The Manchester Monarchs season to date has been a series of streaks. Winners of six games in a row nearly immediately after losing five games in a row, the Monarchs would also have similar winning and losing streaks of four while hovering around the .500 mark for the majority of the season. Whether it is a result of a lack of consistency out of individual players or a lack of continuity in the roster from week to week is open to debate. As the team has largely struggled offensively and are still waiting for the defense and goaltending to play up to their potential, the Monarchs should count themselves lucky to still be in a position to challenge for the division title while little has gone according to plan.
Up front, the top line from last year has been torn apart by promotions to Los Angeles and injuries. Matt Moulson began the season in Los Angeles before being returned to Manchester and continuing at his near point-per-game pace from last season. But a leg injury has restricted his play to only 12 games in a Monarchs sweater. In reverse order from Moulson, Ted Purcell began the season on the top line for the Monarchs and played well enough to earn a call-up to Los Angeles where he has a fighting chance to remain. Meanwhile, the third member of the former vaunted top line, Gabe Gauthier, has struggled to find consistency with varying linemates. The offensive fortunes of the Monarchs for the remainder of the season may be tied to Gauthier regaining form offensively and settling in with consistent linemates.
Secondary scoring has largely been coming from Trevor Lewis as he begins to find his offensive game. The former first-round selection entered the season needing to show that he is more than just potential on fast skates. He has led the team in scoring for most of the season, albeit with a modest 0.70 points per game pace. But this is a marked improvement over last season and has been a main reason the Monarchs kept pace in the Atlantic Division. His play also earned him a call-up to Los Angeles in the middle of December where he appeared in six games before being reassigned to Manchester.
Others contributing secondary scoring, to varying degrees, at Brian Boyle, Scott Parse and Justin Azevedo. Boyle began the season with Los Angeles, but has spent stretches of time with Manchester in the first three months of the season. His 11 points in 13 games breathed some offensive life into a beleaguered forward corps at a time when injuries greatly limited the Monarchs options. Parse has returned from being injured nearly all of last year to be the lead goal scorer on the left wing and tie for the team lead in plus/minus. Azevedo scored points in bunches in his eight games before going down with a leg injury. His eight-game stretch directly coincided with the Monarchs six-game winning streak early in the season and showed what the Monarchs are capable of when able to locate scoring from several sources.
Playing in his first professional season, Bud Holloway fills the role of a penalty killer and solid two-way forward. His point total is not what it was when he led Seattle of the WHL in scoring, but he contributes other intangibles that lead to team success. Vladimir Dravecky and David Meckler were hoping to emerge as more of an offensive weapon for the Monarchs, especially when injuries began to impact the roster, but to date have not proven to be up to the challenge. As a result, Manchester has had to turn to AHL veterans like Marty Murray and former Kings prospect Ryan Murphy to fill in the gaps left exposed by reduced production (Gauthier) and injuries (Moulson and Azevedo).
Kevin Westgarth continues to be the resident enforcer in Manchester. Expected to battle Westgarth for the position is Richard Clune, who has been limited to only two games due to injuries. His impact on the team for the remainder of the season has yet to be determined.
The Monarchs have not been much more stable on defense as they have been at forward. Just as they have been searching all season for consistent scoring up front, the Monarchs have also mixed and matched their defensive starters trying to find consistency on the blueline. While the group has been adequate, more was hoped for offensively than what has been delivered. But the Kings have improved this season on the backs of sacrificing offense for defense, so possibly the Monarchs are on a similar path.
Viatcheslav Voinov has been a relative bright spot at defense. The youngest of all AHL defensemen at only 18 years of age, Voinov has contributed modest scoring from the back end while also working on his defensive zone coverage. He is still far from being a polished top defenseman in the AHL, but establishing himself as arguably the No. 1 defenseman in Manchester in the first half of the season is a tremendous accomplishment. He will need to show consistency throughout the entire season, especially considering that he has not skated in more than 50 games total in any given season in his career, and continues to work on patience and decision-making. The Kings under Lombardi tend to reward solid play with short call-ups to Los Angeles and might look to Voinov as the first defenseman called up if needed.
Veterans of the AHL, Joe Piskula and Drew Bagnall, have logged a lot of ice time playing the roles of defensive defensemen. Piskula has been slowed by injury while Bagnall is the lone defenseman to appear in every game for Manchester. Bagnall has emerged as more of a physical defenseman this season and has been the stalwart against the opposition around the net. Piskula continues to provide sound positional defense and solid skating to keep the opposing forwards at bay. While his potential for the NHL has largely leveled off, he has a steadying influence on the blueline in Manchester, not dissimilar to what Joe Rullier provided the Monarchs for years, but not as physical.
Rounding out the group of seven are Alec Martinez, Andrew Campbell and Josh Kidd, Davis Drewiske, each playing in their first full season of professional hockey. Martinez is the more mobile defenseman of the group, but has been slow to adjust to the AHL. One of the better offensive-minded defensemen in college hockey last season, Martinez needs work on aspects of his offensive game to retain his reputation. If he can begin to find the back of the net with a little more regularity, the Monarchs might be set offensively from their blueline with the combination of Martinez and Voinov.
Andrew Campbell has had a rough beginning to the season, making rookie mistakes and not living up to the potential that was hoped from him. But he is still young and raw and will have time to develop a more physical and positionally sound game. Drewiske has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise as a two-way defenseman. In a group of young defensemen, Drewiske joins Piskula as the stabilizing force, providing a safety net for the more unpolished defensemen to learn while on the job. Josh Kidd has filled in where necessary for injuries or to spell lackluster play and stands to gain the most in terms of ice time should any of the first six be called up to Los Angeles.
The goaltending duties have been split between Jonathan Bernier and Jonathan Quick, with Bernier only assuming full-time duties after the promotion of Quick to Los Angeles. Both had played equally effective, with Quick providing a better save percentage, facing six more shots per game on average due to more rebounds allowed in comparison to Bernier. With Quick taking Los Angeles by storm and pushing the trade of Jason Labarbera to Vancouver, it appears that the promotion would be permanent, allowing Bernier to take over the lion’s share of minutes in Manchester. As long as the offense continues to idle, the Monarch’s fortunes are tied to the play of their goaltender. Bernier has always been one to step up to challenges and Quick’s promotion over him to Los Angeles might be best for his development as he can firmly establish himself as a top goaltender without having to look over his shoulder.
Accompanying the promotion of Quick to Los Angeles was the promotion of Jeff Zatkoff to Manchester from Ontario of the ECHL. Zatkoff was enjoying an all-star season for Ontario as a rookie goaltender, placing third in the league in save percentage. Now acting as the backup netminder for the Monarchs, he is still at least a year away from earning a consistent opportunity in the AHL as it would be difficult to imagine that the Kings would sit Bernier for any extended period of time absent a complete collapse in his game.
Gone but not forgotten is Danny Taylor, who has been the primary starter in net for Reading of the ECHL. Unceremoniously banished to relative obscurity by the organization to start the season after earning the hearts of fans in Manchester last season, Taylor has struggled to find his form in Reading. If one buys into Lombardi’s philosophy that demoted players need to learn how to fight through adversity, Taylor has not been successful nor performed to a level that forces the Kings to look in his direction. Sitting with three wins and 16 losses, including a goals-against average of 3.97, Taylor has regressed to his 2006-07 form. It should be added though that the Royals have been bad enough this season that their head coach was just fired this week.