The first half of the Manchester Monarchs 2007-08 season has been one of striking inconsistency. But such is youth. Entering the season, the Monarchs boasted the most prospect-laden squad of their history and possibly the entire league. Of those on their opening night roster or injured list, 19 were property of the Los Angeles Kings as prospects, most playing in their first season of professional hockey. With little experience to the roster, most found that they would have to learn on the job, creating a rollercoaster of performance as a great cycle at one end of the ice turned to a missed defensive assignment on the other end of the ice. As a result, the Monarchs have hovered around the .500 mark in the standings, never falling far off the pace nor making headway up the standings.
The line of Gabe Gauthier, Ted Purcell and Matt Moulson has been the talk of Manchester as one of the most potent lines in the AHL. All three have been in the top ten of AHL scoring at some point during the season and Purcell remains near the top with 43 points through 33 games. The three have developed a chemistry and flow between them which resulted in a large bulk of Manchester’s scoring this season. Consequently, Gauthier and Moulson earned call-ups to Los Angeles at various points during the season. Purcell was left behind more due to this being his first professional season where he requires full-time minutes than because of not earning his keep. Lauri Tukonen and Brady Murray also took shifts on this line whenever Moulson or Gauthier were in Los Angeles.
While the top line has been dynamic, the Monarchs have greatly toiled to find secondary scoring which has resulted in their struggles to climb above .500. Trevor Lewis has looked good on everything but the score-sheet. Lewis has smooth strides that makes him look slower than he actually is until he starts flying by the opposition. His ability to pivot on a dime makes him lethal on a cycle or carrying the puck into the offensive zone. And chances are, if the Monarchs have sustained an effective cycle, it is Lewis’s line on the ice. Unfortunately, as with young teams, the line has been unable to translate an effective cycle into points, often settling for easy shots instead of working for better scoring opportunities. This has kept Lewis, Vladamir Dravecky and Brady Murray off the score-sheet and the team firing on only one piston.
In the search for secondary scoring, some have begun to rise to the top. After starting the season slow, David Meckler has emerged as a legitimate goal scoring threat from the center position. Of his 11 goals to start the season, six came on a nine-game stretch during the month of December. There is little surprise that the Monarchs’ slow climb up the standings during this month coincided with Meckler’s hot streak. His willingness to get dirty in the trenches and score a gritty goal has been exactly what the team needed and might one day lead to the new nickname of "Muck"-ler.
Marc-Andre Cliche has been used largely as a defensive stopper and has provided some good energy to the bottom line, often alongside other high-energy forwards like Petr Kanko and Matt Ryan. Kanko has been used sparingly and does not appear in Manchester’s plans despite correcting most of his off-ice issues and rededicating himself to strength and conditioning. Ryan has been steady but unspectacular. Tukonen, when not slotted into the top line due to call-ups, has been toiling on the third line with little else to speak of. Kevin Westgarth was signed to bring a physical presence to the roster and has done just that, leading the team in penalty minutes. Highly-touted Scott Parse sustained an injury in training camp and has played in only a single game after re-aggravating the injury.
The experiment of converting former center Brian Boyle to defense epitomizes the youthful inconsistency of the team. Boyle began the season on the blueline, but centered the power-play unit. But he has not looked comfortable with his defensive positioning or skating backwards. As a result, the opposition has used speed to pass Boyle on the outside, leading to break-away opportunities and a plus/minus of -10 and -13 for he and his defensive partner Peter Harrold despite their high offensive production, though it should be noted that both have spent a great deal of time on the power play as well. Due to Boyle’s slow development in learning the skating side of playing defense, he has recently shifted back to playing center full time and it appears the experiment has been placed on hiatus. As a center, Boyle has more than held his own, and in some ways, has been rejuvenated while contributing nearly a point per game and anchoring a potent power play.
While Boyle has been up and down early this season, Harrold has been contributing steadily in his second full season with Manchester. With 30 points through 32 games, Harrold is the second leading scorer on the blueline in the AHL and has been the quarterback of the highest scoring percentage power-play unit in the league. His drastic dip in plus/minus has more to do with the aforementioned woes of his partner than any deficiency in Harrold’s game. He remains the lead candidate for a defensive call-up to Los Angeles.
As settling for easy shots is one indicator of a young team, mental lapses and failing to finish games are the others. This is most apparent when looking at the rest of the blueline for the Monarchs. Mental lapses and blown defensive assignments have led to a substantial number of penalties and high quality shots on net, often turning a comfortable lead into an unexpected battle.
Richard Petiot has returned from his injuries of last season and has been eased back into the line-up. He continues to show physical play and mobility on the blueline, but is getting up in age and finds himself competing for ice time at a well-stocked position. Due to his steady style of play, Joe Piskula has required the least amount of adjusting of all the defensemen. Playing similar roles, he continues to battle Petiot for playing time but has recently suffered a hand injury allowing Petiot to step in.
Drew Bagnall also returned from an injury sustained early in the season and a short stint in Reading of the ECHL. He has been sound on the blueline but has been caught flat-footed at times, leading to some unnecessary penalties. As he is in his first professional season, Bagnall has some adjusting to do and should be showing marked improvement as the unit learns and grows together. Hersley has also struggled to find consistency on both sides of the ice and found himself in Reading of the ECHL for a stretch. Inconsistent in the defensive zone and absent offensively, Hersley was assigned to Reading in an early season shake-up of the defensive corps. But he made the most of his stay in Pennsylvania, proving to be an anchor on the blueline and once again finding his offensive stroke with 15 points in 16 games. Hersley was recalled to Manchester after Los Angeles brought up veteran defenseman Jon Klemm.
Just as Bagnall and Hersley have been traveling back and forth between Manchester and Reading, so have Jonathan Quick and Daniel Taylor in net. Both began the season in Reading, but each has been called upon by Manchester to fill holes created by injury. Quick earned the top starting job in net for Reading and jumped out to a 9-6-2 record, 2.51 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. His stay in Manchester was brief but solid before an emergency call-up to Los Angeles provided him the opportunity to make his NHL debut, starting in net for the Kings’ 8-2 rout of Buffalo on Dec. 6. After the dust settled, Quick found himself back to full-time starting duties in Reading.
Daniel Taylor has been the perennial back-up. Beginning in Reading, he posted a 2.64 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage, showing tremendous improvement over last season. But starting minutes went to Quick so Taylor has been shuttled between Reading and Manchester, wherever his back-up duties were needed most. He is currently in Manchester while veteran Dan Cloutier recovers from injury.
The Kings also have a pair of forwards who are becoming veterans of the ECHL. High-energy and penalty-kill specialist Ned Lukacevic has improved on his offensive game while in Reading and is a viable option to finish the season as a penalty-killer in Manchester should Los Angeles call-up prospected at the trading deadline. Dany Roussin is in his third season with Reading and has shown some flashes of offensive potential, but still remains an after-thought to Manchester and a miracle away from Los Angeles.