Friday, July 8, 2011

A Day as Pierre Gauthier: Hamilton Bulldogs Edition

Given the last two days have been active ones for the Hamilton Bulldogs, today's A Day as Pierre Gauthier will take a look at the team he has been building to contend for an American Hockey League title in 2011-12.

Let's begin with a few assumptions:

1) Lars Eller is healthy enough to be in the Canadiens line-up opening night.
2) Pierre Gauthier does not sign or trade for any additional players.

But of these statements may be unlikely, but hey, A Day as Pierre Gauthier is fantasy at best anyway.

If these facts are true, we're assuming the 13 forwards in Montreal are: Cammalleri, Plekanec, Cole, Pacioretty, Gomez, Gionta, Eller, Desharnais, Kostitsyn, Moen, White, Darche, and Engqvist.
The 7 defensemen would be: Markov, Gorges, Gill, Subban, Spacek, Weber, and Yemelin.

Since I am playing Gauthier, those are my decisions, and I won't let you argue with them! What does this mean for the opening night roster in Hamilton? Something like the following:

Brock Trotter - Louis Leblanc - Aaron Palushaj
Brian Wilsie - Olivier Fortier - Alexander Avtsin
Andrew Conboy - Gabriel Dumont - Mike Blunden
Ian Schultz - Joonas Nattinen - Alain Berger

Alex Henry - Mathieu Carle
Brendon Nash - Raphael Diaz
Frederic St. Denis - Joe Stejskal

Nathan Lawson
Peter Delmas

Spares and/or sent to ECHL: Phillipe Lefebvre, Hunter Bishop, Dany Masse, Robert Mayer

The team is quite young and inexperienced, particularly down the middle. Hopefully Louis Leblanc and Joonas Nattinen will adapt quickly to play at the American Hockey League level, or the team may be in trouble. However, there is also a lot of upside with proven AHL scorers like Trotter, Palushaj, and Wilsie, a strong top 4 on defense, and a starting goalie that should be amongst the league's best. To get to know some of these guys a little better, let's break it down line by line:

Trotter - Leblanc - Palushaj

The Canadiens first round pick in 2009, there will be a lot of pressure on Leblanc to impress this season, his first at the pro level. To make things tougher, he may miss part (or all) of training camp as he rehabs from off-season surgery. Thus, the Bulldogs would be best to put him in a situation to succeed and where his skill game will be most evident, between two proven AHL top performers. Palushaj scored 57 points in 68 games last year, while in Trotter's previous AHL season (09-10), he scored an impressive 77 points in 75 games. Both Palushaj and Trotter have had quick cups of coffee with the Canadiens, so they will also be good mentors for Leblanc in adjusting to life at the professional level.

Wilsie - Fortier - Avtsin

Once David Desharnais had been called up to Montreal, and then Dustin Boyd missed a few games with an injury, the Bulldogs surprised some by putting their trust in Fortier as the main offensive pivot to center skilled wingers. While Fortier's own numbers were nothing to brag about, he performed admirably in winning face-offs and shutting down opponents, allowing his linemates to focus fully on putting pucks in the net. He'll have a similar role this year, in this case between grizzled veteran Wilsie and offensively gifted youngster Avtsin. The coming season will be a make-or-break year for Avtsin who showed flashes at times but didn't get to play much in his rookie season as one of the American League's youngest players (also his first year in North America). It is time to let him off the leash and see if those glimpses can be come consistent contributions, and playing with a guy like Wilsie should help create room for him while Fortier covers any of his defensive liabilities.

Conboy - Dumont - Blunden

Conboy is an intriguing Habs prospect due to his size and toughness, combined with reasonable offensive potential. He showed progress in his development over the course of last season, and may even be ready for a little time in Montreal at some point this year if needed. The main knock on center Gabriel Dumont is his size, but in spite of his height of 5'9", he can agitate and even drop the gloves. Giving him tough, 6'3" and 6'4" wingers, then, will form a line that is difficult to play against and can chip in its fair share of goals as well with all three maturing as AHL vets.

Schultz - Nattinen - Berger

It is unclear what to expect out of this mix of a fourth line, but all three players are big, physical bodies. Nattinen and Berger are both AHL rookies with some questions to be answered (Berger's skating, Nattinen's no goals in 4 pro seasons in Finland despite producing on the World Junior scene), while Schultz may technically be a 2nd year player, but appeared in only 45 games with the 'Dogs last year and in a limited role. With three other forwards (Lefebvre, Bishop, Masse) under contract, there will be pressure on these guys to perform, but as the three with the most NHL potential of the remaining attackers, I'm hoping they get the ice time.

Henry - Carle

Should be one of the top pairings in the league with a big, tough, physical defensive blueliner and a premiere (at this level) puck mover. A little-known fact about Bulldogs captain Alex Henry is that he was once the captain of the Minnesota Wild back when the team used to shift around the honour on a near-monthly basis. If the forward group might be young and inexperienced, they can turn to solid vets like these two to lead the way. That is assuming that Carle does re-sign with Montreal as opposed to trying his luck overseas. But given his luck with injuries, he'd be best not to press it too far.

Nash - Diaz

I've been a big Brendon Nash fan since first seeing him at Montreal's training camp a year ago. He showed he's still a little green in his brief call-up last season, but he has a solid frame at 6'3", 205 lbs., and has a flair for offensive puck-carrying somewhat in the mold of P.K. Subban. If he can improve his play in his own end, he'll be a real keeper. Diaz, on the other hand, is a wildcard signing this summer. What he can do beyond take the title of most Spanish-sounding Habs player away from Scott Gomez remains to be seen, but it can't be a bad thing that he has played in the Swiss-A league since the 03-04 season with gradually improving numbers. Both of these guys are getting closer to their prime as d-men (Nash is 24, Diaz 25) so they should be candidates for call-ups this season.

St. Denis - Stejskal

At least for his play at the AHL level, St. Denis appears to have been a nice find for the organization, and the team should hope he'll stick around (currently an RFA). Stejskal had some ups and downs in joining the Bulldogs for a few games after his final college season last year. The physical edge he brings should pair nicely with St. Denis's soft but effective two-way play. Still, given that no other d-men are with the team, there is a need to add 1-2 blueliners to ensure depth in case of injuries in either Montreal or Hamilton. Whoever is brought in via signing or trade may bump Stejskal to the press box or East Coast League unless he works hard over the summer and impresses in training camp. It is important for Habs fans to note that, YES, Gauthier does still need to make another move or 2 for the Bulldogs. And if it should happen as soon as tomorrow, this does NOT mean he's been ignoring the NHL roster all week. He and his team can work on both rosters simultaneously because, well, that's their job!

Lawson / Delmas

While it should be expected that AHL veteran Nathan Lawson gets most of the starts for the Bulldogs given he's a proven capable AHL star, Delmas remains the most interesting goaltending prospect in the Habs' pipeline. That, of course, partially because he's the only real goaltending prospect the team has rights to. Still Delmas had a strong 2010-11 ECHL campaign, and was sharp when called upon for 2 Hamilton games last year. This will be a big year for him, the first of a newly minted three year agreement, as should he falter, it will become crucial for the organization to look at some college free agents, such as Chris Rawlings and Aaron Dell who attended the first half of the club's development camps this summer, though the former most recently attended a Canucks camp as well.

On the whole, with some added defensive depth, this team has a shot at making a deep run. Given the youth and inexperience at forward, their chances are difficult to handicap, but regardless of the team's performance, there are a lot of interesting names to watch develop over the course of the season.

My expectation is that a fully healthy Louis Leblanc will perform well enough to erase all doubts placed on him due to a somewhat disappointing year with the Montreal Junior. In addition to Engqvist, I expect Palushaj, Nash, and Diaz to see time in Montreal depending on trades and injuries, with a chance of Conboy, Wilsie, or Blunden being called up for extra grit in a fourth line role.

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