HAMILTON - Expectations are high for the Hamilton Bulldogs despite losing some big names as they prepare to begin their 15th season in the American Hockey League.
The Bulldogs fell just short of reaching the Calder Cup championship, losing the Western final in seven games to the Texas Stars. Hamilton finished second only to Hershey in the regular season with 115 points.
This season, the Montreal Canadiens' affiliate will have to meld a lot of new faces, including new coach Randy Cunneyworth.
The Habs have held onto star defenceman P.K. Subban, leaving Hamilton with a sizable plus-46 rating hole on the blue-line. The Bulldogs will also be without the services of centre Brock Trotter as he heads to the KHL in Russia. Last year he led the team in goals (36), and was second in points (77).
Other non-returnees are Mike Glumac, Andre Benoit, Shawn Belle and Mike Vernace.
Cunneyworth points to that change in personnel while assessing his new team's goals.
"Whether we set our sights lofty or just play solid competitive hockey it doesn't matter . . . our job is to develop and win as well, but the two have to go hand in hand," he said.
Cunneyworth, a former Rochester head coach, spent the last two years as an assistant with the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers.
He succeeds Guy Boucher, last season's AHL coach of the year who is now coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bulldogs can count on David Desharnais for offence again. Despite injuries early last season, he led the team in scoring with 27 goals and 78 points in just 60 games.
"He's got great vision and moves the puck well. He makes everyone better," Cunneyworth said.
After missing the cut in Montreal, forwards Ryan White and Ben Maxwell are back in Hamilton for now and will help fill the void left by Trotter, Glumac and Subban.
"Obviously a lot of offence is gone we've got to pick up that slack," said defenceman Alex Henry, a relative veteran at age 30.
Filling out the roster and picking up that slack are a number of promising rookies, including forwards Alexander Avtsin, Andreas Engqvist, Gabriel Dumont and Ian Schultz.
Avtsin recorded 110 points in 76 games in the Russia Hockey First League, a feeder league for the KHL. With some of the Bulldogs trying to make the Habs club at camp, Avtsin found himself on the second line in pre-season play, earning praise.
Cunneyworth said Avtsin stood out for "his sheer enjoyment of playing.
"He's always got a smile on his face out there on the ice. He's very enthused about working hard at his game. You love that enthusiasm and you love the fact he just loves to be out there."
Engqvist is still learning the North American game according to Cunneyworth, but the six-four-four centre is expected to spend a lot of time in front of goal.
Schultz was injured for most of camp, but was a "pleasant surprise" to the coaching staff for his two-way play.
Yannick Webber and Alex Henry are probable call-ups to Montreal. Mathieu Carle and Frederick St. Denis are the only other returning defencemen, leaving a potential problem should injuries begin and pile up.
Henry is confident about the new defencemen, including Brendon Nash, who led his NCAA Cornell team in points by a defencemen for the last three years.
"They're drafted, they're here for a reason. You just expect a little bit of a learning curve."
In net, Curtis Sanford was one of the last cuts at the Montreal camp, and is expected to start against Rochester in the season opener Friday. Probable backup Robert Mayer went 3-0 in pre-season.