The Hamilton Bulldogs are going through a bit of a transition phase with a large amount of young players coming in to a team that was populated by AHL veterans and borderline NHL players for years. This season in particular will see a large influx of talent that was drafted at the start of Marc Bergevin's tenure as GM in Montreal. There are several departures that need immediate filling, and with the talent coming in it might finally be the year that Hamilton finds its goal scoring touch.
Among the departed forwards are 2009 first round pick Louis Leblanc (traded to Anaheim), Michael Blunden (signed with Tampa), last season's PIM leader Nick Tarnasky and former captain Martin St. Pierre (signed in the KHL). There is a large amount of scoring that needs to be replaced now as all four of the above players were among the top-ten scorers in Hamilton last season. The bulk of that task will fall on a few returning veterans as well as on the shoulders of some former junior stars.
Luckily for the Bulldogs their number two, four and seventh overall scoring leaders are returning in the form of Sven Andrighetto (2nd), Gabriel Dumont (4th), and Christian Thomas (7th). Andrighetto may have been the biggest surprise in the Montreal Canadiens system last year, when right from the outset of the season he showcased incredible hands, speed, and a wicked release on his shot.
Dumont is the longest tenured Bulldog on the roster and will be a prime candidate to take over for St. Pierre's captaincy this season. Despite playing tough minutes every night, head coach Sylvain Lefebvre will need to see a rise in Dumont's production to help bolster the team.
Acquired for long time prospect Danny Kristo, it is an important season ahead for Christian Thomas, who battled injuries for a large part of last year. Thomas is a speedy forward with a knack for finding the net, and he'll be relied on to do so in larger numbers this season.
The under-performing Patrick Holland is in a make-or-break season this year, as he posted incredible scoring numbers in the WHL, but has yet to consistently post points at the AHL level. If Holland can figure out his point production issues he makes a great two way forward for the Bulldogs, and can be used to play the point on the powerplay, which struggled mightily for stretches last season.
As stated above there is a large group of former CHL/NCAA/European league players joining the Bulldogs ranks this season, and it's a diverse group of players. Taking over for Tarnasky in the Department of Truculence will be Connor Crisp and Jack Nevins, both players made a big impact in short stints with the team last season, with Crisp scoring two goals, and Nevins punching out noted AHL goon Daniel Maggio. I would consider Crisp an upgrade on Tarnasky as he posted decent scoring numbers (28 G, 27 A) for a player of his type in his final OHL season.
Replacing St. Pierre will be long-time AHL vet T.J. Hensick who, above all else, is proven to be a consistent point producing forward in the American Hockey League. Hensick will be relied on to succeed where St. Pierre struggled last season, hopefully easing the burden on the younger players adjusting to the pro level. Also of note is the signing of Jake Dowell who will likely play limited minutes on the fourth line for the Bulldogs this upcoming season.
Perhaps the most unexpected signing of the off-season was Bergevin landing Daniel Carr, who was fresh off winning an NCAA title at Union College. Carr posted great numbers (22 G, 28 A) in 39 games in his senior year, and could be a major threat for a Hamilton squad in need of more goals.
Alongside him will be 2012 draft picks Charles Hudon and Tim Bozon, as well as 2013 second-round pick Jacob de la Rose, who will be coming over from Sweden. Before jumping too far ahead of myself it is worth noting that de la Rose could also be in contention to earn a spot in the NHL with the Habs during training camp. De la Rose is noted for his excellent two way play on the ice which means he could see a lot of minutes in the AHL, should he not make the Habs out of training camp.
Hudon and Bozon were both noted point producers in the CHL over the course of their years there, and if not for a life threatening bout with meningitis, Bozon may have been the highest producing Canadiens prospect last season. Before falling ill, Bozon posted 69 points (33 G, 36 A) in 63 games between Kamloops and Kootenay in the WHL, and was scoring at a blistering pace when he became sick. While Bozon is unlikely to play every single game this season while his body continues to recover from a devastating illness, he will be relied on to produce.
In the years since he was drafted, Hudon has been the most consistent scoring prospect the Habs have outside the NHL, which includes back to back seasons over 70 points (71 and 76 points respectively). While this isn't a mind-blowing number Hudon is often relied on to play tough minutes for his team and has been battling back issues for the better part of two seasons. This back injury has limited Hudon's chances to play with Canada's world junior team as well, which is slightly worrying for his future. A healthy season would go a long way. Hudon was shifted to center by Martin Lapointe during development camp in July, and that increased role seems to fit his skill set well. Hensick and Dumont figure to slot in the top two centre positions leaving Hudon to take over the third line centre role to start.
If de la Rose does stay in Hamilton for the majority of this season, this is likely the most talented group of forwards that Lefebvre will have had at his disposal since becoming head coach. While constant underperformance cost the team last year that will likely not be an issue this year. If Lefebvre plays the right guys in the right minutes there is no doubt that the Bulldogs will see an uptick in the goal scoring column. Players like Andrighetto, Dumont, Hensick, and Thomas will be crucial cogs to the team success this year and will carry the burden until the rookies adjust.