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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 the bat.
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 wins.
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 team.