Munce back on a high

By Holly Gunning

Ryan Munce has been on a tear lately for the ECHL Mississippi Sea Wolves, leading their resurgence back into respectability and putting them on a current five-game winning streak. It’s the exclamation point on what has been a very good year for him in both the AHL and ECHL

Munce won Goaltender of the Week for the period of Dec.31-Jan. 6.  After making 45 saves in a 5-2 win against Florida on Jan. 1, Munce started three games in three days posting a shutout and allowing only one goal in each of the other two games.

After Munce’s recent shutout of the high-offense Gwinnett Gladiators which included an early flurry of power plays against, Sea Wolves coach Steffon Walby said, “That was his best five or six minutes.  He’s had to be better in other games, he’s faced 50-some shots in games we’ve ended up winning. Every time he comes down he plays well, gives it his all.” 

Munce’s numbers in the AHL are solid too — the best among the six goaltenders who have played for the Norfolk Admirals this year with a .901 save percentage and 2.99 GAA.  Those stats were gained during Karri Ramo’s early-season high ankle sprain.

“Everything’s kind of falling into place this year,” Munce said.  “I think I’m getting a little bit of a groove.  I felt that last year I wasn’t in a groove, being traded and shipped around with the LA Kings organization.  It was a lot different for me and mentally was hard.  But this year I knew what they expected of me and it’s my contract year, so I need to play well for my next contract.”

In the first half of the 2006-07 season, Munce played for the Reading Royals behind Yukata Fukufuji, posting the worst numbers of his careeer, a 3.30 GAA and .884 save percentage in 17 games. He spent time in Manchester (the Kings’ AHL affiliate) last year, being called up twice, but did not get to play. 

Selected 82nd overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by Los Angeles, Munce played a total of a year and a half in LA’s system before being traded in January 2007 to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a fourth-round pick in the 2008 draft. 

Getting traded immediately restored some confidence, since as he said, the organization must have liked him enough to trade for him.  Getting a chance to play AHL games finally this fall was also a boost.

“When I made the team this year in the AHL, that was a huge uplifting experience for me because I had done really well in AHL camps, but because of who they wanted in the organization, they always overlooked me and sent me down,” Munce said.  “But this year, my hard work paid off and I’ve had a couple opportunities up there, a couple stints, and I’ve done well so far. But I’d like to spend more time up there and do better.” 

Meanwhile he is maintaining a good attitude.

“But as long as I’m here in the East Coast I’ll do the best I can,” he said.

That ‘best’ has him ranked first in the league in save percentage with .946, with the next closest player, Anton Khudobin (MIN) at .929.  Munce is also second in GAA with 2.05.  Both rankings include goaltenders playing over 660 minutes. Because of his time in the AHL, Munce is just over the threshold with 672 minutes played.

Munce said the level of play in the AHL was what he expected, having been to three camps now, and having backed up in Manchester last year.

“A lot more controlled, harder shots, faster pace,” he described.  “You know where it’s going to go.  But at the same time with the faster pace and harder shots, they still beat you every now and then. Obviously there’s still a learning curve that I’m going to learn once I get more games up there.”

He’s got the gear to slip right back into the lineup, having gotten his mask repainted with Admirals and Lightning colors while he was up there.  And they may call on him, if nothing else to change the mojo through a losing streak.    

Munce was having trouble with ice time in the Kings organization last year, but once he was traded, there was no less competition, since the Lightning have many young goalies in the system.  When he arrived in Johnstown last year, he had to compete with Morgan Cey and Gerald Coleman.  It hasn’t gotten much less crowded this year, with Karri Ramo a rookie and fellow 22-year-old Jonathan Boutin in the system and currently in Norfolk. 

But, with the goaltending issues the Lightning have had on the big club, there is opportunity.

“There’s opportunity to move up,” he agreed. “It’s still really tough because there’s players who they like and are high on their priority chart. Karri Ramo is an unbelievable goaltender and he’s done well at the NHL level, so he’s going to be given every opportunity.” 

Munce is in his third year of his entry contract, so he definitely has a lot to prove, but he’s still got time on his side at only 22 years old.  His NHL dreams are as strong as ever.

“I just want to take it step by step and work my way up from the East Coast to the AHL, then to the NHL,” he said.

Munce was recalled back to Norfolk on Dec. 19 when Ramo joined the Lightning squad.  There he backed up for several games, but was only thrown into one period, stopping 9 of 10 shots. 

“I did well in that period, but I never really got settled up there,” he said.  “You’re living out of a hotel and know you’re not gonna play a single game, which is pretty tough.”

Once veteran Marc Denis was assigned to Norfolk, Munce returned to Mississippi on Dec. 31. Biloxi has been home base for him since mid-November.

“Once they sent me down the first time, they told me to take everything with me and go down to the coast,” he said.  “I was pretty disappointed, but at the same time, Mississippi kind of needed me.  I made the best of the situation.”

And Biloxi is not a bad place, considering the warm weather and the casinos.

“I love it down here. Great group of guys, I hang out with them all the time,” he said.  “We’re all in the same apartment complex.  It’s a real team-bonding experience.  It’s just a lot of fun.”

Maybe it helps his play that Munce is a single guy again.

“That was a big change that happened to me, I got out of a relationship,” he said.  “So that kind of helped me also.” 

Spending his entire major junior career with the OHL Sarnia Sting, the Mississauga, ON native has played for five different pro teams in these two and a half years, but that’s the result of his NHL organizations varying their affiliates rather than any indictment of him.  The LA Kings use both Bakersfield and Reading at the ECHL level, and Tampa changed ECHL affiliates last summer, going from Johnstown to Mississippi.  

Despite all the moving around, Munce thinks his consistency has been there most of the time. 

“My first year I thought I was very consistent with the Bakersfield Condors,” he said.  “Last year I was very inconsistent because I was in and out of the lineup, I wasn’t used to being the backup, being thrown in here, up there, down here, so it was really tough for me to get in a groove.  But once I got settled in at the end of last year, I played five or six games where I really got in my groove and did really well. It was like ‘OK, so I remember how to do this’ (laughing).  Then it kind of led into this year.”

Learning ‘how to do this’ was accomplished a long time ago with the help of goalie coach Sudarshan ”Sudsie“ Maharaj.  Maharaj, a native of Trinidad who grew up in Toronto, teaches middle school children.  He works with a select few goaltenders on the side.
 
“[Maharaj] is who I credit everything to – from moving up to the OHL, and everywhere in the ranks,” Munce said.  “Anything that I’ve ever accomplished I credit to him because he developed my game into the sound positional game that it is.  He really changed me.” 

Munce has been working with Maharaj for about seven or eight years. 

“I was just playing AAA midget and he just took me on,” he said.  “At first he didn’t like what he saw and then he took me on one more time just to see.  He has a handful of guys who he picks.  He liked what he saw the next time around.  Once he started working with me more, I had an unbelievable year in my AAA midget year and then right after that jumped from midget AAA to the OHL, which is like a pretty big deal.  Everything was because of him.  He really slowed the game down and helped me out.”

Maharaj worked with Rick DiPietro while he was employed by the NY Islanders, but his No. 1 guy is Kevin Weekes, who he’s worked with for years.

Munce, a 6’2 and 185-pounder with quick reflexes, is somewhat of a rarity these days as a hybrid goaltender.

“I take pride in [being a hybrid],” he said.  “It really helps with controlling rebounds and patience.” 

Overall it’s been a career with a lot of ups and downs.  He had a dramatic rise into the OHL, and then in 2003 he helped Canada capture the gold medal at the Under-18 World Junior Championships.  He was taken relatively high in the entry draft, third round. But then he struggled in Reading, and was traded. He regained his form, and now this year, he’s playing lights-out hockey — but is still in the ECHL. 

“Yeah, it’s been tough,” he said of his career ups and downs.  “I talked to my agent about that.  You just have to keep battling through it.  I’ve looked at a lot of players who’ve had this happen to them and they’ve battled through it for as long as they can and at the end they end up making it.  So basically right now I have to do what I have to do at whatever level I have to work at.  I do well at the AHL and still get sent down.  I have to be happy about where I am and do the best I can.

“It’s one of those things what mentally you have to overcome it,” he continued.  “Once you hit that lowest low, which was last year for me – I had a big low – you realize that ‘hey, life isn’t that bad, you know?’  (laughing)  I know what the low is, all I have to do is move up from here.”