Their first OHL season over, the Bulldogs clean out, work out, check out

Sports Mar 22, 2016 by Teri Pecoskie The Hamilton Spectator

There were mixed emotions as the Bulldogs packed up their lockers Monday and prepared to go their separate ways.

First and foremost, there was frustration over failing to make the playoffs in their inaugural OHL season in Hamilton.

After that, though, there was optimism, excitement, hope.

"We wanted playoffs, so it's disappointing not to be in it," said forward Matt Luff. "But you know what? We're a young team, and a good team. We see that. And I think next year, everybody knows what we want.

"We want to be a top team," he added — a team other clubs are afraid to play against. "I think we're going to have that advantage."

The franchise, which relocated from Belleville last summer, finished the campaign with a losing 25-35-8-0 record, last in the East Division, and second-to-last in the Eastern Conference.

It struggled with injuries, it struggled to score and it struggled to keep to its cool, particularly when playing with a lead. Yet, Luff's right. There is reason to feel good about Hamilton's future.

With the average player well under 18 years old, the Bulldogs are the youngest team in a league that rewards age. Excluding forward Jack Hidi, all of them are eligible to return next year — and when they do, they'll bring with them an unusual amount of experience.

The reason for that is head coach and general manager George Burnett, who made the tough decision to trade his top two scorers and starting goalie — all 20-year-olds in their final OHL season — for prospects and picks at the deadline in January. The deals gave everyone from Luff to forward Matthew Strome to puckstopper Connor Hicks more ice time and more opportunity to develop.

They made the most of it.

Over the final two months of the season, the Bulldogs actually scored more goals on average and allowed fewer than they did before the trades. Luff, Strome and others boosted their individual production, while Hicks's numbers, which were dismal as a backup for Charlie Graham, improved month-over-month in a starting role.

"I think the plusses will override an opportunity that we missed out on in the big picture," Burnett said when asked about his team's playoff miss. Still, he added, "not playing in the last week of March is not fun."

Though promising, the team's late-season successes shouldn't overshadow the broader challenges. The Bulldogs finished fifth-last in the league in scoring for and against, 15th on the power play and in the middle of the pack in penalty killing.

With a record of 10-22-1-0, they won less than one in every three games on the road.

How they lost — in Hamilton and away from home — is likewise worrisome. Of their 43 losses, 16 were one-goal games and eight were in 3-on-3 overtime. They gave up no fewer than five third period leads, which, alone, could have been the difference between making their playoffs or finishing, as they did, four points shy.

"We were in the lead in a number of games in the third period with 10 or 15 minutes to go in the game and we didn't win," said Burnett. "We only needed a couple of them to make a difference in the standings."

Defenceman Justin Lemcke, who missed more than four months of the season with a broken leg, is hopeful that consistency will come with age. However, he also knows it takes more than maturity to heighten results.

"It's just bearing down and doing the little things right," the captain said.

Burnett agreed.

"If you're going to win in this league, you've got to be harder to play against than we were every night," he said. "There were nights that we were real strong in that area, but other nights that it was probably easy to say we're a young club, we're going to have a tough night.

"I don't buy that. I think some of our most competitive players are our young guys."

"We need to be a lot more mature as a group when we start up," he added, "and I think that will lead to a better competitive environment or competitive nature for our group, and caring for each other will lead to good things on the ice."

tpecoskie@thespec.com

905-526-3368 | @TeriatTheSpec

Their first OHL season over, the Bulldogs clean out, work out, check out

Sports Mar 22, 2016 by Teri Pecoskie The Hamilton Spectator

There were mixed emotions as the Bulldogs packed up their lockers Monday and prepared to go their separate ways.

First and foremost, there was frustration over failing to make the playoffs in their inaugural OHL season in Hamilton.

After that, though, there was optimism, excitement, hope.

"We wanted playoffs, so it's disappointing not to be in it," said forward Matt Luff. "But you know what? We're a young team, and a good team. We see that. And I think next year, everybody knows what we want.

"We want to be a top team," he added — a team other clubs are afraid to play against. "I think we're going to have that advantage."

The franchise, which relocated from Belleville last summer, finished the campaign with a losing 25-35-8-0 record, last in the East Division, and second-to-last in the Eastern Conference.

It struggled with injuries, it struggled to score and it struggled to keep to its cool, particularly when playing with a lead. Yet, Luff's right. There is reason to feel good about Hamilton's future.

With the average player well under 18 years old, the Bulldogs are the youngest team in a league that rewards age. Excluding forward Jack Hidi, all of them are eligible to return next year — and when they do, they'll bring with them an unusual amount of experience.

The reason for that is head coach and general manager George Burnett, who made the tough decision to trade his top two scorers and starting goalie — all 20-year-olds in their final OHL season — for prospects and picks at the deadline in January. The deals gave everyone from Luff to forward Matthew Strome to puckstopper Connor Hicks more ice time and more opportunity to develop.

They made the most of it.

Over the final two months of the season, the Bulldogs actually scored more goals on average and allowed fewer than they did before the trades. Luff, Strome and others boosted their individual production, while Hicks's numbers, which were dismal as a backup for Charlie Graham, improved month-over-month in a starting role.

"I think the plusses will override an opportunity that we missed out on in the big picture," Burnett said when asked about his team's playoff miss. Still, he added, "not playing in the last week of March is not fun."

Though promising, the team's late-season successes shouldn't overshadow the broader challenges. The Bulldogs finished fifth-last in the league in scoring for and against, 15th on the power play and in the middle of the pack in penalty killing.

With a record of 10-22-1-0, they won less than one in every three games on the road.

How they lost — in Hamilton and away from home — is likewise worrisome. Of their 43 losses, 16 were one-goal games and eight were in 3-on-3 overtime. They gave up no fewer than five third period leads, which, alone, could have been the difference between making their playoffs or finishing, as they did, four points shy.

"We were in the lead in a number of games in the third period with 10 or 15 minutes to go in the game and we didn't win," said Burnett. "We only needed a couple of them to make a difference in the standings."

Defenceman Justin Lemcke, who missed more than four months of the season with a broken leg, is hopeful that consistency will come with age. However, he also knows it takes more than maturity to heighten results.

"It's just bearing down and doing the little things right," the captain said.

Burnett agreed.

"If you're going to win in this league, you've got to be harder to play against than we were every night," he said. "There were nights that we were real strong in that area, but other nights that it was probably easy to say we're a young club, we're going to have a tough night.

"I don't buy that. I think some of our most competitive players are our young guys."

"We need to be a lot more mature as a group when we start up," he added, "and I think that will lead to a better competitive environment or competitive nature for our group, and caring for each other will lead to good things on the ice."

tpecoskie@thespec.com

905-526-3368 | @TeriatTheSpec

Their first OHL season over, the Bulldogs clean out, work out, check out

Sports Mar 22, 2016 by Teri Pecoskie The Hamilton Spectator

There were mixed emotions as the Bulldogs packed up their lockers Monday and prepared to go their separate ways.

First and foremost, there was frustration over failing to make the playoffs in their inaugural OHL season in Hamilton.

After that, though, there was optimism, excitement, hope.

"We wanted playoffs, so it's disappointing not to be in it," said forward Matt Luff. "But you know what? We're a young team, and a good team. We see that. And I think next year, everybody knows what we want.

"We want to be a top team," he added — a team other clubs are afraid to play against. "I think we're going to have that advantage."

The franchise, which relocated from Belleville last summer, finished the campaign with a losing 25-35-8-0 record, last in the East Division, and second-to-last in the Eastern Conference.

It struggled with injuries, it struggled to score and it struggled to keep to its cool, particularly when playing with a lead. Yet, Luff's right. There is reason to feel good about Hamilton's future.

With the average player well under 18 years old, the Bulldogs are the youngest team in a league that rewards age. Excluding forward Jack Hidi, all of them are eligible to return next year — and when they do, they'll bring with them an unusual amount of experience.

The reason for that is head coach and general manager George Burnett, who made the tough decision to trade his top two scorers and starting goalie — all 20-year-olds in their final OHL season — for prospects and picks at the deadline in January. The deals gave everyone from Luff to forward Matthew Strome to puckstopper Connor Hicks more ice time and more opportunity to develop.

They made the most of it.

Over the final two months of the season, the Bulldogs actually scored more goals on average and allowed fewer than they did before the trades. Luff, Strome and others boosted their individual production, while Hicks's numbers, which were dismal as a backup for Charlie Graham, improved month-over-month in a starting role.

"I think the plusses will override an opportunity that we missed out on in the big picture," Burnett said when asked about his team's playoff miss. Still, he added, "not playing in the last week of March is not fun."

Though promising, the team's late-season successes shouldn't overshadow the broader challenges. The Bulldogs finished fifth-last in the league in scoring for and against, 15th on the power play and in the middle of the pack in penalty killing.

With a record of 10-22-1-0, they won less than one in every three games on the road.

How they lost — in Hamilton and away from home — is likewise worrisome. Of their 43 losses, 16 were one-goal games and eight were in 3-on-3 overtime. They gave up no fewer than five third period leads, which, alone, could have been the difference between making their playoffs or finishing, as they did, four points shy.

"We were in the lead in a number of games in the third period with 10 or 15 minutes to go in the game and we didn't win," said Burnett. "We only needed a couple of them to make a difference in the standings."

Defenceman Justin Lemcke, who missed more than four months of the season with a broken leg, is hopeful that consistency will come with age. However, he also knows it takes more than maturity to heighten results.

"It's just bearing down and doing the little things right," the captain said.

Burnett agreed.

"If you're going to win in this league, you've got to be harder to play against than we were every night," he said. "There were nights that we were real strong in that area, but other nights that it was probably easy to say we're a young club, we're going to have a tough night.

"I don't buy that. I think some of our most competitive players are our young guys."

"We need to be a lot more mature as a group when we start up," he added, "and I think that will lead to a better competitive environment or competitive nature for our group, and caring for each other will lead to good things on the ice."

tpecoskie@thespec.com

905-526-3368 | @TeriatTheSpec