Saturday, 7 June 2014

The 2014 Hamilton Bulldogs free agents

So we looked at which draftees the Canadiens should sign before losing their rights, and which NHL free agents the Canadiens should retain and which should be allowed to leave.  Let's now look at the Hamilton Bulldogs' free agents, and figure out how the farm team will/should look next season.

We're not necessarily experts in this area, don't have any sources in Hamilton or with the Canadiens management team, but based on the last couple of seasons, there are some conclusions we can make, some expectations we can harbour.  After a very tough 2012-13 season, the expectation was that last season would be one marked by improvement, with the kids maturing, more prospects joining the fray, and the management team injecting AHL veterans to help them along.  The hope was that they'd fight for a playoff spot, and get some competitive experience that way.

That's largely how the off-season went last summer, and after a soft start the Bulldogs made a push, but they petered out at the end of the season and missed the playoffs.  There were rumblings in Hamilton that developing players for the Canadiens is all fine and good, but the local fans want to cheer on a better team, if they're going to be the ones buying the tickets.

With that backdrop, let's look at the Bulldogs who are free agents.  The restricted free agents (RFA) are Louis Leblanc, Joonas Nattinen, Peter Delmas and Robert Czarnik.  The unrestricted free agents (UFA) are Devan Dubnyk, Nick Tarnasky, Martin St. Pierre and Mike Blunden.  As always, it's important to understand that there is a limit to how many players, how many prospects a team can hold on to.  This is mainly governed by the 50-contract rule.

For our purposes, the easier cases to deal with are some of the RFA's.  For starters, Peter Delmas and Robert Czarnik will not return.

Robert Czarnik was obtained in return for Steve Quailer in trade, and we still don't know, don't understand why.  While Mr. Quailer wasn't producing, he at least brought some size to the table, you could hope he'd pan out at some point.  Mr. Czarnik on the other hand doesn't hold any value, in terms of his production or the type of player he is.

Peter Delmas has been with the Canadiens' organization for a few years now and has not really progressed.  He has been passed on the depth chart by players like Mike Condon, Dustin Tokarski and Zachary Fucale.  He finished out the year in the ECHL, but not even with the Wheeling Nailers, our affiliate, he was assigned to a team outside our system.

This is a clear signal that the team no longer sees a future for him.  The slight chance he has to be re-signed might be because the other Bulldog goalie, Robert Mayer, has come to an agreement with the Canadiens to go play in Europe, so the Canadiens may need Mr. Delmas purely in terms of numbers.  The thinking here however is that there are other, younger goalies with more promise that the Habs can take a flyer on.

Much more delicate is the situation of 2009 first-rounder and hometown product Louis Leblanc, who needs a qualifying offer this summer, but is now eligible for waivers.  A good update of his situation was provided in La Presse. It states that it's not a foregone conclusion that he will be qualified, that he may be traded to another organization that offers a clearer path to the NHL for him.  It underscores the fact that Marc Bergevin's team didn't draft him (although Trevor Timmins did) so there is no real tie or investment there.

Louis seems more resigned to the fact that he's seen as a defensive player, a third or fourth-liner, but not completely.  He's quoted as saying that when kids practice their hockey, they work on scoring goals, not chipping in the puck.

Nevertheless, while he admits that he had a difficult relationship with head coach Sylvain Lefebvre two seasons ago in Hamilton, last year was better for him, if not for the team.  He talks about the ankle sprain from 2012, and how he needs to stand out even more in the AHL, through more grit and work ethic.  He says he's improved as a player, as a skater, even if that hasn't been reflected through his stats.

Louis' agent is Pat Brisson, so a reasonable, more than competent representative.  He and Marc Bergevin should be able to see their way through this.  Look for Louis to receive a qualifying offer so his rights are retained by the Habs, even if he's traded later to another team, for a low-ish draft choice.  The Canadiens don't have a draft pick in the second round due to the Thomas Vanek deadline deal, and may want to take an additional chance on some of the talent available in the later rounds, especially one of the local kids.  That might cushion the blow for fans a little bit.

As far as Joonas Nattinen, that situation clarified itself when he signed a deal to play in Sweden next season.  While he seemed a promising player to fans if only based on his World Junior Championship appearances, and was described two summers ago by former Bulldog head coach Clément Jodoin as one of the most improved players on the team, he never took the next steps to deliver on that promise.  This season, he should have been one of the young veteran leaders of the team, kind of like Gabriel Dumont was, but he instead floated around the third or fourth line, supplying little impact.

His departure for Europe eases the decision the team has to make.  A qualifying offer can be tendered that Mr. Nattinen won't accept, but it will mean the Canadiens will be able to retain his rights on the 90-player reserved list, and he won't count against the 50-contract total.  This is similar to the Andreas Engqvist situation, who is now playing in the KHL, but whose rights still belong the Canadiens.  If either of these players make giant strides and want to return to the NHL in the next couple of seasons, great.

Dealing with the UFA's now, Martin St. Pierre is the headliner.  He was brought in on a generous two-way contract, to provide scoring and leadership to a young team, and was a bit of a disappointment.  Late in the season, he was made a healthy scratch by Coach Lefebvre on a couple of occasions.  He did lead the team in scoring, but with a meager total of 48 points, barely ahead of super-rookie Sven Andrighetto who tallied 44 on an impotent offensive team.  We think that the Canadiens management team will look for another AHL veteran to fill his role next season, and Mr. St. Pierre will not be back.

Nick Tarnasky by contrast was a pleasant surprise.  He brought the toughness angle that was expected, acting as the enforcer to shepherd some of our younger prospects through the shoals of minor pro hockey, but also chipped in some offence.  He scored 13 goals, and actually saw some powerplay time as the big forward who tries to screen the goalie, deflect pucks and cash in rebounds.  He wasn't relegated solely to a fourth-line role, but moved up and down the roster from game to game, period to period.

Mr. Tarnasky's role next season may be impinged upon by guys like Stéfan Fournier and Nathan McIver, and newcomers Connor Crisp and Jack Nevins.  They may make him expendable, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was offered another contract.  As stated, the Bulldogs are a young team, and a veteran AHL guy like him can be an important component of the group next season.

If anything, he may be signed to a more generous AHL deal, which wouldn't count against the 50-contract limit.  This is one way the Canadiens can flex their financial muscle, by offering him a dollar amount on a straight AHL deal that he can't refuse, and other teams won't match.

Mike Blunden also had a good season with the Bulldogs, coming in as the third leading scorer.  He performed as expected for a veteran player who has some NHL games under his belt, and formed a good tandem with Gabriel Dumont.  He may be forced out by the numbers game, the Canadiens may want to unclog the system for some of their younger forwards, or he may want to move on to another team that gives him a better chance at the NHL, but he may very well be retained to fulfill the role he did this season, the big steady veteran winger who can in a pinch be recalled by the Canadiens when injuries strike.

Devan Dubnyk is the most intriguing UFA on the rolls, in that he's a big NHL goalie, a former first-rounder, and that the Canadiens' goaltending situation past Carey Price is now more muddled.  Dustin Tokarski will be eligible for waivers next season, and has probably little left to learn at the AHL level, it may be time for him to take the next step and function as the backup to Carey Price.  This would mean Peter Budaj getting traded away, and every goalie in the system taking another step up the depth chart.

Most probably, Devan Dubnyk will ply his trade elsewhere next season, in the NHL most likely.  He's obviously not eager to remain in the AHL, few players are.  The fact that he left the Canadiens during their playoff run rather than remain with the Black Aces, and was unavailable for emergency duty when Carey Price fell to injury, probably didn't endear him to Canadiens management.  It would be no big loss, in that he was received at the trade deadline at no cost, in a 'future considerations' move to help out the Predators.  There is nothing invested in him by the Canadiens.

Yet a fan can dream.  What if he did stay as the main guy in Hamilton, and got some of the Stéphane Waite treatment that worked wonders with Carey this season?  Could our goalie coach point the former Oiler in the right direction, and unlock his potential?  Could Mr. Dubnyk see this as a necessary step for the good of his career?  This is a very long shot, but it's worth discussing it before dismissing it as a pipe dream.  Right?

For the Bulldog free agents who were on AHL contracts, it's hard to figure out who'll stay and who'll go.  Maxime Macenauer was a useful player, may be kept as a veteran, but may be forced out by the influx of new players, guys like Charles Hudon, Connor Crisp, Daniel Carr, and maybe Jacob de la Rose.

Same goes for Justin Courtnall, he brought in some size and speed and veteranship, but not too much else.  He might return, or might be forced to move on.

Nick Sorkin finished the season on a try-out contract with the team, and came on very late with some dazzling rushes.  His size and speed mean he may yet be offered a contract, most probably an AHL deal.

On defence, the field is very crowded already with all the young prospects currently with the Bulldogs, and Mac Bennett, Dalton Thrower and possibly Magnus Nygren trying to muscle their way on next season.  This is a complicated situation to deal with, and may mean the Canadiens are more inclined to graduate more mature players like Jarred Tinordi, Greg Pateryn and Nathan Beaulieu for good, to relieve the pressure in Hamilton, or to trade some defensive depth for help at forward.

It also affects the ability to retain AHL vets on the blue line.  It's not optimal to have a bunch of rookie or sophomore defencemen on the same squad, there would be no mentorship, they'd get eaten alive, and wouldn't be good for their confidence, their development.

This season, Joël Chouinard, Drew Schiestel and Nathan McIver provided that veteran presence, with varying degrees of success.  Mr. Chouinard was probably the most effective defenceman, but Mr. McIver brought a physical component that was important to a young team.  It's also important to note that they're both lefties, which normally isn't a great advantage, except that the Bulldogs blue line will be replete with righties.  Mac Bennett is the only leftie once Nathan and Jarred leave.  Morgan Ellis, Greg Pateryn, Darren Dietz, Dalton Thrower, Magnus Nygren,  they're all right-handed.  So either Mr. Chouinard or Mr. McIver could be brought back as veteran AHL'ers, or the team could go in another direction entirely, there are lots of journeyman defencemen available out there.

So there we have it.  We can expect Louis Leblanc, and probably one of either Nick Tarnasky or Mike Blunden, and maybe even both, to be re-signed for the Bulldogs next season.  Add in some more quality veteran AHL'ers to go along with the incoming prospect brood, stir, and hope for much better results.

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