The following article was prepared by Andy Tonge, who is based in New Hampshire and will serve as our AHL correspondent throughout the season. Although his primary focus will be weekly coverage of the Manchester Monarchs, he’ll also be sharing notes, quotes and observations related to other top prospects playing in the AHL.
Starting the season with an extended schedule of road games can be a daunting task, just ask the New York Rangers.
However, the Manchester Monarchs made it look fairly easy this month, jumping out to a 3-0-0-2 record heading into their home debut on Saturday night. After dropping their opening contest 3-2, the first of five straight on the road, Manchester came back and won the next two games, also by a score of 3-2. Curiously, all three games were decided via a shootout. Last weekend, they completed the stretch with a 3-0 victory in Bridgeport and a 4-3 shootout loss in Hartford.
Much of the credit for the hot start lies with goaltender Martin Jones. He has started all five games for the team and has been stellar to date. His 3-0 record, 1.27 goals against average, and .956 save percentage earned him the honors of being named AHL player of the week for the week ending October 13. Jones will be crucial for the Monarchs success this season. As a fourth-year pro, he’ll look to take the next step in his development towards becoming an NHL goaltender. Backing him up will be the fundamentally solid JF Berube, making the jump to the AHL after spending the past two seasons in Ontario of the ECHL.
One of the bigger question marks for the Monarchs coming into this year was on defense. After losing Thomas Hickey to waivers in January, David Kolomatis to free agency this summer, and Jake Muzzin to the NHL, Manchester was only left with four returning defenseman. Of those four, only Andrew Campbell, Andrew Bodnarchuk, and Vincent LoVerde returned to the position full-time, as Nick Deslauriers has been used quite a bit at left wing, thus far.
Joining the team on the blueline are rookies Derek Forbort and Colin Miller, as well as veteran Jeff Schultz. Through the early stretch of the schedule, the defense had allowed an average of 31 shots per game, a number they’ll surely want to lower as the season moves on.
While there may be concern over having three rookie blue liners, head coach Mark Morris seems more concerned with the type of defenseman on his team. “I think that we have a lot more defensive-defenseman right now. I think the biggest concern is we don’t have a whole lot of offensive defenseman,” he said.
While some players do possess a good two-way game, the only two true puck movers last season were Deslauriers and the departed Kolomatis. Players such as Forbort and Miller, solid two-way players, will likely be asked to play a more offensive role to fill the void. A first round pick at the 2010 NHL Draft, Forbort has shown that he may be one to contribute from the blueline, as he picked up a Gordie Howe hat trick in just the second game of the year. Meanwhile, the smooth skating Miller picked up his first professional goal in his fifth game of the year.
Up front, the Monarchs look poised to have a lethal offense. Returning is the top line from last season, consisting of left wing Tanner Pearson, center Linden Vey, and right wing Tyler Toffoli. Although Toffoli spent a good portion of last year in Los Angeles, he’s motivated and ready to build off a season in which he was named the AHL Rookie of the Year.
“I think you want to be the best player in the league,” Toffoli remarked. “I just want to beat my numbers [from] last year and help the team win games.”
His return means the Monarchs have their best player back, a player who would have made the majority of NHL teams to start this season. And picking up right where he left off in the AHL, Toffoli leads the team in goals and points – for now. It’s still early, and a call-up to the Kings is expected in the not-too-distant future.
Behind the top trio, the Monarchs have plenty of talent to round out the roster. Forward Brandon Kozun, one of Manchester’s most consistent scorers the past three seasons, is off to a hot start, as he sits third on the team with four points to date. Fellow forward Jordan Weal, coming off an impressive training camp in LA, has notched three points in the team’s five games. Should a player from the top line be summoned to the NHL, look for Morris to move Weal or Kozun into the open spot.
Adding to the forward depth are rugged players Andy Andreoff and Scott Sabourin, as well as two-way center Nick Shore. While being held pointless so far, a player like Shore is sure to help the team’s penalty kill and contribute to the game outside of the score sheet. Rounding out the roster are Robert Czarnick, Sean Backman, Hunter Bishop, and Brian O’Neill.
After sitting out the team’s first four games, Max Kitsyn finally drew in to action for the Monarchs last time out. The 2010 draft pick finished up his deal in the KHL this past year and was signed to a three-year Entry Level Contract this summer. Transitioning from the European game to play in North America is difficult, a challenge Kitsyn knows he has to conquer.
“First of all, I have to understand tactics and how the Kings organization plays, the way they play [is the] same way they play here in Manchester,” Kitsyn remarked. Once he is well adjusted and understands the system, look for Kitsyn to be an impact player, just like he was during a brief stint in the OHL back in 2011.
On Friday, Campbell was named team captain. Vey and Bodnarchuk will serve as alternates.
The Monarchs home opener is against the Providence Bruins, who are led by top scorer Ryan Spooner and promising goalie prospect Niklas Svedberg. MayorsManor will have video highlights and post-game notes up following the action on Saturday night.
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