After a season that saw the Hamilton Bulldogs win 34 of their 76 games and finish 11 points out of a playoff spot, there is much uncertainty regarding the future of the franchise.
The Bulldogs have only nine players under contract for next season, including Phil Lefebvre (11 points), Joe Stejskal (three points), Alain Berger (seven points), Louis Leblanc (22 points), Gabriel Dumont (24 points), Robert Mayer (2.94 GAA, .909 SV%), Joonas Nattinen (21 points), Ian Schultz (23 points) and Alexander Avtsin (14 points).
That means the future of leading scorers Brian Willsie (18 goals, 26 assists), Andreas Engqvist (20 goals, 23 assists) and Aaron Palushaj (15 goals, 20 assists) are up in the air at this time. Their top offensive defensemen Frederic St-Denis (three goals, 25 assists) and Garrett Stafford (eight goals, 16 assists) are also potential free agents.
Probably the most important free agent will be Captain Alex Henry (one goal, six assists), who has been a rock on defence for Hamilton. Also, the Dogs' top goalie Nathan Lawson may not be back with the team next year (2.57 GAA, .914 SV%).
Although answers to the futures of some of the key players will not likely be apparent until their parent club, the Montreal Canadiens, makes a decision on who will become their next general manager. Currently potential GMs include: Blair Mackasey (Minnesota Wild Director of Player Personnel, Julien BriseBois (Tampa Bay Lightning Assistant GM, former Montreal Canadiens Assistant GM in charge of the Bulldogs from 2007-2010), Marc Bergevin (Chicago Blackhawks Assistant GM), Claude Loiselle (Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant GM) and Patrick Roy (Quebec Remparts Head Coach & GM).
Let’s take a look at the Montreal Canadiens prospects that may become Hamilton Bulldogs next season.
About his game
Trade with Colorado Avalanche in 2010
QMJHL, Shawinigan Cataractes
“Bournival is best characterized by his tireless work ethic and intense competitive drive. Even while not scoring, he is easily noticed when on the ice. He possesses the ability to play in all three zones and has a no-quit attitude.” (From Hockey’s Future)
Round 5, 147th overall in 2010
WHL, Vancouver Giants
“A dangerous scorer in the WHL, Gallagher has terrific quickness, as well as a hard and accurate shot. He is always active and never passive on a shift, able to find open space, while entering high-traffic areas as well. Gallagher is an intense, cerebral player with good overall skills. He utilizes his smaller size to his advantage at the WHL level.” (From Hockey’s Future)
Trade with Calgary Flames in 2012
WHL, Tri-City Americans
“Holland is one of those players who can sometimes go unnoticed but he can do it all. He sees the ice well, can set up teammates, will score the big goal and can shut down the opposition's best players. He played a big role this season on the team's penalty killing unit and at times produced star games when his team seemed to need it. Holland needs to add more muscle mass to his thin frame while continuing his improvement of his two-way game to play at the professional level.” (From Hockey’s Future)
Round 1, 22nd overall in 2010
OHL, London Knights
“Tinordi possesses multiple talents that cannot be learned, such as an NHL pedigree and gargantuan stature. When at his best, he makes a habit of overpowering his opponents. He thrives when protecting the area around his net and in the corners. Tinordi skates well for his size, brings grit and toughness in the mold of a defensive defenseman, as well as leadership capability.” (From Hockey’s Future)
Round 4, 117th overall in 2010
QMJHL, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
“A right-handed stay-at-home defender, Ellis is not overly imposing, but is nevertheless strong and smooth on his skates, and sound in his own zone. He brings a great deal of poise and composure on and off the ice, and serves as captain of his QMJHL squad, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.” (From Hockey’s Future)
Trade with Toronto, 2008
NCAA, University of Michigan Wolverines
“At 6'3" and 214 pounds, Pateryn has assumed a role as one of the University of Michigan’s toughest and most physical defenders. He utilizes his body very well, both in delivering checks as well as matching up against some of the CCHA's bigger forwards.” (From Hockey’s Future)
Judging by the Montreal Canadiens' current prospect pool, the Bulldogs could potentially have three forwards and three defensemen joining them for the 2012-13 AHL season.
The Canadiens are, however, very thin at the goaltending position and do not have any prospects waiting to make the jump to professional hockey. Regardless, once the Canadiens hire a new GM, there will be much work needed to shape the Hamilton Bulldogs roster for the upcoming season.
This could be a particularly pivotal season for the Hamilton Bulldogs franchise, as their lease agreement with Copps Coliseum as well as their affiliation agreement with the Montreal Canadiens both expire after the 2012-13 AHL season.
There have been rumors in the past that Laval, Quebec could be a city to which the team would move. However, there is no arena there that is currently large enough to house an AHL franchise.
There is also potential that the Bulldogs may stay in Hamilton but be forced to seek a new NHL partner if the Canadiens decide they want to move another existing AHL franchise to Quebec.
These scenarios may become obsolete, though, as Owner Michael Andlauer has begun negotiations with the City of Hamilton to extend the Bulldogs lease on Copps Coliseum for another five years. However, a challenge in these negotiations will be the fact that the City of Hamilton is looking to have Copps Coliseum and HECFI (the company that runs Copps) taken over and operated by a private management company (see this article from the Hamilton Spectator). The city will not likely enter into a long-term agreement prior to a private company taking over the reins.
After looking at the Bulldogs' attendance figures, they show that the franchise is in the middle of the pack in terms of AHL attendance.
For the 2011-12 AHL season, the Bulldogs were 20th out of 30 AHL franchises in average attendance at 4,848, while the league average is 5,638. The top attendance in the AHL this past season was the Hershey Bears at 9,872; the lowest was the Albany Devils at 3,435.
Over the past seven years, the Hamilton Bulldogs rank 18th out of 30 teams in average attendance at 4,669 fans per game. The highest average attendance in the league during the past seven years is the Hershey Bears at 9,046 per game and the lowest is the Springfield Falcons at 3,607 per game. The AHL average attendance per game during that same seven-year period for the current franchises is 5,352 fans per game.
With all that in mind, the Bulldogs will be in Hamilton for at least next season. Judging by Hamilton Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer’s sincere desire to keep the team in Hamilton for the long term, I believe we will see the Bulldogs remain in Hamilton past the 2012-13 season. The Montreal Canadiens may not re-affiliate with the club, but I believe there will be another NHL club out there that will pick up the affiliation in that scenario.
After writing this article, it was announced that former Chicago Blackhawks Assistant General Manager Marc Bergevin will be the Montreal Canadiens' new general manager. This can only mean good things for the Hamilton Bulldogs as Bergevin is well respected for his eye for talent. It has also been rumoured and reported by Darren Dreger of TSN.ca that Rick Dudley is in line to become his assistant, which would likely mean that he would also be handling the Bulldogs talent. Any way you spin this, it means brighter days ahead for Bulldog fans in Hamilton.
Follow Mike on Twitter @mikeburse