The 2014-2015 Hamilton Bulldogs finished their season with a 34-29-12 record giving them a total of 81 points, their best finish under head coach Sylvain Lefebvre.
However, they still finished third in their division and 10th in their conference, six points out of a playoff spot. This finish is a vast improvement on Lefebvre's first two seasons at the helm where Hamilton finished at the bottom of the AHL standings by a decent margin.
What went right
Rookies make their mark
Despite the lack of postseason hockey there were many positives to come out of this season, in particular the efforts of several rookie players. Charles Hudon and Daniel Carr were outstanding all year long, with Hudon finishing second in rookie scoring with 57 points and Carr leading all rookies in goals with 24. Both collected rookie-of-the-week accolades and are now serving as "black aces" for the Canadiens playoff run.
Also of note was rookie goaltender Mike Condon, who shouldered the load in net for the Bulldogs when Joey MacDonald faltered early on in the season. In 48 games played Condon went 23-19-6 with four shutouts, a 2.44 GAA and a .921 SV%. His strong play earned him a new contract with the Canadiens organization and he will likely man the crease for the team in St. Johns next season.
Marc Bergevin had a profound impact on the Bulldogs roster this season as well, by signing leading scorer T.J. Hensick and trading for Eric Tangradi. Both players played massive roles for the team this season with Hensick being their offensive leader and Tangradi being their all purpose forward all year. In previous seasons their veteran signings had not worked out as well(see Nick Tarnasky or Martin St. Pierre). Team captain Gabriel Dumont also set career highs in goals and points this year, hopefully earning a new deal with the franchise.
Efficient Penalty Kill
Perhaps the brightest spot this season was the 'Dogs top ranked penalty killing unit, the team finished with an 87.4% penalty kill, just .1% behind Hershey for the top overall spot. Players such as Davis Drewiske,Jarred Tinordi and Eric Tangradi made this unit so successful by clogging lanes and never giving a team an open scoring chance. Even when Jacob de la Rose was recalled Jake Dowell and Gabriel Dumont stepped in admirably to fill his role.
Young Guns Make an NHL Impact
One thing that remains consistent in Hamilton is their players making an immediate impact upon their call up to the NHL. This past year saw Christian Thomas, Jacob de la Rose, Sven Andrighetto, and Nathan Beaulieu all record their first NHL goals. While Greg Pateryn has recorded his first two NHL points in three playoff games against Ottawa. Jarred Tinordi and Michael Bournival had both also stuck in Montreal after strong performances in previous seasons and we could see Hudon or Carr in that spot next year.
What went wrong
The Injury Bug Strikes
This was an absolutely brutal season for the health of several key Bulldogs skaters. The injured list is composed of players who all played massive roles for the team this year including: Magnus Nygren (severe concussion), Michael Bournival (concussion), Davis Drewiske (wrist surgery), Jarred Tinordi (wrist surgery), Bryan Allen (fractured foot). This doesn't include Tangradi who missed stretches of time with various injuries, or Sven Andrighetto and Gabriel Dumont who were nursing injuries in the final few games either. Losing four top-four defensemen in one season is a recipe for disaster, and it hurt the Bulldogs down the stretch as the young players adjusted to an increased role.
To put it kindly, the Bulldogs' powerplay was abhorrent for most of the season, clocking in at 11.5% or dead last in the AHL. A major reason for this would be the lack of offensive blueliners in Hamilton outside of Magnus Nygren.
His season-ending concussion took away the biggest blueline threat the team had, and it showed. By the end of the season, the coaching staff had gone with five forwards as opposed to a typical powerplay with one or two defensemen.
Confusing Lineup Decisions
Perhaps the biggest point of contention this season for me was the over-utilization of gritty defenseman Bobby Shea and Joe Finley over Morgan Ellis for most of the year. Eliis was a healthy scratch for a series of games before he was demoted to the ECHL, where he posted 26 points in 39 games. When injuries forced his promotion back to Hamilton, he scored three goals and added six assists in 27 games. By comparison, Finley and Shea combined for one goal and seven assists on the year while collecting a combined 185 PIMs. Sven Andrighetto also found himself a healthy scratch one game so he could "learn some things" according to Lefebvre. For a team that was struggling to score scratching your leading scorer (at the time) was a mystifying choice.
The Road Ahead
There are a lot of decisions facing the team as they transition to their new home in St. Johns. Chief among them is the coaching staff as head coach Sylvain Lefebvre is out of contract as of right now. Marc Bergevin must decide if he wants to let Lefebvre continue his coaching development or if he turns to someone new(perhaps a QMJHL coach).
Regardless of who's behind the bench they'll have a roster loaded with talent including possible returnees in Charles Hudon, Dan Carr, Mike Condon, Brett Lernout, and Mac Bennett. They'll also benefit from the influx of junior hockey talent like Tim Bozon, Nikita Scherbak, Michael McCarron, Zachary Fucale and possibly Martin Reway. It's hard to project who will be retained from this current team but re-signing both T.J. Hensick and Eric Tangradi would be a wise investment by Marc Bergevin.
After 19 years the AHL will be leaving Hamilton and headed to St. Johns, Newfoundland. This means they will be crossing into a new conference, shifting from the Western Conference to the Eastern in the AHL.
*Indicates player is in the NHL