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Hamilton Bulldogs Season Preview: The Defense

With two top prospects moving up to the NHL level who is going to shoulder the load in the AHL now?

Hamilton Bulldogs Hockey Club

In the past few seasons the defensive depth of the Hamilton Bulldogs has been a bright spot during disappointing seasons of hockey. With top prospects like Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu playing sizeable roles for the Canadiens this past season, and Magnus Nygren bound for either Montreal or another NHL destination, there is a large void to be filled on the Bulldogs blue line this upcoming season.

The likely departed

Photo credit: Hamilton Bulldogs Hockey Club

Likely departing the Bulldogs after last season are former first-round picks Beaulieu and Tinordi, with both players eyeing a spot in the top six in Montreal. Nygren has previously made it clear he will not play in Hamilton this year, meaning he either makes the Habs, or is used in a trade at some point before the season starts, though apparently he has softened his stance a little.

Also gone from the line up will be AHL journeyman Nathan McIver who posted 111 PIMs in just 40 games for the Bulldogs last season. Losing both Tinordi and Beaulieu comes as a major blow to the team as head coach Sylvain Lefebvre must replace his top tough minutes defensemen and his top offensive blueliner.

The likely holdovers

Stepping into those roles will likely be third year vets Morgan Ellis and Greg Pateryn, with several rookies stepping into top six roles as well. Pateryn is coming off of a career year, where he posted an outstanding 34 points (15 G, 19 A) in 68 games played, which was good enough to place him in the top five in scoring for the Bulldogs. While these numbers are impressive, it would be unlikely to see Pateryn repeat them, as his shooting percentage was well above his career average last season.

Photo credit: Hamilton Bulldogs Hockey Club

Ellis struggled to crack the Lefebvre's lineup early last season, with the coach choosing to play Joel Chouinard (who also returns this year), and the aforementioned McIver. With major holes in the top four of Hamilton's blueline, this is likely the year Ellis takes on major responsibility if he has any hope of panning out as a prospect. While typically paired with Beaulieu in secondary tough minutes, Ellis may see himself on the top pairing to ease the burden on the several incoming rookies this season.

Also returning this year will be Darren Dietz who is coming off of a brutal rookie season that included several major injuries and a shocking zero goals, after ripping 24 in his final junior year. While limited to just 34 games, Dietz was still trusted to play big minutes on the penalty kill, which is surprising given Lefebvre's tendencies to lean on veterans over rookies.

Also lost in the shuffle may be 2013 trade acquisition Davis Drewiske, who played in Hamilton last season after recovering from major shoulder surgery. While Drewiske is not a world beater in any sense, he can likely bring a solid veteran presence and some stability to the Bulldogs roster this upcoming season, although he needs to pass through waivers in order to play for Hamilton, and his low salary may prevent that.

The newbies

This off season also saw Hamilton add three new blueliners via free agency, which were David Makowski, Bobby Shea and the gargantuan Joe Finley. Makowski comes out of the University of Denver where he posted 24 points (10 G, 14 A) in 42 games in his senior season. He is a mobile puck-moving defensemen, meaning he could possibly see some powerplay time this year, though it is unsure where he stands in the lineup overall.

Bobby Shea played last season split between Rockford in the AHL, and Toledo in the ECHL and looks to be a depth move more than anything else. Over the course of his career Shea has posted some large PIM numbers, leading me to believe he has a knack for fighting, or he plays an extremely undisciplined game.

Finally the addition of Joe Finley fills the open position of "AHL player who can punch all the faces" that was left vacant by the departed Nick Tarnasky and Nathan McIver. Standing at 6'8'' tall and weighing in at nearly 250 lbs. Finley is a large presence out on the ice, and due to his rough and tumble play style will likely see plenty of action under Lefebvre this season.

Photo credit: Marissa Baecker

Two new rookies in Dalton Thrower and Mac Bennett will make their way to Hamilton this season and both could find themselves immediately plugged into the top six this year. Thrower was drafted in 2012 after a phenomenal season for Saskatoon of the WHL, where he posted 54 points(18 G, 36 A). The following season was much more disappointing as Thrower only managed 27 points, struggled mightily with injuries, and was also suspended for the Memorial Cup playoffs for an illegal check to the head. His most recent season in Vancouver was much improved, as Thrower posted 39 points in 42 games before suffering a season ending ankle injury. Now with a freshly signed entry level contract in hand, Thrower will bring his hard hitting, gritty play to the AHL, where he will be reunited with old Blades teammate Darren Dietz.

Mac Bennett signed a two year entry level deal at the end of his senior season at the University of Michigan, where he served as team captain. Bennett plays a solid, two-way game, using his phenomenal skating to constantly be a threat no matter who has the puck. He played massive minutes for the Wolverines, meaning he could immediately be inserted alongside his old teammate, Greg Pateryn, on the top pairing.

While not as star studded as previous years there is still a large amount of talent and skill on the Hamilton blue line this season. A lot of this upcoming season is hinged upon whether or not Pateryn/Ellis/Bennett can fill the void left by Tinordi/Beaulieu. If they falter it may be up to players like Thrower and Dietz to step their game up and make an impact for the Bulldogs this season. Questions remain over how much Lefebvre will use the PIM heavy Shea and Finley vs the team's younger players but after two disappointing seasons we can hope that his attitude has changed in that respect.