TORONTO, ON – It all seemed too easy.
Despite questions about who would score for the team this season and an injury to starting goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, the second youngest team in the American Hockey League got out to a 2-0-0 start to the season. Perhaps concerns about the lack of veteran stars, the inexperience on the back end, and the heightened competition in the AHL this season had been overblown.
Two games do not a season make, and just as quickly as the ‘Dogs had gotten off to a perfect start by scoring seven goals (plus a shootout winner) in two nights and receiving stellar play from back-up Robert Mayer, they found themselves on the wrong end of two subsequent decisions, trounced 5-0 by the Toronto Marlies, and then 3-1 by the Rochester Americans. To make matters worse, the team lost star forward Louis Leblanc to an ankle injury in the Toronto game, and he is expected to miss the next 4-6 weeks of action.
All must understand that it isn’t time to panic by any means. Already, Hamilton has had no less than eight skaters make their first American Hockey League appearances, with Morgan Ellis having debuted as a ninth in a limited role on Tuesday, still rounding into shape after rehabbing a nagging injury. It’s entirely to be expected for a young team to be maddeningly inconsistent at times – dominating at some, and going through extended slumps at others. What’s important is that the club focuses on development, and with the experienced coaching staff in place and the close monitoring of the likes of Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin, it shouldn’t be a significant concern. The measuring stick will be the changes in the games of the young professionals between now and March or April.
Even through the two losses, there remain positives that Habs and Bulldogs fans can hang their hats on. Despite the scores over the last two matches, the shot totals were much more reflective of play, and they were quite close. Simply, the bounces weren’t going the ‘Dogs way, and the defensive system was porous at times, something not unexpected of a newly assembled young squad still gelling with its newly hired coaching staff.
Aaron Palushaj has shown glimpses of getting back to be the dominant AHL star he has been in the past, trying to fill the role of go-to offensive producer. Blake Geoffrion has been as feisty as ever, while also generating chances in the offensive zone. But it doesn’t stop with two veterans either, as many of the younger players have given notice that their adaptation period may be shorter than expected. The play of Michael Bournival has notably stood out, he who scored his first professional goal Tuesday night. His game isn’t pure offense, slotting into a two-way role and seeing ice in every situation, earning his coach’s trust very quickly. As early as the second game of the season, he actually led all Bulldog forwards in time-on-ice. Then there’s Brendan Gallagher, for whom the offense hasn’t come just yet, but who has largely looked like the Gallagher fans expected. That is to say a “little engine that could” – a small fireball who goes hard every shift and does not let up when charging the net.
A pleasant surprise has been Patrick Holland. Many attributed his WHL statistics to playing with a pair of talented 20-year old linemates, but he has been an early offensive catalyst at the AHL level. Through four games, he is tied with Palushaj for the team-lead with three points, but more importantly brings natural offensive playmaking skills to a team loaded primarily with balanced two-way players.
On defense, despite having yet to register his first AHL point, Nathan Beaulieu looks every bit to be the player Montreal hoped to be acquiring when they drafted him. He may not have P.K. Subban‘s physical dimension, but he brings the same kind of dynamism with the puck and is an even smoother skater. He has demonstrated great confidence in rushing the puck even as a green rookie and never hesitates to pinch in on the powerplay or given any real opportunity in the offensive zone. His transition to an older league at the age of 19 has been a successful one to date, and no one should doubt that the points will come.
Jarred Tinordi‘s adaptation hasn’t been quite as smooth at all times, though it isn’t hard to see the raw strength and potential that lies in him. Tinordi’s challenge, like many his size who are still growing into their bodies, will be with the pace of play as he has been caught out of position occasionally and has bobbled the puck on multiple occasions. At other times, his physical presence has been there, he has shown leadership in sticking up for his teammates, and he has used his long reach effectively in defending one-on-one, so it should only be a matter of time before he puts more of his overall game together. No one should be concerned that he sits at a team-worst minus-4, as it is also a reflection of the fact that he has generally been Sylvain Lefebvre‘s second most-used defender after Frederic St. Denis.
On the injury front, certainly Leblanc’s loss is a big one to the team, also perhaps serving as an example given he was hurt during a scrap that came out of frustration. The good news is that this incarnation of the Bulldogs is as deep as any in recent memory, and Leblanc being out allowed Joonas Nattinen - a still inexperienced player with much attainable upside remaining – to make his season debut. Considering Alexander Avtsin and Alain Berger are also with the team and have yet to play, the squad can handle any short-term injuries with ease this year.
Hamilton is next in action on Friday evening for their already-third matchup of the season against the Toronto Marlies. The Abbotsford Heat then visit Copps Coliseum on Sunday which will give fans a look at top prospect Sven Baertschi. The ‘Dogs will look to get back into winning ways, but there shouldn’t be any pressure on the team to round into shape at such an early juncture. Fans are looking for a quick fix to take the pain of there not being an NHL season away, but with the level of talent on the squad, a little patience will most certainly produce positive results by year’s end.