Hamilton sounds like a good team this year. For those who follow them (ahem, Qui Gon), what's the biggest difference this year? Is it the infusion of recent draftees and/or AHL vets? Is it the coaching staff, as I remember last year there were some grumblings that Lever wasn't a good coach, had no imagination etc.?
Two simple words (and an overly long explaination, I expect): Consistancy. Cohesion.
The main difference for the team this year is that it's players have (for the most part) stayed in Hamilton. Last year was rediculous, especially down the stretch. Both Montreal and Edmonton were calling people up and sending them down quicker than the players could reach their new cities last year. During the 05-06 season, i think Hamilton used 5 goalies, due to callups and conditioning stints. The defense was thin and some of the veterans brought in didn't do a good job, the rest were quite young. And up front, well, it seemed there were about 6 players attached to yo-yo strings and not great depth.
As a result, sometimes the team would play well together, but often there was a lot of change to deal with. Lines would rarely ever be kept together for any stretch of time. Because of the depth and the callup issue, players would be played in roles they wouldn't normally be expected to. And when that team hit a slump, it stayed slumped for a while. They had some fantastic games, some as a result of good play and some as a result of inconsistant play, producing high scoring, back and forth games. But there would always be something that happened to cause a problem when things looked on the up.
This year, things are different. They have some players who player the majority of their games in Hamilton instead of bouncing up and down to Montreal or spending 2 weeks sitting on a bench in Edmonton. As a result, the players on the team (and the coaches as well) can have lines that stay together for longer periods of time, building up understanding and chemistry between them. The start of this year was hectic as people were shuffled round and tried in different combinations. But from that, lines have been formed that for the most part stay together.
Also, special teams have some consistancy to them. Last year was a case of just getting everyone involved and hoping someone struck form. There were a few players who could be counted on, but the other places were revolving doors. This year, we have a bunch of dedicated PK'ers who always get the call and have proven their quality. On the PP, for the most part its the same guys, but if someone is in form, they will get a look in. Sure beats the sight of Dagenais on the point last year, giving the puck away at their blueline and diving to try and reach the puck when he was the last man back. The PP still struggles this year (they run hot and cold, mainly cold) but the PK has been fantastic. So what with all the opportunities for special teams these days, its good for the team to know that they can get the job done.
As far as coaching, a number of people weren't too impressed by Don Lever last year, myself included. But I've heard a few things from the press this year that suggest the people who matter are happy with him and others have been impressed with the way he is doing things. More recently, I have to give him credit for getting the team to play so well. The players deserve a lot of credit, but the coaches do too. Hopefully they continue to get the best out of the boys. Which leads to...
Players. An improvement here over last season and no mistake. The youngsters joining the team, although being quiet at times (which should be expected) are playing well, if not better. The veterans from previous seasons are playing better and having more of an impact on the team. And the new guys brought in are working hard and at least having success defensively, if not offensively. The goaltending situation is a lot more stable now, the defense is nicely stacked with depth and a nice mixture of youth and experience (and that's not including guys yet to return like Archer and Sanford). And up front, things are starting to click. There is a nice mixture of speed, skill, strength, grit, youth and experience and they are pulling together and becoming a team. On any given night, any forward line can provide some offense and they will stick up for each other too.
So overall, the biggest differences are that Hamiltons players are in Hamilton and that they either are or now have better players. There are still issues for the team to work on (the PP, getting the puck out of their zone, not being beaten round the outside as much) and they could still take a few less penalties, although they are much improved over last years bunch of penalty box addicts. But things are looking up. They can play well. They can overcome problems they are faced with. And they really want to be good and get better. Which didn't always appear to be the case last year.
This was my first game watching my favorite prospect Grabovski in the AHL and i wasnt dissapointed at all. His speed, intensity and skill are just top notch. The sportsnet play by play guy couldnt stop drooling over him. He makes Kosts and Milroy look like all stars outhere (Not that they are bad). He will win the rookie of the year in the AHL and will be the dogs top scorer at the end of the year. Future replacement of Koivu...
What a game! Chipchura was awesome all night long and nailed the GWG and the empty netter later in the 3rd, his play along the wall is very effective. Kostytsin/Grabovski were really fun to watch, they did some sick and quick passing plays the Marlies D's was stone cold.
Lapierre/Ferland were pretty good too and could be valuable sparkplugs for the Habs at this point. On D i was please with O'Byrne play he was really confident out there. D'agostini is a player too, we will see some of him in the future.
Chipchura was involved in many scoring chances but he still makes mistakes, mostly ''rookie mistakes''. Once, he lost the puck between his skates and he also lost some battles along the boards in the neutral zone, failed to clear the puck on the PK. For a two way guy, he still needs a lot of work.
Kostityn and Grabovski were impressive again. Speed and precise passes, the chemistry within those two is .
Ferland played like he should always play but as time go by, i wonder if i'll ever make it as a regular in the NHL.
O'byrne did not impress me at all. I still find him a bit shaky. He does clear the puck nicely and he does have good skating for his size, but the he hesitates to make a good clean first pass, prefering to let Cote do it. Just like Chipchura, he plays like a rookie, but I've got to admit that playing with Cote gives him a lot of icetime which can only be good for his learning curve.
Lapierre and D'agostini have not played their best game but you can see that the talent is there.
Baines played like a leader. I love this guy. He will never make it to the NHL, but I'm sure he earns some responsability in Hamilton's recent sucess.