On the Eve of a New SeasonBy: Mitch Peacock | Published: October 4th 2018
The American Hockey League is a fascinating loop to follow. The player development pipeline for hockey’s best league features plenty of talented pros on their way to the NHL, and 31 teams determined to take a shot at the Calder Cup while grooming the stars of tomorrow.
What will 2018-19 bring for the Winnipeg Jets’ AHL outfit?
Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure after last year – more of the same would be just fine.
SEASON TO REMEMBER
Before a look at this season’s edition of the Moose, let’s take a quick review of a memorable 2017-18. The team returned to the playoffs for the first time since they reached the post season as the St John’s IceCaps in 2014.
The Moose of a season ago not only spent months atop the Central Division – they led the AHL’s overall standings at mid-season with a club record .724 points percentage.
Along the way, the Jets’ affiliate managed some dazzling runs including 16 consecutive games without a regulation time loss (15-0-0-1), 14 straight without dropping the full two points on the road, and a baker’s dozen without being held pointless on home ice.
Despite injuries and call-ups slowing the drive in the second half of the season, the Moose were in the hunt for first-place in the hyper-competitive Central Division until the final week of the schedule. Undeterred by having to settle for third-place, Manitoba bounced the defending Calder Cup champions in Grand Rapids in a winner-take-all fifth game in Michigan before bowing out to a powerful Rockford side in the Central Final.
That’s only the team part of the story. There has been plenty to report on the player development front according to general manager Craig Heisinger.
“Lots of the young players are having an impact. Either with the Jets or, after a year or two, having very good camps and pushing for spots. Whether that’s this year or next year.”
In all, eight players suited up for both the Moose and Jets last season as both teams made noise beyond the regular season.
While Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, and Tucker Poolman spent significant time with the big club, goalies Eric Comrie and Michael Hutchinson also saw time in NHL nets. Rookie defender Sami Niku made his NHL debut, and forwards Brendan Lemieux and Nic Petan also contributed up top.
All of that without mentioning Mason Appleton was named AHL rookie of the year, Niku earned top defenceman honours, and head coach Pascal Vincent was selected as the League’s top coach.
“It was a great year from an individual perspective last year, and lots of guys got individual accolades based on that,” said Heisinger in a recent chat at Bell MTS Iceplex. “But all three guys who got accolades, including Pascal, were benefactors of everybody’s collective work and we’ll have the same success – maybe more – if that same collaborative effort is there.”
Following the lead of the parent team, the Moose are putting all of that success in perspective heading in to the new season.
In other words, that was then – this is now.
Sure there were plenty of positives to enjoy, but every day is a new day and the work to prove yourself starts over again as the new schedule opens.
As is often the case, teams at this level lose a bunch of players over the summer, and the Moose are no exception as new opportunities came along for some and others simply moved on.
Captain Patrice Cormier, one of the great leaders the club has had, is now with Astana of the KHL, top goal-getter Buddy Robinson is plying his trade in the Flames organization, defensive stalwart Julian Melchiori is now with the Florida Panthers organization, tone-setting winger Darren Kramer has moved on to life after hockey – and that’s a fraction of the list of departures.
“No Cormier, no Kramer that’s a hole on the ice. But it’s a bigger hole around your players – in the dressing room – and I’m sure there’s lots of people who think we overblow the value of having quality people around your young guys, or in the dressing room, but it’s not overblown,” adds Heisinger with conviction. “You need those quality people.”
Of course, all of that change is part of the process of re-shaping a club to continue to work towards its goals and there are holdovers and new faces ready to shine.
From fourth-year pro Eric Comrie in goal, to the likes of Sami Niku, Cam Schilling, Peter Stoykewych, and Nelson Nogier make up key parts of the rear-guard. There’s no shortage of name recognition up front with sophomore Mason Appleton, along with heart-and-soul winger JC Lipon.
Add on newcomers with NHL experience like versatile point-producer Seth Griffith, all-business winger Tye McGinn, Swedish international Dennis Everberg, and ex-Duck Nic Kerdiles and you get the sense the Moose will be a handful.
Second-year pros Michael Spacek – he of the Moose rookie record 10 power play goals a year ago – and Jansen Harkins will be looked to for continued growth and increased contributions too.
Then, factor in fresh faces like Jets’ first rounder Logan Stanley, junior scoring standout Skyler McKenzie, Hobey Baker finalist C.J. Suess, and under-the-radar gem Kristian Reichel and there’s plenty to get excited about.
In fairness, that’s not everyone on the roster. Every season features players adding new elements to their games and climbing the ladder.
In the end, whether you’re a fan or part of the organization, it’s about sticking to the process and enjoying the journey.
Or in the words of the GM, “You want to be competitive, you want to work hard, and you want to see guys improve and if you do that you should be okay.”
PATH TO THE POST-SEASON
When it comes to the path the Moose will take as they work towards another playoff appearance, they can count on eight showdowns apiece against division rivals – Chicago, Grand Rapids, and Milwaukee and the same number versus new Central foes Texas and San Antonio. The schedule also calls for four meetings with Rockford and Iowa to round out the 48 games within the division.
As for the rest of the AHL, the Moose play Pacific clubs San Diego, Bakersfield, Stockton, and expansion side Colorado four times each.
On top of that Western Conference slate, Manitoba crosses-over to face fellow Canadian outfits in Laval, Belleville, and Toronto once again. With four contest versus each of the Canadiens’, Senators’, and Leafs’ affiliates, the Moose reach the 76 game mark. It’s a workload they hope will yield enough points to make another thrilling visit to the post-season.
The journey starts in Des Moines Friday night and Sunday afternoon, before the highly-anticipated home opener against the aforementioned Belleville Senators Friday, October 12.