A year ago at this time, the Hamilton Bulldogs were a quarter of the way through an improbable playoff run that culminated with a stunning upset of the favoured Soo Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League championship series.
This time around, Hamilton did not make it out of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs as the no. 8 seed Bulldogs were swept aside by the no. 1 seed Ottawa 67s in a spring cleaning that took only four games.
Still, of the four Canadian Hockey League teams that made it to last May’s Memorial Cup tournament, Hamilton was the only one to make the playoffs this season.
To be sure, the price of going for it all last season and the rebuild that followed meant missing the playoffs this season for the Memorial Cup champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League as well as the Western Hockey League champion Swift Current Broncos and the host Regina Pats from the WHL.
And though Hamilton did make the playoffs only to exit in the first round, the fall from a 93-point season in 2018-2019 to a 63-point term in 2017-2018 was a design of sorts by Bulldogs president and general manager Steve Staios.
As the 2018-2019 season progressed and it became apparent that the Hamilton was not going to get 19-year old star center Robert Thomas back from the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League or overage goalie Kaden Fulcher back from the Detroit Red Wings farm system, Staios put a for sale sign on a number of Bulldog standouts who are in their final season in the OHL.
Staios was able to recover and add on to the number of future draft picks that he dealt for Thomas et al in 2017-2018 by dealing defensemen Jack Hanley and Nicolas Mattinen and star forwards Brandon Saigeon and Mackenzie Entwistle from last year’s championship team for a return that included five second-round picks and five third-round picks.
As he is known as someone who thinks outside the box, Staios did just that over the course of this season as he also exchanged a second round pick, two thirds and a fourth to acquire a pair of 2001 birth year skaters with potential and promise in forward Tag Bertuzzi and defenseman Payton Vescio.
While the jury is out on Bertuzzi, who played only one game for Hamilton and got injured after being acquired from the Guelph Storm, Vescio recovered from an injury of his own and skated in 16 games for the Bulldogs after being obtained from his hometown North Bay Battalion.
Vescio, a former fourth-round pick of the Battalion from the North Bay Trappers of the Great North Midget Hockey League, is a medium-sized, puck-moving, right-hand shot defender who possesses what coaches, general managers and scouts refer to as a “high hockey IQ.”
At any rate, as Hamilton is one year removed from that spectacular playoff march of a year ago and having just completed a rebuild season, the Bulldogs are in a state of assembly that could see them return to contender status sooner than later.
2001 birth year forward Arthur Kaliyev, who hails from Staten Island, New York of all places, has scored 82 goals in two seasons since Staios snagged the gunslinger in the second round of the 2017 OHL priority selections draft.
Kaliyev has two full seasons of OHL eligibility remaining (not including an overage campaign) and is destined for more scoring in Hamilton as is 2002 birth year forward Logan Morrison, who tallied 14 goals in just 47 games in 2018-2019 after the Bulldogs took him in the first round of the 2018 draft.
The Bulldogs also have a good goalie in place in Zachary Roy, a 2001 birth-year youngster who as a rookie in 2018-2019, posted a record of 20-18-3 on a Hamilton team that finished below .500 with a 29-34-5 mark.
By the way, Roy and the aforementioned Vescio are two of three North Bay area products on the Bulldogs, 2000 birth-year defenseman Jake Gravelle being the other.
Gravelle is another example of how Staios thinks outside the box.
Despite having a full-core, veteran-laden defense on the championship team of last season, Staios went out and picked up the seldom-used Gravelle from the Mississauga Steelheads in a no-risk trade that was designed for this season and next.
Gravelle had been a lowly, 12th-round pick of Mississauga in 2016 but Staios saw something in him and acquired the steady defender as blue-line depth and insurance for a 12th-round selection at this year’s draft.
Now, as Hamilton prepares for this Saturday’s OHL priority selections draft, one has to wonder if Staios will again be thinking and looking outside the proverbial box.
We’ll soon find out.