MONTREAL – The American Hockey League might conduct its business on the ice, but being behind an AHL bench definitely requires some familiarity with curveballs and fastballs.
While the teams serve mainly as a development outlet for their parent clubs in the NHL, they, like their elder brethren, have one ultimate goal in mind – win a championship. But, as the big league calls upon prospects, the team is forced to send in a last-minute pinch-hitter.
The Hamilton Bulldogs are all too familiar with changes on the fly, watching a number of young pups graduate to the next level over the last few years. Though it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect strikeouts, the Bulldogs have hit more often than they’ve missed – a testament to the work of head coach Don Lever.
“The turnover is just part of the job,” noted Lever. “When guys do well down here and then make the jump to the NHL, it’s good for us because it gives others the opportunity to step in and it’s during those opportunities that you’ll often find a dark horse.”
It would seem that Habs management found its own dark horse in Lever. When the lockout ended in the summer of 2005, then-Hamilton bench boss Doug Jarvis made his own jump to the NHL ranks. Needing someone to grab the reins, Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey and Co. turned to the South Porcupine, Ontario native.
In four seasons with the Canadiens’ farm team, Lever has guided his troops to a 128-107-7-17 record and a Calder Cup Championship in 2007. Twenty games into the 2008-09 campaign, the veteran coach has his revamped roster riding high with a 14-5-1-0 record and 29 points, to top the North Division and Western Conference overall. Not too shabby for a team that had just three players who had appeared in at least 60 games with the club last year return to the fold this season.
He’s seen several key players leave the nest during his tenure, losing the Kostitsyn brothers, Carey Price
, Jaroslav Halak, Maxim Lapierre and Ryan O’Byrne, among others. NHL coaches deal with turnover in personnel as well, but not nearly as often nor to the same extent as their AHL counterparts.
“We have such great communication with Julien [BriseBois] and Bob [Gainey], that it makes it really easy to adjust and adapt to the constant change,” he said.
That’s good news for the future because the way Lever’s got the Bulldogs going now, it might not be long before an arsenal of new pitches come his way.Bulldogs Bell Centre-bound
For the second time in three years, the Habs’ future will hit the Bell Centre ice for a regular season AHL contest. On Sunday, November 30, the Bulldogs will host the Binghamton Senators in the tail end of back-to-back, home-and-home tilts. Don Lever’s crew won three of the four meetings between the two clubs last year.
While several on the Hamilton roster got a taste of action on the Canadiens’ home ice in the NHL pre-season, only two from the 2007 squad that played at the Bell Centre will be in the lineup on Sunday – Kyle Chipchura and current top ‘Dog Matt D’Agostini.Get your tickets today!Heather Engel is a writer for canadiens.com