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For the first time in a few years, there is legitimate optimism when it comes
to the Hamilton Bulldogs.  Last week, they kicked off their season with a
victory and demonstrated that there may be some firepower up front, something we
haven’t seen lately.  Was that game a fluke or should we expect a
considerable uptick in scoring?  That’s just one of the key questions
surrounding the Bulldogs.

How will the goaltending be with Dustin Tokarski, last year’s MVP, in the
NHL full-time?

Last year, Tokarski kept Hamilton competitive in a lot of games they frankly
had little business being in.  There’s no doubt that his loss will be felt
in a big way.  However, the departure of Robert Mayer should help; not only
did he put up mediocre numbers over his tenure but head coach Sylvain Lefebvre
played him way more than he deserved.

Joey MacDonald is a quality veteran.  He won’t steal games but he has a
knack for doing enough to keep the team in most of them.  With a
(hopefully) improved defence, that should be enough more often than not. 
There are question marks behind him though.  Mike Condon had a great
campaign in Wheeling last season but is unproven at the AHL level while Franky
Palazzese, who just graduated from the junior level, is the extra depth should
an injury or recall arise.

Overall, the goaltending is weaker than last year unless MacDonald turns back
the clock and becomes more of a dominant goalie or Condon can duplicate his ECHL
output from last year at a higher level.  Tokarski wasn’t just a good
goalie last season, he was one of the best in the league.  That can’t be
replaced by a veteran journeyman and a 24 year old rookie.

The Bulldogs have a lot of rookies this year.  Which one is the ‘one
to watch’?

Personally, I’m interested in Mac Bennett, a prospect I’ve been a fan of for
quite some time so I’ll be paying close attention to him.  That won’t
interest too many though so I’ll toss out a more well-known name, Charles Hudon. 
He’s a candidate to move up the lineup as the season progresses due to his
hustle and two-way play, elements that will endear him to the coaching staff. 
He’s starting the year off in a bottom six role but I don’t think he’ll be there
at the end of it.  Instead, he’ll be more of a core player and there may
not be any other rookies that get that distinction this season.

Hamilton has had a lot of rookies in prior years as well but this bunch is
better positioned to succeed with the increased and improved veteran depth
surrounding them.  Beyond these two above, there are quite a few others to
follow as the months go by.

Can Sven Andrighetto take another step forward after a strong rookie year?

Sophomore forwards have not fared well under Lefebvre at all.  Louis
Leblanc, Patrick Holland, Christian Thomas, and Joonas Nattinen – all players
who did well in their rookie campaigns – struggled considerably in their second
seasons.  Andrighetto now finds himself in that situation and as you can
see, recent history is not on his side.

I’m not as optimistic about Andrighetto as a lot of people are.  With
the extra depth being added late in the preseason, he’s not likely to get as
much premium ice time as he did last year when he was force-fed a top line role
due to a lack of talent up front.  As a result, I don’t see him taking a
big step forward statistically this year.  That’s not necessarily a bad
thing either; if he can achieve his 2013-14 numbers with a bit less ice
time in a winning environment, it will still be a successful year in terms of
his development.

After losing their fighters from last year, is there enough toughness to
protect the younger prospects?

There should be.  Joe Finley was added to fill the role of the
designated fighter.  Unfortunately, he’s a defenceman meaning that Hamilton
will be running their goon (who doesn’t have a lot of skill beyond fighting) out
there 16 minutes a night.  That’s far from ideal but he is someone that can
answer the bell versus the AHL’s top heavyweights.

Up front, they’ll be counting on the youngsters to shoulder the load. 
In particular, Connor Crisp and Jack Nevins appear to be the players who are
most likely to be the fourth line fighters.  If he’s up with the team,
Stefan Fournier may also contribute in that regard.  New captain Gabriel
Dumont also won’t shy away from dropping the gloves as well.  It will be
more of a team toughness situation this season when it comes to the forwards but
they should be able to hold their own in that regard.

What is Hamilton’s biggest strength?  Their biggest weakness?

Right now, I like their depth as a big strength, something that hasn’t been
the case lately.  On the blueline, they have eight AHL-calibre defencemen
(if you include Finley who would be best used as a six minute a night forward)
with David Makowski, an intriguing project prospect, in the wings.  Up
front, instead of their bottom six being a collection of players in the doghouse or ECHL’ers on tryouts, there are potential impact rookies and quality
veterans.  As the inevitable injuries and recalls hit, that depth is going
to keep them competitive as the season progresses.

As for a weakness, I still think they’re lacking a legitimate go-to scorer. 
Veterans like the recently added Drayson Bowman and Eric Tangradi aren’t top
line point producers even in the AHL while T.J. Hensick is coming off a below
average year.  This team will score more this year, there’s no doubt, but
they still don’t have that player that they can throw on the ice when they’re
trailing and have the confidence that they can produce.

Who are some of the wildcards this season?

For me, the main one is Condon.  I don’t see MacDonald being a goalie
that could lead them in a playoff run, especially since he’s not used to a heavy
workload (MacDonald last surpassed the 50 games played mark in 2004-05). 
As a result, Condon should get to play more than a typical backup would and if
he plays well, he likely will get more of a chance to play down the stretch. 
If that happens and he keeps succeeding, it’s not crazy to think he could be the
starter by the end of the season. 

In terms of skaters, Magnus Nygren has to be one on the blueline.  If he
plays well (and sticks around), Hamilton’s powerplay unit might actually
resemble something that could score once in a while instead of what it has been
the last couple of years (a two minute stretch where you were reasonably
confident that at least they wouldn’t get scored on). 

Up front, rookie Daniel Carr could be a wildcard as well.  He’ll turn 23
in a couple of weeks which is a bit older than usual for an AHL rookie and his
style of play should earn the trust of the coaches as the year progresses. 
He’s likely an afterthought for most fans right now as he’s not that well known
of a prospect but I suspect he’ll play an important role by the end of the year.

Will the Bulldogs make the playoffs?

A month ago, I’d have said there was little chance but with the moves between
now and then, they have a shot but by no means are they a contender yet. 
Yes, the team should score more this season but I also expect there to be an
increase in goals allowed so that’s going to offset itself to a degree. 
Their extra and improved depth is something that should buy them a few more wins
along the way which will help as well.

Injuries and recalls can often destroy the chances of even the best of teams
and if either the Bulldogs or Habs get bit hard by the injury bug, Hamilton’s in
trouble.  If they stay relatively healthy, however, this team should be
good enough to contend for a playoff spot in the 6-8 range.  If not,
they’ll be on the outside looking in yet again.  Nonetheless, they should
be playing meaningful games down the stretch which is something that hasn’t
happened lately.  That alone should make it a much more interesting season
in terms of keeping an eye on the Bulldogs.