to answer. Different players bring different attributes to the ice. Offensively, I have been impressed with Nathan Beaulieu. Beaulieu is a skilled defenceman who skates well enough to join, and sometimes even lead the rush. Heís also a very smart player who has, for the most part, done a good job reading the play and has been well positioned. As quarterback of the teamís power play, Beaulieu has shown that he has the ability to create room for his teammates with his ability as a playmaker. Despite the fact that heís yet to register his first professional point, I have little doubt that itís only a matter of time before he starts producing at a high level."
[Note: Beaulieu has since collected his first point, an assist against Rochester on November 3rd.]
HW: Do you think the Bulldogs will sign a veteran defenceman to ease the transition to the pro ranks for the rookies? Should they be looking to sign one?
DW: "When the season began, I thought that the team needed another veteran defenceman. Now, Iím not so sure. If it was the right player, and by that I mean a proven, top-two veteran, I would be all for itÖbut I donít think that the team should sign a veteran defenceman for the sake of signing a veteran defenceman. Even though five of the ĎDogs seven defencemen are rookies, they really havenít played like rookies in most games. Veterans Frederic St-Denis and Brendon Nash have NHL experience and I wouldnít be surprised if all five of the rookie defencemen made it and Iíd be shocked three or four of them didnít. This is the best group of prospects that the team has had on defence in my 12 seasons."
HW: Aaron Palushaj and Frederic St-Denis are players who, once the lockout is settled, will have to clear waivers to return to Hamilton. Do you feel either of them are NHL ready and could stick with the big club?
DW: "Aaron Palushaj and Frederic St-Denis can both play in the NHL, but that doesnít mean that theyíll start the season with the Montreal Canadiens if /when the lockout ends. Itís really a numbers game, the Habs can only keep so many players, so there are going to be some guys who will have to continue developing with the 'Dogs in the AHL despite the fact that theyíve proven that they can play in the NHL."
HW: Looking at the depth chart, it looks as if Alexander Avtsin is on the outside looking in. Would it be better for his development to play big minutes in Wheeling or to play a 13th man role and stay with the Bulldogs?
DW: "I believe that Alexander Avtsin needs to play in order to get better. Right now, Avtsin is practicing with the team and doing extra work with the coaches, waiting for an opportunity to play. When he gets that chance, itís going to be up to him to prove that he belongs in the line-up. He certainly has the skills to do so."
HW: One of the Habsí more intriguing prospects joining the Bulldogs this year is Brendan Gallagher. Could you comment on his style of play and progress so far? Despite his size, do you believe he can be a scorer in the NHL and could he be a candidate to make the Canadiens out of training camp (as he was last year) when the lockout is settled?
DW: "Iíve been very impressed with Brendan Gallagher. I donít think that his stats really tell the story. Gallagher has consistently created opportunities for himself and his teammates. Gallagher leads all Hamilton skaters and is first in the AHL in rookie shots with 36. Whatís most encouraging is that Gallagher seems to be getting better and better by the game. After his performance during training camp and the preseason with Montreal in 2011-2012 and with his high-level of play so far this season, I wouldnít be surprised if the Canadiens gave him a long look should the NHL lockout come to an end."
HW: So far, the team has not yet named a captain but instead are using three alternates. Beyond Blunden, Boyce, and St-Denis, who else do you think will step up and fill the void left by the veterans who are no longer with the team?
DW: "Itís not easy to replace great leaders like Alex Henry and Brian Willsie. With that said, the 'Dogs have a lot of leaders in their dressing room. There are different types of leaders. There are quiet, lead-by-example guys like Frederic St-Denis and more vocal leaders like Darryl Boyce and Mike Blunden. Kyle Hagel and Zack Stortini have emerged as great veteran leaders. Louis Leblanc and Blake Geoffrion have also proven to be good young leaders."
HW: If the lockout gets resolved, how do you think the Bulldogs will be affected relative to the rest of the division/league?
DW: "If the NHL lockout ends this season, I believe that the Hamilton Bulldogs will become an even stronger AHL team. If the Montreal Canadiens are healthy, I donít think the 'Dogs line-up would change much, if at all. If the Habs arenít healthy, all bets are off."
HW: Of all the players on the active roster, who do you think will ultimately have the greatest impact on the Bulldogsí success this season?
DW: "In a regular American Hockey League season, itís tough to win without very good goaltending. With the National Hockey League lockout and the plethora of NHL-calibre players in the AHL this season, goaltending is going to be even more important. With that said, I believe that the Hamilton Bulldogs have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Cedrick Desjardins. If Desjardins plays as well as he has in past season, he will give the ĎDogs a chance to win almost every game."
HW: What, in your opinion, is the Bulldogsí biggest strength?
DW: "I believe that the Hamilton Bulldogsí biggest strength is raw talent. Iíve been with the team for 12 seasons and the 'Dogs have been one of the top teams in the league during that time, both in terms of winning at the AHL level and developing talent for the NHL. Iíve seen a lot of good players and a lot of good teams during my time in Hamilton. With that said, this may be the best group of prospects that the Bulldogs have ever had. Iím confident that the organization has put the right people in place to develop that raw talent to help the Hamilton Bulldogs win now and the Montreal Canadiens win later."
On behalf of everyone here at HabsWorld, I'd like to thank Derek for taking the time to answer these questions and provide us with some valuable insights about the Hamilton Bulldogs.
- Interview with Derek Wills, Part 1 posted by B. La Rose