The Manchester Monarchs had a remarkable 2013-14 regular season but were left with a bitter taste in their mouths after having been defeated in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
The Monarchs started this season with arguably a less deep group of players. The absence of the trio of forwards which carried the majority of their offense last season in Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, and Linden Vey (VAN) raised significant questions before the 2014-15 season started. Vey moved on to the Vancouver Canucks in a trade at the 2014 NHL Draft, while Pearson and Toffoli have established themselves as regular NHL forwards with the parent Los Angeles Kings. On top of that, the team parted ways with both Brandon Kozun (TOR) and Nic Deslauriers (BUF) who were key parts of the Monarchs’ offense last season.
With offense needing to come from somewhere, the Monarchs have had a few players step up to carry the banner for them this season. With a 18-6-1-1 record so far, the Monarchs sit at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. They also sit near the top of both the conference and league in goals.
Here are a few players who have been key for the Monarchs this season.
Nick Shore, C, 22
If the Monarchs have an MVP through the first quarter of the season, then Nick Shore has made a strong case for earning that honor.
The second-year player has been nothing short of outstanding for coach Mike Stothers. He is scoring at over a point-per-game pace and is currently tied for the most goals in the entire AHL. More important than his point contribution is the fact that Shore has been playing exceptionally well on both the penalty kill and power play. He has been an incredible, all-situations forward for the team, and has kept himself out of the penalty box. He has just eight penalty minutes so far on the season, which means he has been on the ice whenever possible.
When Shore was drafted he was thought of as a good complementary, top-nine center, much in the vein of current Kings center, Jarret Stoll. His prowess on the draw and his defensive acumen were key elements to his game, but many scouts questioned if his offensive ability would transfer from the NCAA to the professional level. At this point, not only has it transferred but Shore has exceeded expectations. If he continues to play this well, Shore could make his way to the Kings roster.
Brian O’Neill, C/RW, 26
O’Neill is the oldest eligible prospect the Kings have by Hockey’s Future‘s standards, and after a wonderful coming out party last year at the age of 25 O’Neill is truly looking like a late bloomer. He is on pace to surpass last season’s 47-point campaign, and like Shore, has been a valuable all-situations player for the Monarchs. Standing at 5’9”, his size has always been a knock on O’Neill, but he has learned to use his speed and grit to better work around his lack of physical capabilities. His leadership has also been something of importance to the Monarchs this season as they have dealt with a lot of injuries and turnover from the season prior. He has been one of the leaders both on and off the ice.
As it currently stands, O’Neill is scoring at a point-per-game pace. He and Shore have been locked together since the early going of the season and the two have established themselves as one of the more potent duos in the AHL right now.
Justin Auger, RW, 20
The 20-year-old rookie had something to prove coming into this season. With another year of overage eligibility looming, the 6’7″ Auger had to muscle his way onto the Monarchs roster out of camp. He showed the coaching staff that he had taken enough positive steps that he could be counted on at the pro level.
There is a lot to like with Auger, starting with his obvious size. The big frame has always been paramount to his success as a forward. This season he has taken it to another level, though, and is actually using that size to better his offensive numbers. While he got off to a slow start this season, with only two points in his first 10 games, he found his range in November. Auger has now scored a total of 15 points – including five goals – in 26 games this season. His positive work ethic and responsible two-way game is also something the coaching staff has liked this season. He has bounced up and down the lineup but has stayed consistent in his offensive contributions so far.
Jordan Weal, C, 22
Weal has been another consistent performer on what you could consider a team lacking star firepower. Weal was overshadowed last season by the likes of Kozun, Pearson and Vey at times, but was equally as important. He has been thrust into the limelight a little bit more this season, and while he looked a little shaky in the early going he has picked up his play lately. Weal now sits third on the team in scoring at 24 points in 26 games, including 10 goals.
Derek Forbort, D, 22
While the offensive game had been the primary focus for the Monarchs coming into the season, the defensive crew has done an equally impressive job this season in getting the Monarchs victories. One of the players that has been excellent defensively so far this season is Kings’ 2010 first round pick, Derek Forbort. While some are disappointed that Forbort’s offensive game has not blossomed quite like they had hoped, he has become a solid presence in his own end. Just about two years removed from college play, Forbort has grown tremendously and looked more and more comfortable with the speed of the pro game. With so many positive steps taken it is not out of the question to think the University of North Dakota grad could get his shot in the NHL soon. He has been playing alongside the gifted puck-mover Nick Ebert in an effort to create a balance between the offensive-minded and defensive-minded players.
Colin Miller, D, 22
Miller is another defenseman who has made considerable strides since his draft year. With a fairly solid second half to his AHL rookie season, the slick-skating defenseman has upped the ante in his second season. With 18 points in 23 games, Miller is the leading defensive scorer for the Monarchs. He has also put up four power play goals and has been a very worthwhile option from the point with the extra man. His strength, however, is in his tremendous skating. Miller has shown no hesitation in using his great speed to move the puck out of his own zone and jump into the offensive rush. Being paired up with veteran stay-at-home presence Jeff Schultz has allowed Miller to be more aggressive and utilize his offensive skills. Outside of Vincent LoVerde, who has been an absolute stalwart defensively, Miller has arguably been the team’s best defenseman on the season.
J.F. Berube, G, 23
Berube has come a very long way from the raw goaltender he was two to three years ago. He has taken over as the Monarchs full-time starter this season and is posting respectable numbers so far. With a 14-4-2-1 record through 21 games, Berube has posted a .920 save percentage and a goals-against average that is under 2.00. The Monarchs play a stingy defensive system much like the Kings do, but Berube has been very solid in deflecting the chances that have come his way. He has faced in the neighborhood of 24 shots per game on average, which is an extremely low number. But one cannot argue with results, and that is what the 2010 fourth rounder has given the Monarchs. He has also been something of a workhorse for Mike Stothers, having played the second most minutes in goal in the AHL so far.
Nic Dowd, C, 24
While his other former St. Cloud State teammates like Kevin Gravel and Michael Mersch have had their ups and downs getting into the swing of things for the Monarchs, Nic Dowd has been a remarkable addition at the center position. The trio down the middle of Shore, Dowd, and Weal has been a handful for opposing teams and the 24-year-old Dowd has seen himself move into top-six minutes with the Monarchs. Alongside some gritty wingers in AHL veteran Sean Backman and Mersch, Dowd has played the role of a set-up man. He has also been given regular time on the power play and penalty kill to boot. With a balanced two-way game, Dowd is on his way to becoming an important asset within the organization. If he can keep up his consistent offensive pace, which currently has him totaling 19 points through 26 games, Dowd could have some real NHL utility.
Scott Sabourin, RW, 22
The tough winger turned a lot of heads last season at the Kings training camp, and he followed it up with a pretty respectable season in the Monarchs’ bottom six. He has been equally as solid this season in that role. Sabourin is not going to net you 20 goals, but he is a tough player for opponents to play against and he has that nasty physical presence that can wear down opposing defenses. Although he had been off to a pretty solid start, the winger recently suffered an injury setback and could miss a considerable amount of time.
Michael Mersch and Nick Ebert continue to adjust their games to the AHL. Mersch in particular has started to find his form, while Nick Ebert has struggled at times. Rookie goaltender Patrik Bartosak has appeared in only six games and been credited with four wins. Due to the infrequent use, Bartosak has seen some fairly up and down performances, resulting in a save percentage of .888. With steady playing time his numbers should even out in the future.
Maxim Kitsyn, LW, 22
It can be hard to be positive or excited when a player loses as much development time and progress as Maxim Kitsyn did. In 2013-14, a lackluster stint in the minor leagues of Russia seemed to burn out the once promising prospect, but Kitsyn has regained his form in the ECHL. The solid offensive skills have started to return a bit, and this year Kitsyn is being more assertive and aggressive with his play. With 17 points through the Reign’s first 26 games, the young Russian is eyeing a return to the AHL soon. His tremendous work ethic has been praised by the coaching staff and, at age 22, there is plenty of time for Kitsyn to work his way back into relevance in the Kings pipeline. Luckily for him, the Kings’ left wing depth chart is somewhat thin so there is an opportunity still to be had.
Los Angeles Kings Prospect of the Month
The Kings have a pair of prospects doing big things in the OHL this season, and while Michael Amadio has been very good for the North Bay Battalion, the Kings’ Prospect of the Month award goes to Matthew Mistele of the Plymouth Whalers.
Mistele has been on a tear this season and has 23 goals and 38 points in 31 games so far. While he is getting some of the benefit of playing with 2014 first round pick Sonny Milano (CBJ), Mistele has held his own as an opportunistic power forward. He has been burying his chances this season and is using the open ice Milano can create to wreak a little havoc of his own. Mistele has both the physicality to get dirty goals and a remarkable ability to shoot the puck. Finding various ways to score, Mistele is currently 16th overall in the OHL in scoring, sits third overall in goals, and is leading the Plymouth Whalers in both goals and points. In a league where high draft picks tend to dominate, nearly a quarter of Plymouth’s goals this season have come off the tape of the Kings’ 2014 sixth round selection.
Follow Jason Lewis on Twitter via @SirJDL