Setting his course
MONTREAL – It’s been more than a week now since the Hamilton Bulldogs of new and old took to the ice for training camp. The singular goal of erasing the sting left by a trying 2011-12 campaign is as much the focus for every player pulling on a jersey as it is for the new head coach set to helm the Bulldogs’ bench.
After spending the past five seasons with the Colorado Avalanche’s organization – the last three spent as one of the club’s assistant coaches – Sylvain Lefebvre is more than ready to face the challenges of leading a team he can call his own. Inheriting a club that wrapped its latest season sitting second-to-last in the conference, the Bulldogs coach is eager to take the reigns and head in a new direction.
“I can’t wait for things to get started. From the moment I was named head coach of the Bulldogs, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking things over and preparing,” promised Lefebvre, who was appointed to his new position this past summer on June 13. “The Canadiens had the problem of dealing with a lot of injuries in their last season, and the Bulldogs unfortunately shared that same problem, too.
“If we want to right the ship here, we’re going to have to start from zero,” he underlined. “It’s going to be key to stay positive and be able to put everything that happened with the team last season behind us if we hope to move forward. The fact that we’re expecting an influx of talented new prospects who will be arriving from the university ranks or Junior is extremely encouraging and should help us a lot.”
In addition to welcoming back the majority of the players that made up last year’s Bulldogs squad, Lefebvre will be counting on the arrival of a few gifted Canadiens prospects who spent the last season making their mark in the CHL. While much is said about the tough transition from the American League to the NHL, the 44-year-old head coach remains convinced that the AHL is the best proving ground for young players to cut their teeth and develop their game at the right pace.
“Making the leap from the Juniors to the American League, I think is a much tougher step than making the leap from the AHL to the NHL,” explained Lefebvre, on the subject of the nine Junior players attending the Bulldogs’ training camp. “It’s a harder adjustment to make because players that are used to going up against guys who are 19 or 20 years old suddenly find themselves playing against guys who are 29 and 30 and have a lot more experience under their belts.
“When you’re capable of finding success in the American League, it starts to feel like the jump to the NHL is a lot less daunting than it may have once seemed,” he continued. “For some, playing in the NHL can be easier because the players’ skill levels and positional play is a lot better, so it makes it easier for guys to find their place on the ice.”
With an impressive supporting cast joining him behind the bench that includes the likes of Donald Dufresne, Ron Wilson and Vincent Riendeau, Lefebvre is set to embark on a season that will, at least at the beginning, allow him some unexpected leeway. While the Canadiens management remains unable to work with any of its players during the lockout, AHL teams will get a chance to step in to temporarily reap some benefits of the situation.
The Bulldogs will be looking forward to the leadership and presence of a number of players who wouldn’t necessarily be available had things been business-as-usual for the NHL in 2012-13. No stranger to similar situations, the Bulldogs’ new coach is well aware that he and his team will spend at least a chunk of the upcoming season adapting to the wave of events the Canadiens find themselves facing as things unfold.
“The best way to describe our situation is that we’re going to have to be constantly adjusting. Having already worked in the AHL with Lake Erie should be a tremendous help for me. During one of my seasons there we had 55 different guys playing for us,” shared Lefebvre, who was part of the Avalanche’s AHL-affiliate coaching staff from 2007 to 2009. “The faster you can adjust, the better things tend to go. While the lockout is making things interesting for us this year, there’s no doubt it’s a lot less interesting for the Canadiens.
“We have a lot more players currently available to us for training camp, and when we finally sit down to make our team, we’ll have the option to keep players we might not normally have had access to,” he added. “Knowing how things generally go at the AHL level, having more players than usual at your disposal can only make things easier for us in the long run.”
With options abounding, Lefebvre has already began narrowing the field, making 14 cuts to his training camp roster within the last day as the team prepares to hit the Ontarian road. The Bulldogs will tighten things up with two preseason games over the course of the next week before kicking off their regular season schedule on October 14. Lefebvre’s will decisions will only get tougher as the date approaches.
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Justin Fragapane.