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In this edition of the HW Mailbag, we take a closer look at the upcoming
Hamilton Bulldogs season.  With all of the turnover on the roster, who were
the biggest losses and what newcomers are the most intriguing?  Which Hab
prospects are due for a breakout campaign while who needs to step it up most? 
These are only some of the topics that are covered.

Question 1: Of the Bulldogs’ departures this
offseason, who will be the biggest loss? Of the newcomers, who are you most
excited about?

Brian La Rose: As Ian covers the ‘big names’
below, I’ll go a different route.  Mathieu Carle, for all the grief he got
from some for not being able to make the next step and become a full time NHL’er,
was a bonafide number one AHL defenceman.  As is the case in the NHL, those
aren’t easy to come by.  Yes, his replacement (former first rounder Mark
Mitera) has a little more long-term upside but Carle’s departure from the roster
will be felt significantly this year.  In terms of the newcomers, Louis
Leblanc is one player I’ll be following with interest.  Most rookies
struggle offensively their first year with Hamilton but I think he can buck the
trend and be a top six forward right away…when he’s healthy that is. 
Joonas Nattinen is another player I’m excited to see.  His best attributes
(size, faceoff ability, and defensive play) are all elements the Habs could use
now; I think he will have a key role with the Bulldogs despite being a rookie.

Ian Russell: I cannot
single out one particular player. In fact there are three names which
immediately come to mind, those being forward Nigel Dawes and goaltenders Drew
MacIntyre and Curtis Sanford. Acquired by the Habs from Atlanta in exchange for
Ben Maxwell on February 24th last season, Dawes wasted little time in making his
presence felt in the Hamilton lineup, becoming the first Bulldog player to score
41 goals in a season and led the team in points with 72. Those kind of scoring
numbers are going to be difficult to replace. Likewise, between the pipes, the
departure of both Sanford and MacIntyre is a huge loss. Both goalies displayed
that they could slam the door on the opposition night in and night out and
carried the Bulldogs deep into the playoffs. The Hamilton goaltenders this year
have some big shoes to fill. As for who I am most excited about in regards to
the newcomers is the return of Brock Trotter. A few years ago he was one of the
Bulldogs best players and I have great expectations of him this season.


Question 2: From the
players returning, which Bulldog is the most underrated?

Brian La Rose: Frederic St. Denis. 
Heading into last season, he was an afterthought and after being Hamilton’s
steadiest defenceman all season, he was still an afterthought this summer. 
He’s not a flashy player, just an effective one.  As a result, he’s now
Hamilton’s top blueliner heading into the season and will likely log 25+ minutes
per game.  It would not surprise me in the least to see him get some action
with the Habs this season and turn a few heads while he’s up with the big club.

Ian Russell: Dany
Masse has had a difficult time in the AHL so far, missing a great deal of games
due to injuries. In two seasons with the Bulldogs he has only played 61 games.
He’s a short little guy as far a hockey players go, standing at 5’10, but when
he is healthy and is in the lineup he skates like the wind and plays his heart
out. Masse had very good stats when he was in the QMJHL and if he remains
healthy I feel it’s only a matter of time before those kind of stats begin to
show up in his professional career.

Question 3: Conversely, who among the returning
players is the most overrated?

Brian La Rose: It pains me to say this as I
know his leadership skills are crucial to the team, but the most overrated
Bulldog is captain Alex Henry.  Yes, he can fight.  It doesn’t mean he
can play in the NHL as so many fans seem to believe.  He was on the third
pairing for much of last season and struggled with fatigue and consistency
towards the end of the season, something that will likely present itself again
this year.  Unfortunately, he finds himself in the top four to start this
year (thanks to injuries and waiver claims); as he can only handle 16-18 minutes
per game, this could be a big problem early on.

Ian Russell: Robert
Mayer takes the grand prize when it comes to answering this question. Signed as
a free agent back in 2008, Mayer’s apparent inability to stop pucks has been the
cause of crazy dreams and screaming nightmares for Hamilton Bulldogs fans. When
Curtis Sanford went down to season-ending injury last year, Mayer was unable to
claim the starting role in the nets as his own, and the Dogs were fortunately
able to acquire Drew MacIntyre who hoisted the team on his shoulders and took
them to within one overtime goal of reaching the Calder Cup Finals.

Question 4: Which Bulldog is most primed for a
breakout season?

Brian La Rose: Gabriel Dumont has always
been a player known to rise to the occasion and after an underwhelming rookie
season offensively in 2010-11, I think he’ll once again step up and demonstrate
why his offensive game was feared in junior.  With all the injuries that
the Bulldogs have, he’ll have a shot to see meaningful minutes right away as
well.  We saw in the preseason that his defensive game is decent and his
compete level is surely there.  With a good offensive season, he could play
his way into roster consideration with the Habs for 2012-13.

Ian Russell:
Alexander Avtsin. He has proven he can score goals; just look at his brief
junior career in Russia. He scored 56 goals in 76 games along with 54 assists.
However, last season with the Bulldogs, the transition to professional hockey in
North America proved difficult for him. He was the youngest player on the
Hamilton roster and he was also having trouble with the language barrier in
learning to speak English. This affected his quality of play and led to a
non-productive season for him. Towards the end of the season he found himself
scratched from the lineup often. But when he was dressed and out on the ice he
could show brief moments of his former junior-brilliance, specifically in the
shootout situation, where he was a sniper, scoring on shootout attempts more
times than not. Now that the new hockey season is upon us and Avtsin has had
more time to adjust to Canada and the North American style of hockey…watch out!!
This kid is going to be really something to witness out there on the ice.

Question 5: What is Hamilton’s biggest strength?
What is their greatest area of concern?

Brian La Rose: Beyond the obvious (added
depth up front over the offseason), the Bulldogs have a surplus of defensively
conscious forwards.  Players like Andreas Engqvist (once sent down when
Blair Betts is healthy) and Nattinen should be the shutdown specialists (it’s
particularly nice both play centre) while players like Leblanc, Dumont, and
Olivier Fortier are all two-way players that know their way around the defensive
zone.  Clement Jodoin should have no shortage of options for who to put out
late in a game…when everyone’s healthy. 

In terms of a weakness, it’s clearly defensive depth or
the appalling lack of.  For those who don’t consider the loss of Jeff
Woywitka to be all that important, he would have been a legitimate top pairing
guy that would have pushed everyone else back down into a role that made more
sense for where they are in their development.  Joe Callahan, assuming he
clears waivers, will surely help, but he won’t have anywhere near the impact
Woywitka would have.  I remain hopeful that Pierre Gauthier isn’t done
looking for blueline help, though the next signing will need to be in the form
of a minor league deal.

Ian Russell: I have
said this in the past and I will say it again…Hamilton’s biggest strength is
not in the individual players, but is in the ability of the players to come
together as one single unit. Team. Team. Team. They have proven this time and
time again in the face of injuries and call-ups to the Habs when one would think
that there was no hope of winning a single hockey game with a depleted roster
under those conditions. The greatest area of concern right now however is the
goaltending. As I mentioned above, the current goaltending department consisting
of Nathan Lawson, Robert Mayer, and Peter Delmas have some big shoes to fill
with the departure of Curtis Sanford and Drew MacIntyre. In my opinion, these
three goalies have a huge, gaping hole to fill in order to complete the Bulldogs
into that “single unit team” that they need to be. This is the “weak link in the
chain” until one of those goaltenders proves otherwise.



Brian La Rose

Matt Dilworth

Ian Russell
Most Goals Brian Willsie Alexander Avtsin Brock Trotter
Most Assists Aaron
Most Points Brian Willsie Brock Trotter Brock Trotter
Top +/- Aaron
Frederic St.
Division Rank 2nd 3rd 1st
5th 8th 2nd
League Rank 12th 17th 3rd