There’s a new look in Hamilton this season as the Bulldogs are raising the bar in Steeltown.
After being edged out in a late season dog fight with the Oshawa Generals for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Hamilton Bulldogs made wholesale changes to their hockey operations staff, team colours and identity.
While the first season in Steeltown was a success in many ways, Bulldogs president and general manager Steve Staios wants to see the team move forward in 2016-17 as newly installed head coach John Gruden takes over behind the bench.
“It’s up to us now to be able to create an environment where players can develop,” said Staios. “We have John Gruden here as our coach and I have a strong belief in him that he’s the guy that’s going to create the right environment for our group.”
Perhaps Hamilton’s biggest strength entering the new season is depth throughout the organization, something that will make for a competitive pre-season as players battle for spots, assignments and ice time.
“When you don’t get the result as an organization that you want, you want to drive the competition level up, allowing the competitive athletes, the guys with the drive, the guys that are committed to earn their spots and that makes everybody better,” Staios said of the club’s pre-season mentality.
The Bulldogs return the majority of their roster from last season, and feature a large number of players who have been overlooked on NHL Draft day. There’s plenty of incentive on both the team and individual level entering the 2016-17 season.
Forwards Trent Fox and Matt Luff, who had 28 and 27 goals last season respectively, are joined by defenceman Ben Gleason and former first round picks in Niki Petti, Justin Lemcke and Brandon Saigeon as those with something to show NHL clubs.
Perhaps their brightest star in the forward ranks, 6’3″, 203Ib. sophomore winger Matthew Strome comes off a 16-goal season as a rookie and follows in the footsteps of older brothers Ryan and Dylan. He represented Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic this past summer.
“More than anything Matt boasts incredible hockey sense,” Staios noted. “When the puck is on his stick the play continues, very rarely does it ever die on his stick. He’s got a real high hockey IQ, a high compete level and the skating continues to improve. With a young player the size of Matthew Strome, the skating tends to take a little bit longer, but it’s of no concern to us as he continues to improve in all areas of his game.”
Strome joins fellow sophomore MacKenzie Entwistle on the NHL Futures List coming into the season while Hamilton will need contributions from other forwards in Luke Kutkevicius, Slovakian import Marian Studenic and veterans Michael Cramarossa and Adam Laishram as first round selection Connor Roberts makes the jump to the OHL.
Defensively, the Bulldogs have somewhat of a logjam on the blue line as 2015 draft selections Reilly Webb and Fedor Gordeev look to insert themselves into full time roles with the club.
Now healthy, 19-year-old Justin Lemcke is expected to shoulder a good workload after missing most of last season due to injury. He’s joined in a prominent role by recently drafted Vancouver Canucks prospect Cole Candella and 18-year-old puck-mover Ben Gleason.
The situation is much the same in goal as the club embarks on the pre-season with four names on their radar.
Returning 19-year-old Connor Hicks, who attended Development Camp with the Detroit Red Wings in July, will look to keep his starting job while newcomers in Kaden Fulcher, Cole Ceci and Nick Donofrio jostle for priority.
“Goaltending is a good position to have organizational depth in,” said Staios of the situation. “Connor Hicks played very well for us after Charlie Graham was dealt to Sarnia last season. Kaden Fulcher has shown signs that he’s an elite goaltending prospect in the league. Cole Ceci comes off an outstanding Junior B season with the Ancaster Avalanche last year and Nick Donofrio is a big goaltender who has shown a lot of promise. We’ll watch the progression of that group and make our evaluations as we move forward.”
The Bulldogs continue play in the East Division, one that appears wide open from the outset this season. They’re looking to bring playoff hockey back to Hamilton for the first time since 2011 when the AHL Bulldogs reached the Conference Finals.
“Year one was successful for us in a lot of ways,” said Staios. “We were one of the youngest teams in the league last season post-deadline, but we’re coming back and setting the bar higher. We want to be a competitive team each and every night.”
With an experienced group of forwards and options up and down the depth chart throughout the organization, the Bulldogs could very well be in the thick of things come mid-season.
2015-16 Record: 25-35-8-0 (5th East Division)
Head Coach: John Gruden (1st season with Bulldogs/2nd OHL season)
Key additions: Connor Roberts, Marian Studenic, Cole Ceci, Zachary Jackson, Isaac Nurse
Notable graduates: Jack Hidi, Brody Morris
Leading scorer: Matt Luff (61 GP, 27-30–57)
Leading scorer (defencemen): Ben Gleason (66 GP, 7-26–33)
Leading scorer (rookie): Matthew Strome (61 GP, 16-22–38)
Leading goaltender: Connor Hicks (30 GP, 10-11-5-0, 3.66 GAA, .894 SV%)
Fast Fact: The Bulldogs will play seven of their first 10 games of the 2016-17 season on the road.
#OHLOpeningWeek schedule: Fri. Sept. 23 at MISS (7:00pm), Sat. Sept. 24 vs. KGN (7:00pm)
* – among returning players
ontariohockeyleague.com will feature one team each day in advance of the 2016-17 season which begins Wednesday September 21.
Read more OHL 20 in 20 previews:
Central Division: Sudbury Wolves
Midwest Division: Guelph Storm
West Division: Saginaw Spirit