Youth movement the backbone of the Manchester Monarchs 2012-13 season

By Jason Lewis
Thomas Hickey - Manchester Monarchs

Photo: The fourth overall pick in 2007, defenseman Thomas Hickey is still trying to find his game in the AHL as part of the Manchester Monarchs' blue line corps. (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

 
The Los Angeles Kings minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, is absolutely packed and brimming with talent of all shapes and sizes. Through recent drafting and promotion of junior level prospects, the Monarchs have filled their lines and pairings with a wealth of two-way talent, defensive talent, goal-scorers, and grinders.

The Monarchs got off to a white-hot start and were among the best in the league. However, in recent happenings the team has fallen into the grind of the season, with injuries and streaky play taking a toll. The team has relied most on its rookie and sophomore talent pool, players like Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, and Linden Vey, to get them back on track.

The Monarchs are one of the youngest squads in the league with an average age of 23.3, and have 11 regular starters of age 22 or younger. They are developing quickly down on the farm and gathering a wealth of experience.

AHL

Martin Jones, G, 21

Jones started off his year with the Manchester Monarchs on an incredibly high note. The 6'4 native of Vancouver was one of the best goaltenders in the league through October, posting a .926 save percentage and 1.84 goals against average. Unfortunately through November Jones had his up and down games, mixing one and two goal starts with more than a fair share of four and five goal games.

His 5-1 record to start the year quickly vanished as he finished up the month of November with a 2.83 goals against, .916 save percentage, and a 2-7-1 month.

The downward trend has unfortunately continued into December, as Jones has yet to win a game since November 20th and is now being challenged for starts by 28-year-old veteran free agent signing Peter Mannino.

After a promising start it is a little disappointing that this is how Jones has progressed in the season. However, this is a very good test for the young goalie mentally. He needs to work most on his focus, confidence, and mental preparation. When Jones is on his game he is a tough nut for shooters to crack given his size and patience, but when he is mentally out of the game or gives up the occasional soft goal he takes himself out of games by losing confidence. The Monarchs have had a tendency to give up quite a few shots per game, however, Jones needs to be ready to bounce back game-by-game and more importantly shift-by-shift. Goalies have to be battlers. Jones' current season to date totals stand at a 7-13-2 record, a 2.63 goals against average, and a .911 save percentage. He still has plenty of time to get back in the win column and prove he can fight through the struggles, but it must happen soon because his starting job might very well be on the line.

Linden Vey, C, 21

At 21 years of age, and with just one previous season in the AHL, center Linden Vey has played well above his circumstances. Vey plays like a veteran, and has been putting together solid performances for the Monarchs on a pretty regular basis.

Vey's line with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli has been one of the hottest lines for the Monarchs dating back to mid-November. On the season Vey has eight goals, 15 assists, and 23 points. However in the months of November and December alone Vey has racked up 19 of those 23 points.

The Wakaw, Saskatchewan native has been playing all situations for the Monarchs and despite his solid even strength numbers he has registered just one goal on the power play. Mark Morris and his coaching staff would almost certainly like to see Vey improve his power play numbers, however it is important to note that Vey is playing more of a set-up role in these situations. Pearson and Toffoli have benefited greatly as the two have three and five power-play goals respectively. As a key center man for Manchester this season, Vey has shined brightly.

Andy Andreoff, C, 21

The Kings 2011 third round pick is settling in to his rookie season in the AHL, and for a 6'0 energy player, it has not been without growing pains.

Fans can be excited for Andreoff though, while he might not be contributing much on the offensive side of things his role as a bottom-six energy type player has been a successful one with the Monarchs. After 25 games played Andreoff has just four goals and two assists along with 45 penalty minutes. However, the important number is that Andreoff, in his little experience, is just a minus-one and he is still playing with an edge. With limited minutes, Andreoff is playing responsible hockey and succeeding in providing a spark for Manchester.

That is all you can really ask of an energy player, and it is realistic to think that if Andreoff can refine that craft with the Monarchs, a transition to NHL hockey could be in his future. He is in good hands down on the farm considering how the Monarchs develop good defensive players, and NHL bottom liners and current Monarchs players Jordan Nolan and Dwight King likely setting an example.

Jake Muzzin, D, 23

There might not be a more frustrating prospect right now for the Kings than 23-year old Jake Muzzin. While Muzzin statistically looks to be having a decent season with 11 points and a plus-two in 26 games, he has not lived up to the hype that got him some NHL games back in 2010-2011.

Muzzin has all the tools to be a solid NHL defenseman, but quite frequently he tries to do too much with the puck and make the difficult play rather than the simple one. He has the size at 6'2 and 205 pounds, solid skating, a decent shot, and a relatively physical edge to him, but he has to get back to basics and stop complicating the game.

A few years ago a young Kings prospect by the name of Alec Martinez played his way into a lineup from far down on the depth chart by playing a simple, underwhelming, and effective brand of hockey. If Muzzin would follow suit he might already be in the NHL. Purely viewing it on a talent level though, Muzzin could be the most naturally-gifted defenseman the Kings have. Whether or not he puts it together is another question. Keep in mind though that last season Muzzin had a similar arch to his season, he started out very slow and finished strong. Perhaps it is just something of a calling card for the former fifth round pick. He dances a fine line though, as the Kings are loaded with defensive talent, that of which could replace Muzzin, that are still a year or so away from the AHL.

Nicolas Deslauriers, D, 21

Another player of a similar situation to Muzzin is 2009 third round pick Nicolas Deslauriers. Deslauriers has a distinct advantage though considering he is two years younger than Jake Muzzin.

Deslauriers is a highly talented player, and he shows it on game-by-game basis. At 6'1 and 200 pounds Desluariers has the size, and he uses it very much to his advantage. In 27 games so far this season the St. Anicet, Quebec native has eight points and is a minus-four. While Deslauriers has the talent he needs to be more consistent in good decision making on the ice. He is slowly but surely adjusting himself to the speed of the professional game and getting used to making better decisions. Last season Deslauriers had a minus-14, which is a number coach Mark Morris has certainly been set on reducing. He has made steps in the right direction this season as his play has been more consistent and smarter on a regular basis.

If there is a comparison to a professional player, Deslauriers is reminiscent of highly touted former Kings defenseman Jack Johnson. All of the tools are there, the young defender just needs time to adjust his game. When he starts using his natural ability and talent to make higher percentage decisions and plays he will be one of the Kings best prospects. This beginning of his 2012-13 season has been decent, and it will get better the more he plays.

Tyler Toffoli, RW, 20

Tyler Toffoli has been hands down the best player for the Manchester Monarchs this season. His rookie year has been incredibly successful thus far as he has 23 points through 31 games, which ties him for the team lead. He has 14 goals which puts him at first among the team by a wide margin.

Toffoli has not just been an offensive success, he has been responsible defensively and in terms of discipline. He is a plus-eight and has just six minor penalties in 31 games. He has played on the penalty kill for coach Morris and even has a short-handed goal to go along with five power-play markers.

A key to Toffoli's success has been his role as an all-out trigger man and key player on the Monarchs top line with fellow rookie Tanner Pearson, and sophomore center Linden Vey. Both Pearson and Vey have been fantastic at getting the puck to Toffoli, who has proven he has the mindset and skills to score at the pro level. If he can continue his fantastic form for the entire year it is not out of the question to think this might be his only season playing with Manchester. While he is only 5'11, Toffoli is strong and has not been shaken by the physical nature of the AHL. One step further for the 2010 second round pick and he will be in the NHL.

Brandon Kozun, RW, 22

Speaking of smaller sized forwards who are playing up to snuff, 2009 sixth round pick Brandon Kozun is on pace to have a career year with the Monarchs. Kozun, a three year vet with the Monarchs, is third on the team with 22 points through 30 games.

Kozun has continuously surprised his doubters year after year by being able to find seams, score, and even muck it up in the corners while standing at just 5'8. Kozun has had one benefit paired up with him though and it is NHL talent. Kozun has played with Stanley Cup champion and former teammate on the Monarchs Dwight King on his opposite wing ever since King signed with the Monarchs. At center for the tandem until recently was another NHL-level talent, Russian Andrei Loktionov. Kozun however has stood out on his own so far as a player who can score, move the puck around, and utilize his skill set to a great degree.

Kozun is on pace to have a career statistical season, and it is possible we could see him in a Kings uniform in the near future if he continues to round out his game and have big seasons like this one.

Thomas Hickey, D, 23

The ever polarizing Thomas Hickey is off to a somewhat slow start in 2012-13. His nine points in 29 games has him sitting at number four in scoring amongst the team's defensemen. He also is currently sporting an even plus/minus rating.

Hickey is a confusing player who seemingly has all the skills to be a great NHL defensemen, but his progression has slowed to a crawl. The Kings had high hopes for Hickey, who was taken with a top-five pick back in 2007, as he showed tremendous intelligence, skating, and on-ice vision. While Hickey still possesses many of those qualities he has yet to round out other facets of his game this season. Most notably Hickey has struggled with getting shots on net. His shooting percentage is amongst the lowest of the team's defensemen. Hickey was once eyed as a power-play quarterback in his junior days, but that role has slowly faded from memory. The 23-year-old is a talented player, but with his snail like progression one has to wonder if he will be significantly buried or even let go in the near future due to the serious amount of talent the organization possesses in the position.

Jordan Weal, C, 20

The Kings' 2010 third round pick, Jordan Weal, has played a limited role with the Monarchs this season. The offensive juggernaut that once lit the lamp with the Regina Pats in the WHL has slipped into a fourth line role in the AHL, and is subsequently struggling to find an offensive gear to his game.

Although he has just 3 points in 20 games, the tenacity is always there with Weal, and that is a very positive thing. Despite limited ice time and what has to be a frustrating stagnation in production, Weal still plays with a spark in his step. Weal is young, and despite three seasons of appearances with the Monarchs he has just 29 games of AHL experience. His role and ice time will increase as the years go by. What is good is that this season Weal has kept his head down and worked hard. His time will come in the future for a bigger, more impactful role with the team.

David Kolomatis, D, 23

Kolomatis was off to a surprising start in 2012-13, a fantastic start really. The former Owen Sound Attack player had 6 points in as many games with the Monarchs until going down with a hand injury in the beginning of November which required surgery. He only recently returned to the Monarchs' lineup, skating in a pair of December games so far this month with no points.

Tanner Pearson, LW, 20

A great surprise and addition to the Kings minor league ranks is overager and 2012 first round draftee Tanner Pearson. Pearson has added an offensive punch to a Monarchs team that at times last season looked to lack a real scoring option at left wing, much like its parent team.

The Kitchener, Ontario native, as mentioned before, has found much success with linemates Toffoli and Vey and has 18 points in 31 games thus far in his rookie campaign. Pearson was noted for his quick rise in the 2012 draft from relative obscurity to a first round pick, and he has continued that trend with the Monarchs. Pearson had limited production in October and the beginning of November, registering just two points outside of a 3 point game against Bridgeport in his first 15 games. However, from November 24th on, Pearson has been a man on fire accumulating 13 points in 16 games. The young left wing was even a healthy scratch at one point for Mark Morris, but that does not seem to be an option now considering how big a force Pearson has become.

Pearson has shown a good mixture of skills and is incredibly well-rounded. He has been great handling the puck down low and creating havoc in front of the net. His style fits very well into the Kings' system of cycling low and getting pucks in front with traffic. Whether it be the solid coaching by Morris or the natural talent of Pearson, he has looked like a perfect example of Kings hockey set to motion so far this season. With a little more focus on his defensive game, which is not bad at this point, Pearson could be a valuable addition to the NHL squad.

Dwight King, LW, 23

Obviously when you add the experience of a player like Dwight King to an AHL squad filled with kids at 21 or under, it is going to have an effect. King always did play with a presence in the AHL due to his generous 6'4 and 234-pound frame, but he plays with a different kind of presence now.

King has played with solid confidence in his game and has accumulated 16 points in 25 games with the team thus far. His plus-seven is tied for the second best rating among the team's forwards, and he has been a reliable fixture on the teams penalty kill. King kept his game simple in his AHL career, and that is what got him an NHL call-up. No surprise, that same exact style of a gritty, physical, and responsible game is back playing in Manchester this season.

His contributions on both sides of the puck have been very good this year, and at this pace he iss looking at a solid statistical season. It is without question that King would be playing up with the Los Angeles Kings if the league was not in a lockout.

Brian O'Neill, RW, 24

O'Neill, a Yale University signee in March of 2012, has played limited minutes with the Monarchs. He has seen just 14 games of action in 2012-13, most games being designated as a healthy scratch. In those 14 games O'Neill has played fourth line minutes and registered three points with a minus-three rating.

Stefan Legein, LW, 24

Legein is an interesting character in terms of his career arc. He is just 24 years old, has played for three different AHL teams, retired, come out of retirement, and is now changing his game to better suit his situation.

Legein has always been known for his fantastic speed and skating ability. Top-six was always projected for the former second round pick, however with the Monarchs Legein has been playing primarily defensive situations, bottom six minutes and killing penalties. Through 26 games, Legein has two goals and 10 points with a minus-three, but he has been valuable to the team in situational minutes. Every team needs a good utility man, and Legein has been that for the Monarchs this year.

Robert Czarnik, C, 22

Robbie Czarnik, a second year player with the Monarchs, has played limited minutes this season and dressed 19 of the team's 32 games. With the inclusion of several NHL players on loan from Los Angeles and a crop of young draftees making the jump, Czarnik has found himself a healthy scratch at times.

He has played primarily bottom six minutes, most times on the fourth line at wing or center. He has two goals, 12 penalty minutes, and is a minus-one in his 19 games this year.

Andrei Loktionov, C, 22

The conundrum of Andrei Loktionov has been a frustrating one for both fans and management alike for the Los Angeles Kings. Loktionov has tremendous skill, vision, and ability, and always has. This season is no deviation from that trend.

Loktionov through 23 games with the Monarchs is scoring at nearly a point per game pace with 17 points. In fact, in the 118 games Andrei Loktionov has played in the AHL he has 92 points. The problem is where he fits in the organization as always. Loktionov is a top-six center, not a top-six wing or bottom-six center. That is why it can be frustrating as a fan to see Loktionov play such a well-rounded and skillful game in the minors and know that organizational depth will likely drive him away from the franchise.

From a purely evaluative standpoint, Loktionov has added some facets to his game including a commitment to defensive zone coverage. The young Russian has been phenomenal on the Monarchs penalty kill this season and leads the team with two shorthanded goals. His future is uncertain with the Los Angeles Kings, but it does not seem uncertain that he will be an NHL player. He has shown the ability again so far this year.

Jordan Nolan, RW, 23

From winning a Stanley Cup with an NHL squad to playing out the grind of an AHL season due to a lockout must be a bit of a shock, especially when he expected to be an opening night choice for the NHL.

Nolan has dealt with the aforementioned scenario, as well as a fight-induced hand injury in October that saw him miss over a month of the season. He has been up and down with Manchester this season, swaying between brilliance and mediocrity. Nolan, for a projected third or fourth liner, really does have some solid stick handling and puck skills and has put them on display a few times this season. However, most the time Nolan has faded into the pack with less of an impact. His five points in 18 games are not particularly impressive and neither is his minus-three rating.

However, offense has never been the meat of Nolan's game. He is an energy guy who throws the body and will drop the gloves now and then. That never changes. Nolan does however have some untapped offensive talent that might come through some day. This year so far though, only flashes have surfaced but nothing more.

ECHL

Jean-Francois Berube, G, 21

With Martin Jones locking up the starting job in the AHL, until recently that is, former Montreal Junior J.F. Berube was assigned to the ECHL to get more playing time. By all accounts the move has been a successful one.

The Ontario Reign are one of the best teams currently in the ECHL with a division leading 21-7-1-1 record, partly due to a strong goaltending tandem of Berube and Winnipeg Jets prospect Chris Carrozzi. Berube has played in 15 of the teams 30 games and has a .903 save percentage, which is a solid number as far as ECHL stats go. Berube also has an impressive 2.40 goals against average and has lost just four games total and only twice in regulation.

Some would choose to see the move for Berube as a downgrade, considering he could be in the AHL. However, Berube has been very solid this season and taken the assignment with great stride. He very well could play his way back to the AHL soon if the struggles of Martin Jones continue.