Bulldogs Roster Projections 2017/18: Defence
For the first time in three years, Hamilton’s strongest position is on the blueline. Two years of developing has led to a defensive corps that should be capable of sustained playoff success. The only problem is, the Ontario Hockey League is a development league, and Hamilton has drafted very well in the last two seasons. Is Staios willing to deal some of the team’s depth on the blueline for the sake of development? Could there be a defender for a forward type move out there?
Last year, head Coach John Gruden used a few dozen games to feel out the pairings that worked best in his system. Honestly, a few defenders struggled to flourish under the new expectations. There were many post-game scrums where Gruden discussed ‘bad-habits’ that needed a makeover. Following the trade deadline, everything finally seemed to settle and we had fairly consistent pairs sans injuries.
The 2017-18 first pairing will likely continue to be Benjamin Gleason and Justin Lemcke (OA). Theses veterans were both spurned by NHL scouts in their draft years. They are running out of junior milage to flush out wether they’ll earn a shot at professional hockey or make the choice to take advantage of the OHL’s education package. To their credit, year over year they’ve each hit new season high totals on the scoresheet.
Expect Lemcke’s name to pop up every time media discusses potential OA free agent signings. Lemcke could be the 2018 version of Niagara IceDogs’ Ryan Mantha (EDM-2017 FA), who led the young team to an unlikely playoff berth.
Injuries and trades might alter the look of this pair throughout the season, but the constant should be Connor Walters (OA). Walters is one of the most underrated defenders in the OHL. It’s fitting that he wears #24, as his style is very reminiscent of his GM’s NHL nickname – #24, ‘Steady Steve’ Staios.
Last season Walters was successful on a pairing with Jack Hanley, who’s quiet defensive game has expanded by miles since the team’s arrival in the Steel City. This pairing saw the majority of last year’s defensive zone minutes and penalty kill opportunities.
Again, based on their aggressive game, there will be injuries. Walters got a nice little nod in the 2016-17 OHL Coaches Poll being voted the #2 best shot blocker in the Eastern Conference. You don’t get noticed for this type of award without making sacrifices, and it’s amazing that Walters hasn’t missed much time since coming to Hamilton from Owen Sound.
It’s amazing that the first Bulldogs player drafted by an NHL team is coming into his first OHL season as a “third pairing” defender. Cole Candella (VAN-5th, #140) had a difficult season, less than he hoped for to be sure. He didn’t seem to settle into the new system that Gruden & Co. were implementing until after January.
The good news is that once Candella started looking like an NHL prospect down the playoff stretch, he was paired with a healthy Reilly Webb (DET-6th, #164). This pair played such solid hockey that Detroit’s scouting staff was convinced enough that Webb is worth the gamble on a 6th round draft pick. Their combined history suggests that these two start the season on the third rung of the ladder, but they have the potential to be the top pair by the 2018 trade deadline.
Hamilton has solid prospects bubbling under their veteran heavy lineup on the blueline, giving Steve Staios options should there come a phone call from another GM shopping for help. All of the defenders will have to impress a new pair of eyes as well, as Dave Matsos joins Hamilton as the Associate Coach, who will be totally in control of the back end along with penalty kill.
Rielly McCourt looked very comfortable filling in on the blueline last season in call up situations. The fleet-footed rookie has the desirable qualities that NHL teams look for in a modern defender; puck handling skills, quick outlet pass, agility and confidence. Beginning the season, he will be the first choice to spot into the lineup should an injury occur. A strong training camp/pre-season could expedite a roster move by November.
Steve Staios and Head Scout Dave Gray loved D.J. King’s defensive game at the OHL Cup when he played for the Mississauga Rebels. Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer was also at the tournament watching alongside his staff, and has expressed that he was more impressed with King’s game than Owen Lalonde, the #2 pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection.
King has yet to commit to any NCAA clubs. His father, NHL alumni Derek King (Hamilton, ON) was a key member of the Toronto Maple Leafs development system along with Steve Staios. The pieces are all there, waiting to be matched up. King is very likely to be drafted by an NHL in June 2018. It will be interesting if he’s there representing the Program or the Bulldogs.
Don’t count out other notable players who will try their best to earn a spot on the roster in training camp, including Stephen Templeton (OA, forward?) Xavier Henry, Ford Ondrovic or Brandon Scanlin.
Pre-season Series 2017