Last season, the Manitoba Moose made a run deep into the AHL playoffs, finally bowing out in the conference finals. It is unlikely, however, that the team will experience near the same level of success this year as they have lost their top five scorers from the previous season, and, five games into the year, currently have just one of the team’s top nine scorers from last season in the lineup.
The team is going to struggle throughout the year, particularly when it comes to putting the puck in the net, and will rely on their defensive play to win games. Four games into the season the team has scored just eight goals, just two per game. It is only because of strong goaltending and all-around defensive play that has given up just seven goals, that the team has managed a 2-2 start.
Ryan Kesler and Lee Goren have both started the season with the Vancouver Canucks, causing the Moose to lose their top two goal scorers from last season, and a total of 62 goals. Peter Sarno, who led the team in assists and points, left the team to play for the Syracuse Crunch. Jeff Heerema also left the organization, electing to sign a contract with the Baby Sens in Binghamton. Jason King is currently unavailable to the Moose because of a concussion suffered late last season which kept him out of the playoffs, Canucks training camp, and now out of the start of the regular season for both the NHL and AHL.
Incoming Canucks prospects to the team include Jozef Balej, Marc-Andre Bernier, and Mike Brown. Balej was acquired at the start of the season in return for enigmatic Russian Fedor Fedorov, who refused to sign a two-way contract with the Canucks. Fedorov did not play with the Moose last year, electing to return to the Russian Super League instead, so the arrival of Balej is a pleasant surprise. Balej has 17 games of NHL experience, compiling five points. Last year with the Hartford Wolfpack, Balej scored 20 goals, 22 assists in 69 games.
Bernier comes from the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. The 2003 second rounder finished his fourth season with 50 points in 65 games. He brings a good understanding of how to cycle the puck and an NHL-grade slap shot that he consistently puts on net. He has a poor first-step, however, and tends to fight the puck when trying to carry it through the neutral zone.
Brown decided to leave the University of Michigan after just two years. A fast, gritty, grinding type of player, Brown scored just 21 points in two years, and won’t be expected to put up many points at any professional level during his career.
Players such as Alexandre Burrows and Jason Jaffray will be relied upon to step into larger offensive roles and provide more scoring than they did in 2004-05. Former Canucks first rounder Nathan Smith will have an opportunity to prove that he has the hands to play in even a fourth-line capacity with the big club in Vancouver in case of injuries during the season. Brett Lysak, a 1999 Carolina Hurricanes second rounder who spent last year in Germany, returns to the AHL for his fourth season. He will have the opportunity to play a significant role with the Moose this year. Mike Keane, a veteran of more than 1100 NHL games, recently signed a contract with the Moose. Keane is hoping to play his way back to the NHL and many believe that he will likely evolve into a coaching role with the organization.
The most noticeable missing piece of the Moose blue line is Nolan Baumgartner who, after two years with the Moose, has earned a starting role with the Canucks. Last year’s rookie standout, Kevin Bieksa, was expected by many who follow the organization to start with the Canucks, but an injury early in training camp knocked him out of the running for the sixth spot on the team. He is expected to return to action in the coming weeks, but he may not remain with the Moose for long. If Bieksa is able to replicate his impressive defensive play from last season, he could be in line for a promotion to the Canucks, whose No. 5 and 6 defensemen (Baumgartner and Steve McCarthy) have struggled early in the year.
The entire blue line has seen quite the facelift since last season. Canucks prospects Nathan McIver and Brett Skinner have both left the OHL and NCAA respectively. McIver will play a fringe role with the team, and likely will spend a majority of the season in the ECHL with the Columbia Inferno. Skinner, on the other hand, has created high expectations because of his extraordinary play in the NCAA ranks the previous season. Skinner will receive top four minutes with the Moose as he continues to build towards an NHL career. The Canucks hope that Skinner quickly adapts to the elevated caliber of play.
Sven Butenschon and Jason Doig, both who were hopeful to make the Canucks out of training camp, will continue to work towards earning a spot with the big club while playing in Manitoba. James DeMone, a Making the Cut winner, Maxime Fortunus, and Prestin Ryan will round out the rest of the team’s defensive unit.
Alex Auld has moved on to the backup role in Vancouver after sharing the duties with AHL veteran Wade Flaherty, who will play the bulk of the minutes between the pipes this season. Rob McVicar, who spent last season in the ECHL, has moved up to assume the backup role for the Moose. As Flaherty continues to age, it is uncertain how much longer he will play. McVicar will likely assume a more veteran role next season when QMJHL goaltender Julien Ellis is expected to make the transition to professional hockey.
The Moose will likely struggle for much of this season as they lack goal scorers. The team will rely on scoring by committee, and the blue line, with players like Skinner and Mojzis, will need to contribute to the attack if the team hopes to be successful. The goaltending duo is not as strong, or as deep, as last year’s pair, and Flaherty’s age and McVicar’s inexperience at this level may eventually hurt the team. Of course, that has been said about Flaherty for a number of years already.
The Moose should spend the year in the bottom half of the standings, which is a cause of concern for many Canucks fans who want their team’s prospects to develop in a winning atmosphere. The defense is, however, fairly strong, especially with the return of Mojzis and Bieksa to the lineup, and may be able to keep them in most games.
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