MONTREAL - The role of an NHL farm team can sometimes be an ungrateful one. While the mandate is to develop an organization's best players, the club can also be a victim of its own success. With its destiny already decided, the 2005-06 edition of the Hamilton Bulldogs is a result of the success of the team's previous squads.
After several years at the top of the American Hockey League standings, the Bulldogs now find themselves without 20-plus goal-scorers Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Alexander Perezhogin, who have graduated to the Canadiens. As a result, the boys of Steeltown are experiencing some tough times this season, but aren't about to get down on themselves.
"People can't forget that we have a young team. Not that we're using that as an excuse, but we have to adjust to a style of play that's much faster than we were used to in junior," admitted Michael Lambert, who has five goals and five assists in his second season in Hamilton. "The guys are quick learners and we can see the improvements."
There are plenty of positives for the Bulldogs, according to the young left-winger.
"A lot of our players have had NHL experience this year - Maxim Lapierre, Jean-Philippe Cote, Yann Danis. When you have all this movement in the dressing room, the guys all realize it's possible they'll be the next one called up. We all dream of it and it makes us work harder on the ice."
At the same time, Lambert acknowledged that all the call-ups can put a damper on Hamilton's production.
"Every team in the league goes through this. In the AHL, it's normal that we lose players to our parent club. Obviously it's not an ideal situation but it's one we have to deal with."
Maxim Lapierre, who made his NHL debut Nov. 15 against the Panthers, echoed his teammate's sentiments.
"[Head coach] Don Lever is trying to implement his system and it's only a matter of time before we get there. We have a lot of guys under the age of 22 on our team this year. We're learning every day and benefit from our mistakes. We don't repeat our mistakes on the ice and from that, we all gain experience," said the 20-year-old center, one of 11 Bulldogs players born after 1984.
With a roster filled with rookies, veteran leadership in the dressing plays an important role, especially when the going gets rough. Those donning the "A" on their jersey are among the first to lead the way. Garth Murray is one of those guys.
"When you have so many young players, there's no point in shouting," noted Murray, who was acquired from the New York Rangers on September 30, 2005 in exchange for Marcel Hossa. "Our rough patch began on the road. We were missing a lot of guys and it just wasn't going well for us on the ice. For my part, I always try and encourage them. If I can help a young guy out, I will.
"Even though we've lost many games by a goal, we're capable of putting together a winning streak. We play a lot of tight games and with a bit of luck, we could have won those games," said the 6-foot-1, 207-pound center.
Just over two months into the regular season, Corey Locke leads the Bulldogs in scoring with seven goals and 14 assists, for 21 points. At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, some might be surprised to learn that Locke is in his second professional season. The diminutive forward appears determined to continue his success from his junior years. Locke found great success with the Ottawa 67's, racking up 118 and 151 points in 2002-03 and 2003-04. In his final season in the junior ranks in 2003-04, he became the fourth player to be named MVP of the Ontario Hockey League two years in a row.
While they have had some rough moments so far in 2005-06, there is still talent on the Bulldogs' roster that can only improve with time.
Francis Dupont is a contributor to canadiens.com