Last season the Manitoba Moose eliminated the Syracuse Crunch before being knocked out by Grand Rapids in the Calder Cup playoffs after a strong 44-24-7-5 season. The Moose look to build on the relative success of last season returning with a team full of AHL veterans and promising young rookies.
As an organization, the Vancouver Canucks have seen a wholesale change in the goaltending ranks. Every single goaltender who appeared in a game for the Canucks in the NHL last season is gone. The same changes have swept through the Moose, who have just one returning goaltender on their roster, that being 38-year-old Wade Flaherty, who up until the very recent acquisition of Dany Sabourin, appeared poised to return to the NHL as Roberto Luongo’s backup.
The Moose have no shortage of options between the pipes, with no less than four available keepers. In addition to the cagey veteran, the Canucks also traded to acquire former fourth round pick Drew MacIntyre who was widely considered to have the inside track to the starting job prior to the sudden and surprising demotion of Flaherty. This has caused a goalie crunch, with prospect Julien Ellis and Mike Ayers also battling to stick in the American League.
Ellis is making his professional debut this season and was extremely disappointing in the Canucks camp, coming to play out of shape and playing poorly for the most part when given the opportunity. Ellis remains a very talented young netminder with great speed, but he will need to find a way to overcome his lack of size in the professional ranks. MacIntyre and Flaherty appear poised to share the duties in Manitoba with the other pair will likely be demoted to the ECHL to join the team’s new affiliate, the Victoria Salmon Kings.
The blue line will see three of the mainstays from last season’s team return for the 2006-07 season. Back is Prestin Ryan, who had 23 points in 64 games with the Moose last season in addition to earning a one-game call-up to the big squad. Maxime Fortunus played his first full season in the AHL last year and is poised to play a similar role with the new Moose. Nate McIver continues his trek to prove himself as a legitimate NHL prospect by showing steady improvement during his second year as a pro. McIver had a good start in the Canucks camp and will look to continue the positive momentum with the Moose.
Although there are a number of newcomers vying for spots, there is little question about who those four will be, and many of them are expected to log big minutes if they can play the way they did in the Canucks training camp. Former NHLer Yannick Tremblay signed a two-way contract with the Canucks during the offseason, returning after spending the past two years in Europe, to make another run at the big show. He wasn’t able to earn a spot during training camp, actually being outplayed by walk-on invitee Patrick Coulombe, but he appears poised to earn his way back to the NHL the long way. As a veteran of 378 games, he will be relied upon extensively to be a leader on this squad.
The aforementioned Coulombe was easily the biggest surprise in training camp, and arguably one of the biggest surprises of the entire NHL in the preseason, nearly making the Canucks despite going into the rookie camp as an invite without a contract. Coulombe was the final cut of the year among the blueliners and could be called up within a few weeks if top prospect Luc Bourdon doesn’t impress or can’t find his way consistently into the line-up, resulting in him being sent back to junior. Coulombe is a truly dynamic offensive defender who has spent his entire hockey career thus far generating offense from the back end, including spending a pair of years getting the puck from his zone to the stick of Sidney Crosby in Rimouski. He will get some power-play time with the team, although offensive defenseman is an area where the Moose are quite deep.
The third talented defender the Moose have joining them this season is Swedish prospect Alex Edler, who is making the jump to professional hockey after a year in the Western Hockey League with Kelowna, a season full of ups and downs for the 6’4, 200 lber. Edler was solid in camp, but clearly needs more time to develop and those in Winnipeg can look forward to seeing him play full-time with the squad for the overwhelming majority of the next two seasons barring a burst in development. He definitely possesses top-four potential, he will need to work on his defensive game in Manitoba while continuing to contribute impressive puckhandling skills on the back end.
AHL veteran, defensive defenseman and tough guy Joe Rullier is almost certain to last a full-time role with the squad. His presence will help to bring stability to what could be a very young, although talented, defensive corps. The fourth player who appears to have an inside track at this time is free agent signee prospect Shaun Heshka. After three seasons with the Everett Silvertips, the Melville, Saskatchewan native earned an NHL contract and will continue to develop in the minor pro ranks. It would not be shocking to see him sent down to the ECHL if he’s crunched in the numbers game and isn’t seeing adequate minutes with the Moose.
Gone is last year’s second-leading scorer Craig Darby, but most of the forwards group from last season is back for another go at the Calder Cup. Jesse Schultz, expected to be playing alongside the Sedin twins in the NHL right now, had a horrendous training camp and didn’t even make it to the final cuts. He will try to rebound from his poor performance and force the team to give him a call-up early in the season. He will also be relied upon heavily to produce the bulk of the goal scoring for the team. Jeff Jaffray and Lee Goren are back to help Schultz out.
Surprising Danish prospect Jannik Hansen is expected to make up for the scoring of the departed Darby and Ryan Bayda. The winger was a pleasant surprise last season with the Portland Winter Hawks and continued to impress during camp when he was one of the two final cuts. If he continues to impress, he could be the first man called up in the case of a top-six forward getting hurt with the big club. The other final cut was upstart, and currently injured, Rick Rypien who may have made the Canucks out of camp if not for a hand injury that limited his ability to play his aggressive style of play and back it up with his hands, regardless of his lack of stature.
Also returning to the Moose is a former leading scorer Brandon Reid. After trying his luck in the DEL during the lockout season and then playing in the Swiss-A League last season, Reid has come back to North America to try to earn his way back into the NHL.
Prospect Mike Brown had a disappointing showing at camp and found himself fairly quickly assigned to the Moose. The strong-skating winger will continue to play a third line role on the squad, using his skating, physicality and strength to wreak havoc on the forecheck and penalty kill. Brown’s puck skills have been questioned and clearly need work in order to enable him to make the next step.
Former first-rounder Nathan Smith continues to toil in the American League, long having been declared a bust by fans. Once considered a safe pick and a player guaranteed to make the NHL as a third-liner, Smith will be relegated to that role in the AHL this year, with likely only very brief sniffs at the NHL in his future in the event of a number of injuries on the main squad.
Also returning from Europe is Calgary Hitmen alumni Brad Moran, who has provided some offensive spark in the AHL before. The 5’11, 185 lbs center will spend most of the year on one of the top two lines feeding the puck to guys like Schultz, Hansen and Goren, who failed in his bid to earn a fourth line job in the NHL. Goren will provide size and a veteran presence up front. Tyler Bouck is back with the team after missing half of last year with a groin injury and then splitting time between the Canucks and Moose and playing in Europe during the lockout.
One player looking to see a significantly elevated role with the team this year is prospect Marc-Andre Bernier. Once castigated for his poor skating and apparent lack of effort, Bernier had a resurgence at camp and is back on the radar. His second professional season will be a big test to see if he has truly improved himself during the offseason and if he can sustain his quality of play. Bernier may challenge for a scoring role with the team at some point, especially if he’s able to control his booming slap shot better than he has in the past.
Other forwards expected to play with the Moose include NHL veteran and Stanley Cup winner Mike Keane, Patrick Yetman and Adam Keefe.
Manitoba has the personnel to be one of the strongest contenders in the AHL this season with a pair of quality goaltenders, a good mix of offensive and defensive defensemen and very good forward depth. They should be a formidable opponent for anyone in the league if their roster remains as currently constructed. The Canucks will certainly be carefully watching the progress of players like Hansen, Edler, Coulombe, MacIntyre and Schultz.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.