Following a season where they were the worst team in the AHL, the Hamilton Bulldogs had only one direction to go, up. Despite one of the deepest defensive corps in the AHL, solid goaltending, and a promising group of forwards the Bulldogs once again missed the playoffs. Despite the lack of post season hockey there were several positives to focus on in Hamilton as well as several issues that require some attention to help "right the ship".
What Went Right:
Goaltender Dustin Tokarski was named the Bulldogs MVP for his play this season and for good reason, without Tokarski in nets the Bulldogs would likely have been getting blown out more often than not. Tokarski posted a 20-16-3 record with a .919 SV% and 2.38 GAA, while these numbers are not the most impressive Tokarski still gave his team a chance to win every time he started. His great start to the season saw him named to the AHL All Star team in 2014 where he was named the top goaltender. His play in Hamilton and in 2 NHL starts(2 W and 1 SO) was enough to earn the Humboldt native a 2 year contract with the Canadiens organization.
Check out his All Star highlight reel here:
Nathan Beaulieu is a polarizing figure in the Canadiens system, supremely talented but not without a few character flaws. Off ice issues aside Beaulieu should have been in Montreal this entire season given his skill set and apparent ability to play the game at the highest level. In 57 games with the Bulldogs Beaulieu posted 27 pointsn(7 G 20 A) and took over as one of the tough minutes defensemen when Jarred Tinordi was called up to the Canadiens. Having watched Beaulieu play several times this year I can see a marked improvement in his overall game, his offensive skill set is top notch and he can drive play like P.K. Subban does for the Canadiens. But defensively he's become far better and is trusted to be one of the Bulldogs top penalty killing defensemen.
Greg Pateryn had a career year in Hamilton with an offensive explosion of 34 points (15 G 19 A), not bad for a guy who played shutdown defensive minutes all season. Often paired alongside Tinordi or Beaulieu, Pateryn found his footing in the AHL after a rough rookie season that included a broken elbow to start the year. While it's unclear where Pateryn stands in the Habs system his offensive output was sorely needed on a team that lacked consistent scoring. Also he's been known to go into Beast Mode during games.
Christian Thomas and Louis Leblanc - both young forwards - each had to overcome adversity at different points of the season and both managed to put up decent numbers when given the opportunity. In his first 3 games back from a sports hernia Thomas would showcase top end speed and hockey sense as he collected 4 points against Syracuse and Rochester. Despite losing to the Amerks 6-3 Thomas would still record 3 points on the night and blew me away with his skills. Louis Leblanc is always the subject of much debate amongst Habs fans, some want to give up on him and cut him loose. Others take a look and realize that last year he had a severe ankle injury and played with Zack Stortini most nights and this season spent most of the year attached to Nick Tarnasky and Maxime Macenauer. Leblanc ended the year with 28 points(13 G 15 A) and managed to tighten up his defensive game as well, on the penalty kill he's consistently getting in shooting lanes and forcing bad passes by the opposing sides. Thomas had a modest effort in his first season with the Bulldogs collecting 27 points(11 G 17 A), and was always causing opposing sides headaches with his speed and vision. When both Leblanc and Thomas were put on a line together for a few games the Bulldogs shut down everyone they played against.
Sven Andrighetto...I don't quite know what else to say about the young Swiss forward, He's explosive, has a wicked shot and has hands so sweet they've been trademarked by Hershey. The 2013 3rd round pick collected 44 points(17 G 27 A) in 63 games played for Hamilton this year and right from the outset of the season Andrighetto would show just how good he really was. Andrighetto averaged .69 points a game for an anemic offense Hamilton squad which is highly impressive...check out his highlight reel below.
What Went Wrong:
Team discipline was a major area of concern for Hamilton right from the outset of the season. The Bulldogs were averaging around 18 PIMs a game which is 9 minor penalties. You cannot succeed as a team when putting yourselves shorthanded roughly 9 times a game. What hurts even more is the timing of penalties throughout the season with many coming late in the game or when Hamilton already had the man advantage and negated it.
Coinciding with the Bulldogs disciplinary woes is the inconsistent special teams play all season, the power play being a major issue in particular. By my count the Bulldogs endured three separate 0 for 20+ power play streaks over the course of this season which for a team struggling to score at even strength is a death sentence. There were also hilarious stretches of Nick Tarnasky being used on the top powerplay unit later in the season that surprisingly didn't work out well at all. Inconsistent penalty killing came back to bite Hamilton more often than not and with a team on the penalty kill roughly 9 times a game there is a problem waiting to erupt.
Perhaps most telling of all is the Bulldogs poor puck possession numbers over the course of the AHL's 76 game season.
This chart (from @joshweissbock) shows a long stretches of poor possession hockey across the full season. Ironically the high point of the Bulldogs possession game came in the midst of a 5 game losing streak where Hamilton surrendered 4 or more goals in every game. Yet their lowest possession numbers came during a highly dominant 5 game win streak that included 3 games where they fired over 40 shots on goal.
Hamilton finished 33-35-1-7 with 74 points this year which placed them 13th overall in the Western Conference. This is a slight improvement from a team that finished 29-41-1-5 in 2013 and was dead last in the AHL. A lot of things improved from last season including cutting away the dead weight and bringing in a capable goaltender to give the team a chance to win. Marc Beregevin has also started to bring the youth movement into full swing in Hamilton with the signings of Connor Crisp, Jack Nevins, and highly sought after NCAA UFA Daniel Carr (157 pts in 160 GP at Union). Next season will be very telling of what Sylvain Lefebvre is capable of as a head coach, with Carr, Andrighetto, Thomas, Leblanc and possibly Jacob De La Rose at his disposal there is almost no reason for the team to be lacking offensively. The team will be bringing in Dalton Thrower and Mac Bennett on defense to replace the likely departed Beaulieu and will still have Greg Pateryn. There is too much talent for this team to not be successful in the AHL right now and if the Bulldogs get off to another poor start the Canadiens organization may need to take a close look at what the problem really is.
I made a few predictions in my season preview of the Bulldogs...let's see how I did shall we?
The Bulldogs will finish 7th in their conference and make the playoffs - WRONG (13th place overall)
Louis Leblanc and Christian Thomas will fight for the team scoring title - WRONG (Martin St. Pierre led with 48 points)
Leblanc and Thomas will both see time in the NHL this season - RIGHT (Both had short call ups)
Nick Tarnasky will have 200+ PIMs and less than 15 points - WRONGx2 (Tarnasky has 144 PIMs and 22 points)
Magnus Nygren will score at least 12 goals - RIGHT...sort of (Nygren has 1 goal in Hamilton and 12 playing in the SHL)