Manitoba Moose 2008-09 season preview

By Matt MacInnis

Since a handful of prospects and fringe NHLers are still battling for jobs with the Vancouver Canucks, it is difficult at this time to forecast who will end up spending the majority of their season with the Canucks AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.  Regardless of the details of the line-up, it appears at this point that the Moose should be a very competitive AHL team this season unless injuries strike the parent club forcing a high number of call-ups.  But it’s important to be clear — the Moose line-up is a fluid situation right now and likely will not be truly settled until a few weeks into the NHL season.

Goaltenders

The one position that there is no doubt about is goalie.  The Canucks top prospect and most valuable disposable asset due to Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider is slated in to play the majority of the games for the Moose.  After a phenomenal second half to his season, Schneider is in position to prove himself qualified full-time NHL duty if he’s able to keep the momentum throughout this season.  He is expected to be backed up by Karl Goehring, a capable AHL level backup who should be reliable when called upon but isn’t likely to pressure Schneider for playing time.

Defensemen

The big battle in Vancouver right now is for the coveted No. 7 defenseman spot.  The fight is between free agent acquisition Rob Davison and Lawrence Nycolat, who was picked up in a trade in exchange for the undersized and enigmatic Ryan Shannon.  Nycolat’s surprising play in pre-season games has thrust himself into the competition to land a job with the parent club.  It is likely one of the two will end up playing with the Moose barring any injuries, although the waiver situation may impact the organization’s plans once again.

The Dallas Stars have assigned Maxime Fortunus to the Moose to begin the season.  The solid 25-year old defenseman is a quality AHL level defender who will likely see significant minutes with the Moose this sesaon.

The Moose will have a number of physical, defensively-minded defensemen patrolling the blue line this season.  Zack Fitzgerald and Daniel Rahimi are expected to play a significant role on this year’s team.  Prospect Nathan McIver was sent to the minors on Oct. 3 and claimed by the Anaheim Ducks the following day.

Veteran defenseman Nolan Baumgartner seems to have a role with the club.  His experience and offensive abilities will be key leaders for the team if it hopes to be a true contender.

Shaun Heshka will enter his third professional season and hopes to build on past successes.  While slightly undersized, Heshka plays a tough style, has good skating and has under-rated puck-carrying and moving skills.  He likely will be relied upon to generate offense from the blue line.

Another defenseman whose puck-moving skills will be appreciated in Winnipeg this season is Jim Sharrow.  Although he was unimpressive during NHL training camp, Sharrow should secure a full-time spot with the Moose and see some time on the power play during the course of the season.

Forwards

With a handful of forwards still battling for jobs with the Canucks, there are still some uncertainties remaining with who will suit up for the opening face-off in a Moose uniform.  But a few things do seem all but certain.

Mason Raymond, who spent the majority of last season with the Canucks, appears to be a lock to make the squad and spend the entire season there.  Danish forward, and former ninth-round pick, Jannik Hansen has been extremely impressive all pre-season and it would turn some heads if he was assigned to Manitoba.  

Due to the extremely mediocre play of Jeff Cowan, it’s improbable that he will earn a spot with the Canucks.  Although stranger things have happened, he will either be moved or assigned to the AHL (pending passing through waivers).

Jason Krog, Mike Brown, Rick Rypien and the much-maligned Kyle Wellwood all appear to be battling for an undetermined number of jobs (depending on how many spare forwards the Canucks opt to carry).  Considering they currently have an abundance of cap space until a significant trade is made or Mats Sundin makes the improbable decision to accept the Canucks’ very public $10 million per year contract offer. 

A hip flexor injury to Matt Pettinger may make the early decision easier as it temporarily opens up an additional spot.  It’s uncertain how long the injury will keep him out of the line-up so it may be a temporary reprieve. 

At this point it’s almost impossible to tell which of those players will make the final cut.  Rypien and Brown have done little to differentiate themselves from another, although Brown’s superior size may be the determining factor.  Both Krog and Wellwood are naturally offensive players and would be significant contributors if they were to end up with the Moose.

But the Moose have other offensive weapons guaranteed to be at their disposal.  Former Canucks first=round pick Michael Grabner, fresh off a very solid performance in camp.  Grabner could easily put up 30 goals this season if he stays healthy and continues to develop.  Jason Jaffray is a proven AHL scorer and once again will be a key cog in the system. 

The Moose will also have the added benefit of an import from outside the Canucks’ system.  The Dallas Stars’ prospect Raymond Sawada has been assigned to the Moose and will likely fill a top-six role for the team and help further bolster the offense.

A number of veteran AHL forwards will be vying for minutes throughout the season.  Mark Cullen, signed by the Canucks as an unrestricted free agent will be a welcome addition to the club.  Mike Keane, who is practically a player coach, will likely see decreasing minutes as the season progresses and young players begin to establish themselves.  And Darryl Bootland, a veteran with toughness is also at camp, and may sneak into a roster spot to start the season if too many of the Moose’s tough guys earn jobs with the Canucks. 

A trio of younger players will likely round out the roster for Manitoba.  Juraj Simek will be looking to improve on a mediocre freshman season (and an even more lackluster performance at the NHL training camp this pre-season).  He needs to show far more this season if he hopes to remain a viable NHL prospect.  Simek has great hands and good skill, but seems to have difficulties putting it all together.  Dan Gendur is making his pro debut fresh off a tremendous overage season in the WHL.  Possessing good wheels and a booming shot, Gendur may need to spend time in the ECHL with the Victoria Salmon Kings in order to adjust to the professional game but seems to have the skills to be successful as a pro.  Slovakian national Mario Bliznak was a clutch two-way player in junior but now has to hone his defensive game and make himself into more of a specialist to be successful at the next level.  He is another candidate for assignment to Victoria early in the season.