MONTREAL – With more than a few new recruits on board to launch their latest campaign, it’s little surprise that no one really knew what to expect from the Bulldogs this season. While their record might not reflect it at the moment, the Canadiens’ farm team is clearly headed in the right direction – and picking up steam along the way.
The Bulldogs are currently sitting second-last in their division with 10 points in eight games to date. But look at their performance since the start of the season, and it’s not hard to imagine them with more. With multiple games lost by only a hair, Hamilton’s newest bench boss is optimistic about what he’s seen from his troops out of the gate.
“I’m still mostly satisfied with how they’ve played and I can see many of our younger guys making progress,” explained head coach Sylvain Lefebvre. “We’ve gone up against some very good teams in our division to date like Toronto and Abbotsford. We’re clearly not playing easy games every night.”
While the 2012-13 AHL season may still be in its early stages, it didn’t take long before the rookie coach found himself dealing with his first taste of adversity since taking over the team. Ready to rely on the leadership and scoring touch of young veteran, Louis Leblanc, Lefebvre was immediately forced to shuffle his lineup after the Montreal native suffered an injury in the second game of the season, likely leaving him sidelined for over a month.
Finding the silver lining in the loss of the Canadiens’ 2009 first-round draft pick, Lefebvre took the opportunity to test a theory by composing a line of rookies, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher and Patrick Holland. It didn’t take long for Lefebvre’s hypothesis to prove correct as the three star forwards quickly vaulted themselves towards the top of the team’s scoring ladder.
“It was already part of my plans to put those three guys together, even before Louis Leblanc was hurt,” admitted Lefebvre. “Injuries like that are always tough to deal with. Whether it’s Leblanc or any other player on the team, it takes away a skill-set that as a coach I’m not able to take advantage of anymore. It forces us as a team to come together and pick up that extra slack in their absence.
“In the end, I wasn’t too shocked to see those guys playing so well,” he continued, on the subject of their combined 15 points in eight games. “It didn’t take long for them to integrate themselves within the team. After our training camp in Sherbrooke, we all spent a few days at a military base in Trenton. We did a lot of team building activities there to get everyone comfortable with each other, foster a solid team spirit and strengthen the bonds we had already built.”
As with his players, Lefebvre experienced his own transition period with the Bulldogs as he acquainted himself with the realities of being a head coach for the first time in his career. After five seasons spent as an assistant in the AHL and the NHL, the 45-year-old felt he was more than ready for the challenge, and things have gone smoothly for him to this point behind the Bulldogs’ bench.
“I think I was pretty well ready for everything I’ve had to deal with so far. The big difference for me is that I have a little less time to watch the games as closely as I usually like to,” shared Lefebvre. “At the beginning of the season, there were a lot of adjustments that constantly needed to be made. When everything is finally set and working as it should I’ll have more time to pay attention to some of the details I’m looking out for.
“I’m surrounded by great people here and all the guys I’m working with are helping me tremendously,” he added. “Whenever Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois pay a visit to Hamilton, it adds another great dynamic to the mix.”
After picking up three out of a possible four points against Rochester over the weekend, the Bulldogs will be looking to make an impression on Montreal fans as they get set to clash with the Syracuse Crunch – the Tampa Bay Lightning’s farm team – this Friday night at the Bell Centre. The tilt will undoubtedly prove a challenging one for Hamilton, as the Crunch rank among the top teams in the AHL. Lefebvre is looking at the game as an excellent test for his young team, who will be completing a sequence of four games in eight nights when they arrive in Montreal.
“November isn’t going to be an easy month for us. We’ll be up against teams like Abbotsford, Rochester, Toronto and Syracuse,” finished Lefebvre. “They all represent very talented clubs who will be waiting to make life tough for us.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Justin Fragapane.
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