2014-15 AHL Preview: Monarchs look to continue reign at top of Atlantic Division

By Tony Androckitis
Dylan DeMelo - Worcester Sharks

Photo: Worcester Sharks defenseman and San Jose Sharks prospect Dylan DeMelo led the AHL Sharks in offense in 2013-14 with 24 points in 68 games in his rookie pro season (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon Sportswire)

 

The Manchester Monarchs were the best team in the AHL‘s Eastern Conference during the 2013-14 regular season, but it was the St. John’s IceCaps who represented the conference in the Calder Cup finals last spring.

Three teams from the Atlantic Division qualified for the playoffs last season including the Providence Bruins who, with a solid group of returning players and talented forwards, look to make it a three-way race again this year.

Manchester Monarchs

Last Season: 48-19-3-6, 105 points – First Place, Atlantic Division
Eliminated by Norfolk – First Round

Graduated to the NHL: Brayden McNabb, Andy Andreoff, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson
Key Losses: Linden Vey, Nic Deslauriers and Brandon Kozun
Key Additions: David Van der Gulik and Vincent Arseneau
Incoming Rookies: Kevin Gravel, Kevin Raine, Nick Ebert, Ryan Horvat, Justin Auger, Michael Mersch, Patrick Bartosak and Nic Dowd

The Manchester Monarchs looked very much like the same team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season in a 4-1 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last weekend.

Despite seeing some players graduate to the NHL, the Monarchs offense has no shortage of weapons. Jordan Weal finished fifth in the league in scoring last season with 70 points (23 goals, 47 assists) in 76 games, while Brian O’Neill tallied a team-high 26 goals in 60 games.

Looking to add to the offensive side are a pair of teammates from the OHL’s Guelph Storm in Justin Auger and Ryan Horvat, and University of Wisconsin standout Michael Mersch. Mersch didn’t look out of place in a seven-game stint at the end of last season and looks to translate his goal-scoring prowess from the college game to the pros this fall.

Derek Forbort is slowly developing into an NHL-caliber defenseman. The Los Angeles Kings‘ 2010 first round pick recently finished his first full season of pro hockey with Manchester last season and continues to be a steady, reliable defensive defenseman. Forbort never put up great offensive numbers at the University of North Dakota but plays a respectable, responsible game on the back end. If his offensive game picks up a little more, Forbort could be in the NHL sooner rather than later.

Another Guelph Storm graduate and incoming rookie is defenseman Nick Ebert, who looks to add an offensive contribution from the blue line. Ebert improved from a disappointing 2012-13 season with a phenomenal year in 2013-14, tallying 13 goals and 40 assists in the regular season and adding 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 20 postseason games in the OHL last spring. Ebert will be given time to develop in the AHL this season and should get some time on the second power play unit to start.

The Monarchs will roll with two young goaltenders, including last year’s starter and impressive returning second-year pro, Jean-Francois Berube. Berube was a big part of his team’s regular season success in 2013-14, going 28-17-2 as a rookie with a 2.37 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and three shutouts.

Spending his first full season in the pros to back up Berube this fall will be rookie netminder Patrik Bartosak, who didn’t look out of place in his first three starts in April after compiling a 3-0-0 record, a 1.64 goals-against average, .a 946 save percentage and one shutout following a 33-win season in the WHL with the Red Deer Rebels.

St. John’s IceCaps

Last Season: 46-23-2-5, 99 points – Second Place, Atlantic Divison
Eliminated By Texas – Calder Cup Finals

Graduated to the NHL: Adam Lowry and Michael Hutchinson
Key Losses: Andrew Gordon, Kael Mouillerat, Jerome Samson, Zach Redmond, Tyler Beskorowany and Eddie Pasquale
Key Additions: Peter Budaj, Keaton Ellerby and Patrick Holland
Incoming Rookies: Connor Hellebucyk, Scott Kosmachuk, Ryan Olsen, Chase Bailey and Ben Walker

The IceCaps roster lost several key pieces that helped them win the Eastern Conference last spring, including three of their top four scorers. But, with a new regime of rookies, a few key additions to the blue line and several returning members, they still look to contend in the division.

Gone is last year’s workhorse in net, Michael Hutchinson, as he’s in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets. Though a big loss, the IceCaps have highly-touted rookie Connor Hellebucyk and veteran Peter Budaj in net, as well as Finnish prospect Jussi Olkinuora waiting in the wings in the ECHL.

Keaton Ellerby played in Winnipeg all of last season and hasn’t played in the AHL since the 2010-11 season, but will start with St. John’s this fall. Ellerby is a big, veteran addition for the AHL club. The IceCaps also added more depth by reaching out to former Hershey Bears’ defenseman Julien Brouillette this summer.

Another rookie the IceCaps have high hopes for this season is winger Scott Kosmachuk, the Guelph Storm’s leading scorer from last season. What sets him apart from other forward prospects in the Jets’ system is the rare combination of scoring ability and physical play from a slightly undersized prospect (6’0”, under 200 pounds).

A young forward the IceCaps are looking to give a more prominent role to this season is JC Lipon. Lipon tallied 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists) in his first 72 regular season games as a pro in 2013-14 while also racking up 14 fighting majors his rookie year before an injury in the playoffs caused him to miss the Calder Cup finals.

The IceCaps still have a veteran voice up front in Jason Jaffray and bolstered their forward depth with Nicolas Blanchard and Patrick Holland, but will be looking for younger players like Carl Klingberg, Eric O’Dell and Will O’Neill to take the next step and be everyday contributors.

For the IceCaps to make another serious run in 2015, they’ll need their rookies to make strides, as well, with several – Ryan Olsen, Chase Bailey & Ben Walker in particular – likely to get a chance in the AHL lineup this fall.

Providence Bruins

Last Season: 40-25-2-9, 91 points – Third Place, Atlantic Division
Eliminated by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – Second Round

Graduated to the NHL: Niklas Svedberg, Ryan Spooner and Matt Fraser
Key Losses: Mike Moore, Nick Johnson and Blake Parlett
Key Additions: Jeremy Smith, Chris Breen and Steve Eminger
Incoming Rookies: David Pastrnak, Brian Ferlin and Cory Kane

The Providence Bruins look to get back to the postseason in 2014-15 in what is shaping up to be an even more competitive division this season.

They’ve lost Ryan Spooner and Niklas Svedberg, who have moved up to the parent Boston Bruins, but still have several returning players on what was a very talented group last year.

Returning second-year pro Malcolm Subban looks to earn the starting job at the AHL level this season, with solid veteran Jeremy Smith pushing him for starts.

Up front, joining likely second-year pros Seth Griffith (still with Boston) and Alexander Khokhlachev in Providence this season is another speedy scorer in 18-year-old Czech-born winger, David Pastrnak. He’s already off to a fast start in Providence with a goal and two assists in his first two AHL games, and being one of few right-handed shots, could be playing his way onto the NHL roster in the very near future.

While the Bruins don’t have any rookies on defense this year, they have two young defensemen entering their third full season as pros looking to take the next step in their career.

Joe Morrow has been moved around from Pittsburgh to Dallas to Boston in his first year-and-half in pro hockey, but the offensive-minded defenseman has found a new home in the Bruins’ organization. Morrow was Providence’s second leading scorer on the back end last season.

More reliable in his own zone, Zach Trotman is also nearing NHL-ready status as a rangy, two-way defenseman who is bigger and more physical than Morrow. Trotman’s offensive game is coming around, too, as he tallied a career-high 24 points last season, right behind Morrow’s 29.

Worcester Sharks

Last Season: 36-34-4-2, 78 points – Fourth Place, Atlantic Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: Tye McGinn
Key Losses: Harri Sateri, Sena Acolatse, Bracken Kearns and Dan DaSilva
Key Additions: Bryan Lerg, Taylor Fedun, Matt Taormina and Micheal Haley
Incoming Rookies: Ryan Carpenter, Evan Trupp, Jeremy Langlois, Gus Young and Melker Karlsson

The San Jose Sharks are trying to rebuild their depth in the prospect pool and have added some quality veterans to the mix to help mentor and develop the organization’s AHL talent.

Without Harri Sateri in net this season, Troy Grosenick will look to be the number one goalie for the Worcester Sharks at the AHL level moving forward. The former two-year starter at Union College went 22-6-3 in 2011-12, two seasons before he turned pro. He’s looking to get back to that level with a legitimate chance in Worcester this season.

A pair of second-year pros on the roster – Dylan DeMelo and Konrad Abeltshauser – look to prove they’re nearing NHL-ready status as the season gets underway.

DeMelo quietly led all Worcester defensemen offensively last season with 24 points (two goals, 22 assists) in 68 games. In the case of DeMelo, quietly means that he’s not an overly flashy player. The smooth-skating, smart, puck-moving defenseman is developing nicely and is destined for a breakout season in 2014-15 if the trend continues.

Abeltshauser is a big, 6’5” German-born defender who is rangy and somewhat surprisingly doesn’t play overly physical despite his size and stature. What’s impressive is how efficient he is in terms of being able to move the puck. Despite an even rating, he led all AHL Sharks’ defensemen – including DeMelo (-17) – in plus/minus last season by a fair margin. Abeltshauser has NHL size and is turning into a well-rounded defenseman. That combination alone shouldn’t keep him in the minors long, as long as he continues to trend upward.

Ryan Carpenter is a skilled, two-way forward fresh out of college from Bowling Green who has the size and strength to be a valuable scorer at the AHL level this season for the Sharks – a team that lacked scoring depth last season. The time spent in the AHL at the tail end of last season seems to have helped ease his transition to the pro game as Carpenter tallied his first pro goal in Worcester’s season opener last weekend.

The Sharks brought in some quality veteran forwards to provide extra scoring punch and round out a relatively young AHL roster. Last year’s captain of the Lake Erie Monsters – Bryan Lerg – is on board with the Sharks to add scoring depth down the middle. Micheal Haley brings a gritty goal-scorer with experience to the table as well for the Sharks, who look to contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this season.

Portland Pirates

Last Season: 24-39-3-10, 61 points – Fifth Place, Atlantic Division
Did Not Qualify For The Postseason

Graduated to the NHL: Brandon McMillan, Chris Summers and Connor Murphy
Key Losses: Andy Miele, Chris Brown, Ethan Werek, Mathieu Brodeur, Brandon Yip, Cade Fairchild, Randy Jones, Tim Kennedy and Brett Hextall
Key Additions: Mike McKenna, Patrick McNeill, Dylan Reese, Evan Oberg, Andrew Campbell and Alex Bolduc
Incoming Rookies: Henrik Samuelsson, Tyler Gaudet, Greg Carey, Justin Hache and Dan O’Donoghue

The Pirates look to rebound from one of the team’s worst seasons in franchise history with a talented group of first- and second-year players bolstered by some veterans on defense.

Last season’s goaltending duo of Mark Visentin and Louis Domingue gains some veteran guidance with the addition of Mike McKenna for 2014-15. McKenna won 22 games with the Springfield Falcons last season, and picked up a win in his Pirates debut over the weekend. McKenna is the number one goaltender entering the season, mentoring two younger goaltenders.

The Pirates defense is shaping up to be very solid after several offseason additions. Veterans Andrew Campbell, Dylan Reese, Patrick McNeill and Evan Oberg add some much needed skill and experience on the back end. Top prospect Brandon Gormley starts the season injured, but when he returns to the lineup will complement the top four nicely and will be a fixture on the power play and penalty kill units in the AHL.

Replacing the team’s leading scorer, Andy Miele, is not going to happen, but the Pirates might have a new two-headed monster – returning second year wingers Lucas Lessio and Tobias Reider – for opposing defenses to deal with in 2014-15. Lessio and Reider combined for 57 goals with the Pirates last season, and there is no reason to believe they won’t at least continue at that pace again this season.

Also joining the young forward core is Henrik Samuelsson – brother of Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Philip and son of New York Rangers’ coach Ulf. It should come as no surprise that Henrik is a winger that plays with an edge, but his hard-nosed style likely won’t put up the offensive numbers he did in junior. Samuelsson has great strength and the vision to set up his teammates. It will be interesting to see how he transitions to the pro game using his gritty but disciplined style against grown men.

With improved defense and goaltending, the Pirates are doing all the right things in order to turn things around and be competitive in the Atlantic Division this season.

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey