Hamilton Bulldogs making ‘win now’ moves in pursuit of Memorial Cup

Growing up in the Hamilton area, Nicholas Caamano remembers watching the Bulldogs win an American Hockey League championship in 2007. He wants to bring another major hockey title to his hometown by capping his junior career with a Memorial Cup.

The 19-year-old Caamano, from Ancaster, Ont., was dealt to the Ontario Hockey League’s Bulldogs in November by the Flint Firebirds in a trade that signals that Hamilton is all-in this season.

“It’s definitely nice coming home, especially to Hamilton, they’re building something special here so it’s definitely nice to be a part of it,” said Caamano, a Dallas Stars prospect. “I actually used to have season tickets so I used to go quite a bit with dad. It’s definitely nice to be home and hopefully we can win a championship here.”

Hamilton also acquired 20-year-old Ryan Moore in the trade, which reunited the forwards with former Firebirds linemate Will Bitten and coach John Gruden. Moore and Caamano joined a core that includes Flyers draft pick Matthew Strome, centre Brandon Saigeon and Detroit Red Wings goaltending prospect Kaden Fulcher.

Hamilton (18-7-6) was already first in the Ontario Hockey League’s Eastern Conference and second to only the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the league before making the deal. In six games since the trade, the Bulldogs are 4-1-1 and have been recognized in the CHL Top 10 rankings twice.

“I think it sends the message that, ‘Hey, this team is ready to win’,” said Gruden. “We’ve got work to do, but getting two good players like that is definitely going to help our chances.”

Moves like the one made by general manager Steve Staios last month are made to fulfil a promise made to Bitten when the team acquired him. The Habs prospect requested a trade from Flint in the summer of 2016 following a disastrous 2015-16 season.

Now the 19-year-old Ottawa-born forward is hoping the team can improve on last season’s first round playoff exit.

“That was a big part of why I came here,” he said. “Steve told me we were going to go for it. This could be my last year, I want to be in Laval next year for the Rockets and the AHL so I just want to play really well and hopefully go for a long playoff run.

“We have to make big trades like that ‘cause we know next year we’ll be a little bit younger. It’s a sign that we’re going for it. I don’t know if that’s going to be the last trade so we’re just pretty excited.”

Bitten, the Canadiens third-round pick (70th overall) in 2016, has plenty of motivation this season. Not only was he part of the fiasco in Flint two seasons ago, but last week he was left off Team Canada’s selection camp roster for the upcoming world junior championship in Buffalo.

“Yeah, obviously (that’s a motivator),” said Bitten who has nine goals and 31 points in 31 games this season. “I’ll be classy about it, they picked a really good team. Our age group is really good and I wish ‘em the best, but I think I played pretty well so far this year. Just try to take it one game at a time and try to prove people wrong every game.”

The re-tooled Bulldogs are now looking to improve on last season’s 33-27-8 record. Hamilton finished as the fifth seed in the conference and took Kingston to seven games in the first round of the playoffs before losing in overtime in the deciding game.

With the January trade deadline fast approaching, Gruden is confident playing out the season with the current group assembled in Hamilton.

“I’m happy with this group. We’ve got a good No. 1 in Kaden Fulcher, we have six defencemen, (Justin) Lemcke is out right now, but seven defencemen that can all play,” Gruden said. “We’re very deep up front; we’ve got guys that can beat you different ways. Our special teams continue to get better so I really like our team dynamic.”

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