Steeltown’s hot ‘Dogs off to best start

by Derek Wills || AHL On The Beat Archive

During their 14 seasons in the American Hockey League, the Hamilton Bulldogs have had some good teams.

As a matter of fact, they’ve had some very good teams.

In their inaugural season of 1996-97, Hamilton won the Northern Conference championship before falling in five games to the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Final.

In 2002-03, the Bulldogs captured the MacGregor Kilpatrick Trophy with a regular-season record of 49-19-8-4 and 110 points and once again went all the way to the Calder Cup Final, where they were upset in seven games by the Houston Aeros.

In 2006-07, Hamilton advanced to the Finals again, only this time they beat the Hershey Bears in five games to capture their first championship.

Last season, the ‘Dogs posted 102 points, second most in team history, after starting the season with franchise record four-game winning and five-game point streaks.

But this season’s pack of Hamilton Bulldogs is off to an even better start. Through Tuesday’s action, the 6-0-1-2 ‘Dogs were the only AHL team still unbeaten in regulation time.

The club’s strong start to the 2009-10 campaign has happened somewhat unexpectedly as the winds of change blew threw Steeltown during the off-season. With long-time head coach Don Lever and even longer-time assistant Ron Wilson now behind the Chicago Wolves’ bench, Hamilton’s players are being taught a brand new system by new head coach Guy Boucher and assistant coaches Daniel Lacroix and Martin Raymond.

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While Lacroix came to the club following three seasons as an assistant coach with the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders, both Boucher and Raymond are coaching professionals for the first time. With that said, Boucher is certainly no stranger to success, having led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Drummondville Voltigeurs to a league championship and a birth in the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup last season. He also served as an assistant coach to Pat Quinn on Canada’s gold-medal-winning team at the 2009 World Junior Championships.

Boucher’s credentials, attention to detail and work ethic have helped him to quickly earn the respect of the Bulldogs’ players.

In addition to the changes behind Hamilton’s bench, there were also a plethora of changes made to the players sitting on the Bulldogs bench. Among the ‘Dogs gone from the 2008-09 team are forward Yanick Lehoux, who produced a team-high 60 points; defenseman Dan Jancevski, who was selected as the team’s best blueliner; and goaltender Marc Denis, who was selected as the team’s most valuable player.

In addition, five players graduated from the Hamilton Bulldogs to become Montreal Canadiens for the 2009-10 season, including forwards Kyle Chipchura — who served as the club’s captain last season — Matt D’Agostini, Max Pacioretty and Greg Stewart and defenseman Ryan O’Byrne.

Replacing all of that talent wasn’t an easy assignment for Bulldogs general manager Julien BriseBois. But after re-signing forward Mike Glumac, who led Hamilton with 33 goals last season, and defensemen Chad Anderson, Shawn Belle and Alex Henry, the AHL’s youngest GM inked a number of high-profile free agents including forwards Mathieu Darche and Mikael Johansson and goaltender Curtis Sanford. BriseBois also managed to convince defenseman Andre Benoit, who was a key contributor to the Bulldogs’ 2007 Calder Cup championship, to return to the team following two seasons overseas.

Having picked up at least a point in each and every one of their first eight games of the 2009-10 season, a frightening fact for the other 28 AHL teams is that the ‘Dogs should only get better. Forward David Desharnais, who was one of the team’s three rookie-of-the-year award winners last season, Johansson, and Henry have all yet to play in a regular-season game after being injured in the preseason.

With lots of talent, what looks like a perfect mix of youth and experience, and a system that Boucher describes as attack, attack, attack, it has been and should continue to be a lot of fun for Hamilton fans to watch the Bulldogs play this season. The city can focus on the on-ice success of the only AHL team yet to lose in regulation time as the Bulldogs continue their quest to bring a second Calder Cup championship to Copps Coliseum.