With the Manchester Monarchs losing four incredibly key players to NHL call-ups, you would expect that the team would struggle this year with a lack of scoring or depth. However, with several new players and old role players stepping up, the Monarchs have remained an incredibly competitive hockey team and sit atop the AHL's Eastern Conference.
With the Los Angeles Kings calling on top players Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Linden Vey, and goaltender Martin Jones, the Monarchs have shown they are more than a one line team. The organization has received strong performances from the likes of sophomore Jordan Weal and old stand-bys like Brandon Kozun and Andrew Campbell. They have also seen a slew of production and performance from new faces like Scott Sabourin and Derek Forbort.
With the AHL season in full swing, the Monarchs look to be one of the strongest teams going right now. They do not have a ton of high draft picks on the squad, but they are making it work via collective effort.
Martin Jones, G, 23
With the injury sustained to King starter Jonathan Quick, Martin Jones was recalled from the AHL back in early November to back up Ben Scrivens. The call-up was one of inevitability, as Jones has been one of the many reasons the Monarchs have had success and were again starting strong in 2013-14. Since his call-up to the NHL, Jones has gone 8-1 with three shutouts and an amazing .953 save percentage. He is proving that his calm and collected style is not just one that can dominate AHL games. Jones, who at one point was sitting behind a hot Ben Scrivens in LA, has now wrestled the starting job away from the veteran and does not look to be giving it back any time soon. Jones has also faced some very strong teams and come away victorious, including San Jose, Anaheim, Montreal, and Toronto.
While consistency has always been the main issue for young Martin Jones, he looked to turn a corner this year to start the season with the Monarchs. In his 13 starts with Manchester, he only had three games on the year where his save percentage dropped below .900. While he will likely be returned to Manchester when Jonathan Quick gets healthy, no doubt Jones has made a strong case for himself so far as a potential NHL goaltender with his play in 2013-14.
Jean-Francois Berube, G, 22
Picking up where Martin Jones left off is former 2009 fourth-round pick J.F. Berube. With Jones up in the NHL, Berube has started to see his first real taste of consistent AHL action. He has had some bumps in the road but overall Berube has put in some strong work in his time as a number-one starter. While some early December hiccups have brought his numbers down a bit, Berube had a strong November, going 6-1-1 and holding a .932 save percentage and 1.98 goals against average. He has been facing an average of around 29 shots a night between the pipes for Manchester, where he will continue to get work as long as Jones is with the big club. With a lack of consistent playing time being the only true knock on the butterfly goalie, he has finally settled into a decent workload with the Monarchs, which will hopefully pay dividends towards his long-term development.
Nicolas Deslauriers, LW, 22
If there is one player to circle on the Manchester roster as having a turn-around, career-altering season, it is Nicolas Deslauriers. The 2009 third-round selection was having an immense amount of trouble the last two years in the AHL adjusting his free-flying and puck-carrying style to the Monarchs blue line. A switch to left wing this offseason, however, has reinvented the young St. Anicet, Quebec native. With much less pressure put on the naturally talented Deslauriers in terms of defensive responsibility, he seems to have flourished as a hard-hitting power forward who also has some true goal-scoring touch. He is on pace to blow away his AHL totals from previous years with 20 points in 33 games while only being a minus-one rating. He also leads the Monarchs in shots (120, also tied for the league lead) by almost double the next forward, which points to his simple yet aggressive style.
Always considered one of the Kings most naturally gifted prospects, it has taken some time for the Kings and Deslauriers to figure out how he can be best used. With this move to a forward position, it looks like he has truly re-established himself as one of the more promising King prospects with a legitimate future.
Tanner Pearson, LW, 21
With injuries hampering the Kings, Pearson got a small window of opportunity to come up and play at the NHL. After a strong start at the AHL level in his sophomore season it was deserved that Pearson was called up for a cup of coffee at some point this season. While his strong, grind-it-out style, had him holding 11 points in 15 games with the Monarchs it was clear that in his six game call-up with the Kings he was not quite physically ready to handle consistent NHL play. However, he did show a strong work ethic and a decent nose for the net. He was able to pot his first NHL goal in the call-up and had several good opportunities for more before being sent back down to the AHL. Pearson is right on the cusp of being an NHL player and still has a few things to work on, but you can already see how the 21-year-old fits the mold of the Kings’ style. With his young age, the Kings can afford to let him marinate in the minors for now and develop that consistent level of play, which will push him over the top and into the NHL for good.
Since returning to the AHL, Pearson has not missed a beat. In his last 10 games, he has six points and four goals, including his first career AHL hat trick against Bridgeport on December 15th.
Maxim Kitsyn, LW, 22
The eagerly awaited return of Maxim Kitsyn to North American hockey has been met with mixed reviews. The big Russian has returned after two years in the KHL, and while he does not look to have regressed at all in terms of his development, he does not seem to have improved either. He is still a strong possession player and likes to use his body, but his skating needs work as does his confidence. Kitsyn is relatively snake bitten this season and has three goals, one assist in his 18 games with the Monarchs so far. He has done the right thing on many occasions though by getting to the front of the net and trying to pick up trash, but he just has not been rewarded for it. As long as he continues to get to high scoring areas, Kitsyn is sure to be rewarded. It definitely has been a tough rookie AHL season so far for Kitsyn.
Brandon Kozun, RW, 23
Not surprisingly, Brandon Kozun is again one of the offensive leaders for the Manchester Monarchs in 2013-14. His 24 points in 32 games is second on the team, and the now three-year veteran of the Monarchs has taken the reins when the team has needed him most.
Due to the absence of the entire top line of the Monarchs, Kozun has moved up on the depth chart. With an increase in minutes, the 23-year-old scored at a point per game pace in the month of November before hitting a cold spell in early December. The diminutive forward continues to show strong offensive skills and value in all situations. At this point you, Kozun is a likely first call-up for any hole in right wing at the NHL level given his continuously clutch and consistent play at the AHL. Whether that comes to fruition or not remains to be seen, however.
Scott Sabourin, RW, 21
Sabourin was an absolute beast in preseason with the Kings and was one of the last cuts from training camp. Afterwards he hit a bit of a confidence lull and was visibly struggling to keep up with the speed of the game. However, after just two points in his first 11 games and several healthy scratches, the big-bodied Sabourin has gotten back up to speed. He has picked up 14 points in 23 games from November to December and is back to being a physically imposing player who can also punish you on the score sheet.
Sabourin has risen rather quickly from a 2011-12 season with Oshawa that saw him post just 19 points in 55 games, and there was concern that his 50 point final OHL season was in part due to being older and bigger than his competition. However, with an AHL scoring pace of around 40 points it looks like the development of Sabourin was not a fluke. If he can keep it up, Sabourin is an ideal third or fourth line player with size and skill.
Brian O’Neill, RW, 25
A lot of folks may not know Yale grad Brian O’Neill, but he has been integral in keeping the Monarchs among the top of the AHL despite losing some noteworthy players to call-ups and injuries. With seven goals, O’Neill is currently tied for fifth on the team, having played just 19 games on the season. That is nearly half as many as the Monarch regulars have played.
O’Neill, a diminutive figure at 5’9, has seen his role increase from fourth line to third line and even second line at times for coach Mark Morris. He has also logged some minutes on the teams penalty kill and has been a valuable asset in the absence of Linden Vey. With Vey returning to the team for the time being, it will be interesting to see how O’Neill’s usage adjusts. However, he has had a strong start to his second full year of pro hockey.
Nick Shore, C, 21
In short, Nick Shore has struggled thus far in his rookie pro season. While he was one of the more impressive players in training camp, and amongst the final cuts to the NHL roster, Shore has had a letdown since. He also suffered through a month long injury suffered in mid-November. However, towards the end of December Shore put together undoubtedly his best stretch of AHL hockey. He had six points in four games, including his first multipoint effort against the Portland Pirates with a goal and two assists. Before that run, Shore had just five points in his previous 19 games. He is now second on Monarchs in rookie scoring with 11 points in 25 games and tied for third overall with a plus-10 rating.
Shore has been looked upon as a strong candidate for a shutdown center role in the future, and these offensive struggles are to be expected with the transition from NCAA hockey to AHL. Shore relies on reads, intelligent play, and excellent face-off abilities. All of these aspects of the game are ramped up once you hit the pro level and a steep learning curve is to be expected. With a few months under his belt, hopefully Shore can build on the experience and continue to grow as an all-around, two-way center.
Jordan Weal, C, 21
If there has been a hero on the season thus far, it has been Jordan Weal, who has had to step into the role of the team’s top centerman while Vey was called up to the NHL. With Vey returning in mid-December, it will be interesting to see how Weal readjusts. While the size is always a factor with Weal, the hustle and offensive skills that he has brought to the table this year have been key in his team-leading 25 points in 33 games. He has slowed a little bit in the month of December along with the Monarchs power play, but his 12 points in 12 November games was a boon to the somewhat star-less Monarchs.
Weal has played a lot of time with Kozun, who is similar in size and skill set, and Deslauriers. The chemistry between the three has been apparent, as Deslauriers has acted as a wrecking ball to open up the ice for his smaller and more agile linemates. With all three finding the stat column, and Kozun and Deslauriers finding the net, Weal has had an extremely productive season so far being the set-up man on the line. He will almost certainly blow away his point totals from his rookie season in the AHL, and with more seasoning could blow away the idea that his size will hold him back at the next level.
Andy Andreoff, C, 22
Andreoff took significant strides last season from start to finish, and it looks like he is picking up where he left off last season. While an extreme amount of production should not be expected, Andreoff does have some skill and his 13 points in 33 games speaks to that. Maybe the most important aspect of Andreoff’s game though is the energy and the way he traverses the line between helping and hurting his team.
Andreoff loves to chirp, loves to hit, and loves to stand up for his teammates. With 66 penalty minutes and a handful of fighting majors on the season already, Andreoff likes to make his presence felt. He has not been in too much trouble so far with penalties outside of fighting, which is good. He has also logged power play and shorthanded time, which adds to his versatility. Morris has leaned on Andreoff this year to play in many different situations and Andreoff has done well. He continues to be an intriguing bottom line option in the future for the Kings, especially if he continues to blend together all-around play and agitating energy.
Robert Czarnik, C, 23
There is no question Czarnik has lost some of the offensive prowess and confidence he had during his 23-point rookie campaign. Last season he also looked out of sorts at time and ended up somewhat of a disappointment all things considered. However, Czarnik has been quietly valuable on the team’s bottom lines with the slew of injuries that have hit the Monarchs. While five points in 25 games is nothing to write home about, it is certainly above the level of his sophomore season and more in line with his rookie year. Czarnik is in a bit of a pinch though, as he is in the final year of his entry-level deal. He needs to prove he can be more than just a ten-point, bottom-line forward. He is having a decent season, a quietly effective season, and that could be enough to warrant him at least a qualifying offer in this upcoming offseason.
Derek Forbort, D, 21
If there is one position that has been filled with relatively new faces for the Monarchs it has been the defensive corps. Amongst those new faces is Derek Forbort, the former University of North Dakota skater. Forbort has been solid as well to boot. While he has not had an immense amount of responsibility laid on his doorstep, he has been asked to be a consistent performer in both ends of the ice and he has done just that. When you look up and down the depth chart for the Monarchs and see ECHL call-ups like Vincent LoVerde and Cameron Burt along with the rookie Colin Miller, you would expect Forbort to be a player called upon to fill a high-profile role. However, he has flourished in what you could consider a well-rounded defensive committee, with no real emphasis put on any one player to play a significant role. In his rookie season, it might be the best course of action for Forbort.
The most important thing about his game – his steadiness – has remained unchanged. While his offensive game is not what many thought it would be when he was drafted, Forbort is a consistent defensive presence and an all-around reliable player. Considering he is 21 and in his rookie season of pro hockey that really speaks volumes to the maturity and cognitive approach Forbort takes to the game. He currently has 10 points in 29 games for the Monarchs and is a plus-seven rating.
Colin Miller, D, 21
Miller was a surprising standout for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL in 2012-13, but he has found the transition to professional hockey to be quite the hurdle. With eight points in 30 games, it is safe to say that Miller is not going to emulate his point-per-game final year of juniors, but he does show some decent chops in terms of puck movement. Defensively though is where Miller has looked a step behind. Instead of junior players, these are men and former/future NHL players. The former Greyhound has looked out-matched at times. That is not to say his season is without positive though, and the rookie season of the AHL is a learning process for many. Miller is in the midst of that learning curve and trying to find his feet. While it would be easy to say Miller is not having a good season, it might be best to reserve judgment of progression until a later date. The defenseman has had a positive developmental so far in his career and this is the biggest test he has ever faced. He is getting the playing time, and with that, hopefully he will become more comfortable and in turn more effective in the future.
Tyler Toffoli, RW, 21
It is hard to list Toffoli as an AHL player anymore, considering he now has an astonishing 17 points in 25 NHL games. Those 17 points also ties him for sixth in scoring on the Kings despite playing 14 games less than many of those in front of him. Those who have followed Toffoli though cannot be too surprised by his impact at the NHL level. Despite not making the opening day roster, Toffoli hammered out seven goals and 12 points in his first 10 games of the year at the AHL. The first roster spot made available by the Kings was occupied by none other than Tyler Toffoli. He has continued to do in the NHL what he did in the AHL. Toffoli is a pure goal scorer with a deft shot release, creativity, hands, and a solid work ethic. He has adapted well to the physicality of the pro game, despite having blips here and there. The biggest step forward for the young goal scorer is how he has come across his goals. There have not been many pure snipes from the winger, but mores trash goals and second and third opportunities. He has gotten himself into high scoring areas and has reaped the rewards of it. With a pace that would put him around the 40-point range in his rookie year it looks like Toffoli may be in the race for the Calder Trophy this year.
Linden Vey, C, 22
It was hard to categorize Linden Vey as an AHL player this season so far as well considering the centerman had suited up for 14 games as a Los Angeles King so far in 2013-14. Vey made a positive impact in his short time with the Kings in the first several games he played, however his game slowly tapered off as his usage became more spotty. At first, Vey was getting between 13-15 minutes a night at the NHL level due to injuries. However, with the team getting healthier, Vey slowly saw his role fall from third line center to fourth line center with around 10 minutes of ice time. It still is not a bad thing to be getting 10 minutes of NHL time, but Vey is not a fourth line player and it seemed best to send him back down to the minors on December 19th to get more playing time.
Vey, while up, showed responsibility and creativity as a puck mover and playmaker. He played both power play and penalty kill time and was also seeing some late game minutes from coach Darryl Sutter. He scored five assists in his 14 games at the NHL, and certainly has the nature of responsible hockey around him, which bodes well for his future as a King. He will now return to the Monarchs where he has totaled 13 points in 13 games this season. From here on out, Vey will in all likelihood be on a first-call-up basis with the NHL squad.
Follow Jason Lewis on Twitter: @SirJDL