Bulldogs still barking with new coach

by Jed Bick, Al Bozzo and Matt Shott || AHL On The Beat Archive

The Hamilton Bulldogs are quite familiar with impressive early season starts and so far in 14 games this year, the ‘Dogs have posted an 8-3-1-2 record with 19 points, good enough for second in the North Division even though the club has played five fewer games than the first-place Abbotsford Heat.

This is the third consecutive year the ‘Dogs have gotten off to a hot start and despite the team’s impressive record it’s encouraging to consider the players have only scratched the surface with new head coach Randy Cunneyworth.

Cunneyworth was brought in this year to replace Guy Boucher, who was hired by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the off-season, and thus far there don’t seem to be a lot of adjustment problems for the players.

Coming off a 13-game point streak, David Desharnais leads all Bulldogs in scoring with five goals and a total of 17 points, continuing the success he had last season with the ‘Dogs. A loss against the Grand Rapids Griffins in Hamilton on Sunday broke his streak.

“We’ve tried to make the game a little bit more simple,” says Cunneyworth. “We’re playing zone coverage which has been very effective so far this season.”

Cunneyworth’s system demands his players to make reasonable decisions and not turn over the puck. However, it does not restrict the creativity of his players when an opportunity arises, clearly benefiting Desharnais.

Desharnais believes absorbing as much knowledge about the game is key.

“There is always a lot to learn from your coaches. I learned a lot last year from Guy and this year I am learning again.”

Desharnais is currently in his third season with the Bulldogs after recording 58 and 78 points, respectively, in his first two campaigns with the team. Before joining the AHL, Desharnais played his junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and had a stint in the ECHL in 2007-2008, where he was the league’s scoring champion and MVP for the season. Despite posting impressive numbers, Desharnais wants to build off of the success he has achieved so early in his professional hockey career.

“I always want to do better than the year before,” Desharnais says. “And point-wise, I led the team last year, so I want to be first again this year.”

Cunneyworth believes the success Desharnais has experienced so far in his career is a testament to the type of player he is.

“He’s easily coached, if you tell him to do something he’ll do it,” states Cunneyworth. “He’s obviously a character player and a guy that we rely on for important situations both offensively and defensively.”

Desharnais claims the bounces are just going his way, but there is more to it than just lucky breaks.

Cunneyworth believes it’s Desharnais’ ability to compete in all areas that makes him a special player, not to mention his creativity with the puck and the joy he is to coach and watch on a nightly basis.

Although Desharnais has been a standout player to start the season a lot of the team’s success can be attributed to the depth and the chemistry formed through the first 14 games of the season, with five players recording ten or more points this season.

One of the more impressive stats is that Hamilton’s leading goal scorer comes in the form of a defenseman. Yannick Weber has fired eight goals past the opposing goaltenders to lead the team.

Weber not only leads the Bulldogs in goals, but he tops the entire American Hockey League for goals by a defencemen and is tied for fifth in total points for defensemen.

The leadership on the ice by both Weber and Desharnais has been instrumental to a team that was one win away from facing the Hershey Bears in last season’s Calder Cup Finals.

Desharnais believes the lengthy playoff run last season will definitely benefit the team this year, but one more aspect of the game must be attained before the Bulldogs can get over the hump.

“We need killer instinct,” Desharnais admitted. “We were up 3-2 last year against Texas [in the Western Conference Finals] and we couldn’t put it away, so we have to work on that.”

The ability to close games out is one part of the team’s focus Cunneyworth is hoping to perfect, and he hopes with his system it’s possible.

“We like to see lots of bodies in and around the puck,” says Cunneyworth. “It allows you to work the puck around the opponent rather than beat them one-on-one.”

With the Bulldogs’ hopes set on another Calder Cup Championship this spring all cylinders must be clicking, so far they have been, and with Cunneyworth’s team first mentality it could become a reality.