By: Hamilton Bulldogs
04/26/2013 12:34 PM -
HAMILTON, Ont. – There were no easy nights for the Hamilton Bulldogs over the course of the American Hockey League regular season.
The Bulldogs finished last in the 30-team league, producing a record of 29-41-1-5 for 64 points, the lowest total in club history. The Bulldogs’ 159 goals were the fewest in the league and the fewest the club has ever scored.
“As a competitor, as a coach and as a player the last thing you want is to finish last,” head coach Sylvain Lefebvre said in his office Thursday after conducting a practice for the eight Bulldogs called up to the Montreal Canadiens for the duration of the Bulldogs’ National Hockey League parent club’s playoff run.
“You want to be in the playoffs and you want to go far. Even if our job here is development we all want to win. We are all in this together to win and we have to remind ourselves that the priority here is development. We can’t lose sight of that, but we aren’t happy with the season we had.
“You want to develop winners and having a winning environment is the best way to do that. It also involves preaching good habits and standards and sometimes that takes time. Every good team that wins goes through tough times; few teams become dynasties right away. You have to learn to win, so even if we finished last we still have goals for winning and we won’t budge from that.”
Added Lefebvre: “The guys understood if they played well as a team that they would benefit individually. The guys bought into that concept. We broke the season down like a playoff series, seven games at a time, and the guys went with that. But we just weren’t good enough all season to get over the hump. Our lack of offensive production bit us throughout the season because defensively we were fairly strong.”
With many NHL clubs opting to have their young roster players wait out the lockout in the AHL Lefebvre began his first season as a head coach with a young group featuring nine rookies, including four 20-year-old defencemen.
“We didn’t predict how many teams would load up with NHL players during the lockout,’ said Lefebvre. “The Canadiens organization decided it would go with younger players and I believe that those guys benefited tremendously from that experience, whether it was the level of play, the minutes they played or the number of games.”
Two of those teams that went the veteran route, the Toronto Marlies and Rochester Americans, were North Division rivals.
“We did win some games against the Marlies and we did beat Rochester once when they were loaded,” said Lefebvre. “We knew we could compete every night if we put our minds to it and worked hard. Those games were a great barometer for our guys. They know what to expect and they know what it takes to compete. They can only go forward from there.”
Injuries began affecting the Bulldogs even before the season began when veteran goaltender Cedrick Desjardins suffered a groin injury in training camp. Rookie defenceman Greg Pateryn and veteran centre Louis Leblanc lost a significant number of games due to elbow and ankle injuries respectively and second-year centre Joonas Nattinen’s season came to an end in late December due to a shoulder injury.
But the most devastating injury was a depressed skull fracture suffered by veteran centre Blake Geoffrion in a 4-1 loss to the Syracuse Crunch at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Nov. 9. At the time of his injury Geoffrion had recorded four goals and six points in 10 games.
“I couldn’t predict the injuries we had or the adversity we’d go through,” said Lefebvre. “I knew there would be some of that, but the Geoffrion injury touched a lot of people here. We all feel for him and we hope he can fully recover.”
Lefebvre said his team was plagued by inconsistency throughout the season.
“That was the biggest thing for us. We were too consistent at losing games, we couldn’t find ways to win. We’d play almost good enough to win and in a lot of games we were really close and just couldn’t pull it off.”
Lefebvre was pleased that his charges compiled 17 wins in 19 games in which they led after two periods.
“That was a positive thing for us. It’s a good sign that you can win a one-goal game or not pack it in after two periods.”
Goaltending was a strength for the Bulldogs throughout the season. Desjardins, veterans Robert Mayer and Dustin Tokarski, brought in to replace Desjardins when the Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning swapped netminders on Feb. 14, combined for five shutouts, a goal-against average of 3.67 and a .911 save percentage.
“Our goaltending was tremendous all season,” said Lefebvre. “Those guys gave us a chance to win almost every night.”
The young blueline corps performed admirably. Nathan Beaulieu recorded 31 points, tied for the team scoring lead with Gabriel Dumont, and earned a call up to the Canadiens during the season as did Pateryn and Jarred Tinordi. Morgan Ellis played 71 games, second on the team to Zack Stortini.
“Our young guys on defence progressed enormously and saw intense and stressful situations all season,” said Lefebvre. “They all played a lot of minutes.”
Lefebvre and assistant coach Donald Dufresne were both 20-year-old rookie AHL rearguards with the Sherbrooke Canadiens in 1987-88.
“I don’t know why, but it can take longer for a defenceman to develop,” said Lefebvre, who spent two full seasons in the AHL before making the jump to the Canadiens in 1989-90. “But I thought the guys were great to work with. All season long they were sponges for everything and tried to apply it and that’s all we can ask for. It’s all about hard work and I believe work ethic will take you to places that other people will never get to.”
Early on the Bulldogs benefited from the offensive prowess of a trio of 20-year-old rookies, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher and Patrick Holland. The dynamic Gallagher recorded 20 points, including 10 goals, in 36 games before sticking with the Canadiens after the lockout ended in January.
Veteran centre Joey Tenute, a Hamilton native, was brought in to replace Gallagher and responded with eight goals and 25 points in 40 games. Bournival and Holland finished third and fourth in team scoring respectively, combining for 20 goals and 58 points.
“The line of Gallagher, Bournival and Holland was carrying the team offensively early on,” said Lefebvre. “But then we lost Gallagher and we brought in Tenute, who did a pretty good job, production-wise. I think the other guys felt they were under pressure to score and that’s not easy.”
Through Thursday, Gallagher had scored 14 goals and added 12 assists for 26 points in 43 games and emerged as a strong candidate for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.
“He played the same way here that he plays in Montreal,” said Lefebvre. “He is fearless and won’t stop. He consistently and constantly went to the front of the net and the hard areas. When he did it here everybody noticed. He is a great example to follow. The guys loved him here and missed him and we’re all happy for his success.”
The Canadiens sent a number of prospects to Hamilton after their junior and college seasons ended and Lefebvre said the Bulldogs will have a different look next season. Among the players he expects to see are defencemen Darren Dietz and Dalton Thrower of the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades. Dietz was a fifth-round pick of the Canadiens in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft while Thrower was a second-round choice in 2012.
“When you finish last there are changes. In addition to some of the guys who were here at the end of the season we will have Dietz and Thrower whose junior careers are ending with the Memorial Cup. There might be trades at the draft or young free agents coming in. Anything can happen. I play with the cards that I am dealt.”
Lefebvre, who was previously an assistant coach with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and its AHL affiliate the Lake Erie Monsters, said his first season as a head coach went by quickly.
“I can’t believe it’s over with. Our main work as coaches is pretty much over. You learn about the ups and down, just like your players, and you learn to cope with the players when they are going through tough times and when your team when it is struggling. The coach has to set the tone and you need to stay in control. You want your players to perform and every player is different and you need top deal with that. There were a lot of adjustments and it was a great experience and I will take a lot of this with me as I move as a coach. It toughens you up.”
Lefebvre will also accompany the Bulldogs’ players to Montreal for the Canadiens’ playoff run.
“I will go there and skate the guys and watch the games. I will try and learn as a much as I can at the same time. I will attend some seminars and help out with the Canadiens’ camps in Montreal. It’s non-stop, there is always something going on. One of my kids is getting married and I’ll also spend some time with my family to reenergize.”