Prior to the 2015-16 season, hockey fans in Hamilton, Ontario had been keeping tabs on the myriad rumors about getting an NHL team. There was the apparent near-relocation of the Nashville Predators to the Ontario city in 2007, and more recently, there was talk that a prospective owner would put in a bid to get an expansion team in Hamilton. Each time, fans got excited and then quickly disappointed as their hopes were squandered, leaving them with their AHL club, the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Minor league hockey did not really suit the hockey-crazed city of over 500,000, especially considering that it was the nearby Toronto Maple Leafs’ arch-rival Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate; they craved something better–something they could really get behind, really identify with, something totally original. And in 2015, they got their wish when the Ontario Hockey League franchise, the Belleville Bulls, relocated to Hamilton, retaining the Bulldogs name.
It was a tough inaugural season for the club. The Bulldogs finished in the bottom-four of the league, reserved for non-playoff teams as the other 16 OHL clubs take part in the postseason. They came fairly close, finishing just four points behind the eighth-seed Oshawa Generals in a relatively weak Eastern Conference. They weren’t without their bright spots either, and that has fans excited for what next season will bring.
One of the younger teams in the OHL, the Bulldogs’ core for next year looks to be sensational. Matthew Strome, the first-ever draft pick of the Bulldogs franchise (eighth overall in 2015), is coming off an impressive rookie season in which he scored 38 points (16G, 22A) in 61 games. With the same kind of pure leadership both on and off the ice that his brothers Ryan and Dylan demonstrated during their time in the OHL, the youngest of three Strome brothers looks to lead his team to the playoffs in his sophomore major junior campaign.
“I think he has a maturity beyond his years,” now-former Bulldogs head coach and general manager George Burnett said in November of the rookie forward. “He captained the best team in the province last year with the [Toronto Marlboros] and there are a lot of the things that we liked about him – that he did understand the game and what he might lack. He’s a winner and we need more of them like that.”
Hamilton will also be getting slightly more experienced veterans in Matt Luff and Trent Fox back next year, each of whom scored 50 points or more to secure the top two spots on the Bulldogs scoring leaders list in 2015-16. But perhaps the biggest wild-card is Brandon Saigeon. From nearby Grimsby, the 2014 fourth overall pick in the OHL Priority Selection Draft was touted as a future top-10 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft when he was beginning his major junior hockey career.
After a decent rookie season, the centerman was supposed to break-out in his draft year. He would never reach expectations though, as a season-ending injury stopped him just as he got going after a slow start to the season. Saigeon finished the regular season with just four goals and 10 assists in 43 games; but just before he went down with injury, he began to find success as the team’s second-line center.
Depending on where Saigeon is in his recovery at the start of the 2016-17 OHL season will determine what role he will play. Whether he will start where he left off at second-line center or if he will be promoted to first-line duties. But either way, he is going to have a huge challenge in Connor Roberts, the Bulldogs’ third overall pick at this year’s 2016 draft.
Currently listed at 6-foot-3, 209 lbs., the Owen Sound native put up fairly high numbers as the captain of his minor midget hockey team this past season. Looking for another top-six center to fill the void left by Stephen Harper’s mid-season departure, Hamilton is expecting Roberts to step in right away and exceed their tempered expectations.
“We have been watching Connor closely all season and are thrilled to call his name as the third overall pick,” team president and general manager Steve Staios said following last month’s draft. “Connor Roberts has all the attributes and character that we hold in high regard at the Hamilton Bulldogs and he will be a big part of our organization moving forward.”
With a core three of Strome, Saigeon and Roberts, in addition to Fox, Luff and a relatively young, stud-filled defense, look for the Hamilton Bulldogs to become the OHL’s biggest surprise next season.