For the first time since 2006, a new face will stand behind the bench for the Manchester Monarchs. Gone is Mark Morris, accepting a job as an assistant coach for the Florida Panthers, and in comes his replacement, Mike Stothers.
Like nearly every AHL team, the Monarchs are facing a slew of changes on their roster as well. Working in their favor is having several key pieces from the team that finished first in the AHL’s Eastern Conference return this season.
In goal, last year’s biggest surprise, JF Berube, is back for his second full AHL season. After assuming the starting role from Martin Jones once the latter was called up to the NHL, Berube took the ball and ran with it, having an incredibly successful rookie year. His play was so impressive that Stothers has indicated to us that he will likely begin the season as the team’s starter.
As good as Berube was last year though, Patrik Bartosak will almost undoubtedly push him for ice time. With two goalies needing to develop, you can expect both to share the cage. Last year, Berube often found himself playing three games in three days, something Stothers does not want to see his goalie do this season. Bartosak will push and battle for everything this year, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he were to steal the starting job at some point.
The biggest competition in training camp for the team came on the blueline. With 11 defenseman competing for jobs, there assuredly wasn’t going to be room for everyone. This lead to Zac Leslie and Kurtis MacDermid being assigned to their respective junior teams, and Alex Roach starting the year in Ontario of the ECHL.
Returning on the back end are Colin Miller, Derek Forbort, Jeff Schultz, Andrew Bodnarchuk, and Vincent LoVerde, who were all regulars for Morris last season.
Also returning is Kevin Gravel, who may be the one guy to watch for during the 14-15 season. For years, Gravel and Forbort were compared and debated as to which was better. Now, the two lanky defenseman will line up next together as teammates, as Gravel fights to earn an NHL contract. We recently spoke to the St. Cloud State alum, and that interview can be found here.
Rounding out the defensive group are two young defenseman who turned heads with their stellar play during training camp in Los Angeles, Nick Ebert and Kevin Raine. Ebert will bring dynamic puck moving ability, something the Monarchs sorely lacked last season. He should also help out a powerplay that was dreadful for the majority of the year before Brayden McNabb joined the team at the trade deadline.
Up front, the team will rely on Jordan Weal to drive the offense. After an impressive 70 points in 76 games last year, it isn’t hard to say that Weal will be the catalyst for an offensive group that may lack some true top end talent.
Behind Weal, the Monarchs should have solid play from their remaining centers, as Nick Shore returns for a 2nd season with the team and Nic Dowd should greatly benefit from the experience he gained from being with the team to end last season. What’s more, Andrew Crescenzi, who struggled after coming over to the team in a trade for Brandon Kozun from Toronto last January, had an impressive showing in training camp and the preseason, and could be the solid 4th line center the team expects him to be.
Left wing will be an issue for Stothers, as outside of Michael Mersch, there is a clear lack of depth and talent at the position. David Van Der Gulik should provide veteran experience and solid all around play, while Josh Gratton will assume the departed Andy Andreoff’s role, providing physical play and standing up for teammates.
On the right side, the extremely versatile Brian O’Neill returns and should be a lock to play on the top line next to Weal. After joining the team on a tryout from Ontario, Zach O’Brien earned himself a contract with the team this year, and should take a step forward offensively. After a tough rookie campaign, Scott Sabourin should continue to develop into a tough winger who can also contribute offensively at times. One of the surprises to come from training camp was Justin Auger, who had the distinct possibility of playing out his overage season in juniors. While still very raw, Auger’s size is an attractive option for a team that features several players considered small by today’s standards.
Rounding out the roster are Vincent Arseneau, versatile forward Sean Backman, and rookie Ryan Horvat. Backman can and likely will find himself playing up and down the lineup in many different positions, something that is greatly beneficial to a team that dealt with a slew of injuries during the previous season.
After six seasons with the team, captain Andrew Campbell has moved on, signing a contract with the Arizona Coyotes organization. While a captain has still yet to be named, you can expect O’Neill to wear the C for the team after being an alternate captain to Campbell last season. The former Yale Bulldog leads by example and is a well spoken, well respected member in the locker room, as indicated by JF Berube to us earlier in the summer.
Rounding out the leadership group, Andrew Bodnarchuk will be an assistant captain, while Jeff Schultz or any of the other veterans should wear the other A.
Finishing first in your conference is never an easy feat, something this team knows after doing so during the 2013-14 campaign. Can this team repeat as Eastern Conference champions? Likely, the team will take a step back, as there will be growing pains playing under a new coach and not having Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, or Linden Vey at all this year will certainly not help. The team has solid defense and very good goaltending, but producing goals may be an issue for Stothers’ team.
To make Stothers’ job easier, here are our projected lines:
Michael Mersch – Jordan Weal – Brian O’Neill
David Van Der Gulik – Nick Shore – Zach O’Brien
Ryan Horvat – Nic Dowd – Justin Auger
Sean Backman – Andrew Crescenzi – Scott Sabourin
Vincent Arseneau – Josh Gratton
Jeff Schultz – Colin Miller
Derek Forbort – Nick Ebert
Kevin Gravel – Vincent LoVerde
Andrew Bodnarchuk* – Kevin Raine
*Andrew Bodnarchuk is week to week with a knee injury suffered during Kings training camp. Once he returns to the lineup, he should be next to Vincent LoVerde once again, as the duo were first and second in plus/minus rating league wide last year.
Note to webmasters/reporters: When recapping news or interviews from this site please remember to include a link to www.MayorsManor.com