The Lake Erie Monsters had a rough first season in the American Hockey League, finishing 14th in the Western Conference with a 26-41-6-7 record. The season ended with a run that saw the Monsters lose 10 of their last 11 games.
Improving upon last year’s performance might be easier said than done, though, as a few of the Monsters’ key players might not be back and there’s been a lot of roster turnover as a whole. Here’s a look at what to expect from the Colorado Avalanche’s AHL affiliate this season.
The team’s most efficient goaltender last season – Mike Wall – hasn’t been re-signed, so as it stands now, it looks like Tyler Weiman and Jason Bacashihua will share responsibilities in goal. Bacashihua, a 2001 first-round draft pick, has not lived up to expectations so far in his career, but at 26 years of age he should provide some veteran leadership to the younger Weiman and the rest of the Lake Erie squad. Bacashihua posted just five wins in 19 games last season after coming over from Peoria, but did notch a respectable .905 save percentage. Weiman, 24, put up similar statistics: a 3.32 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. He also got into 31 games last season, but won just nine.
Kyle Cumiskey will be Lake Erie’s No. 1 defenseman if he is unable to crack a deep Colorado defense corps. But Cumiskey showed up at Avalanche camp with some added muscle and will keep a couple veterans on their toes as he fights for room on the NHL roster. Cumiskey had a great first year in the AHL in 2006-07, notching seven goals and 33 points in 63 games with Albany. Last season, he played just five games with Lake Erie before getting called up to Colorado, where he played in 38 games and battled a groin injury. Now with Adam Foote in the picture and veteran Daniel Tjarnqvist battling for a spot as well, Cumiskey and his entry-level contract may be pushed back into the AHL.
No matter how Cumiskey’s situation plays out, the Monsters offense from the blueline will be led by Mike Vernace. The 22-year-old was the leading scorer on the blueline last season, notching 29 points in 79 games, but also finished with a -27 rating.
Newcomers Kevin Montgomery and Nigel Williams should also bring some offense to the table. Montgomery had a five-game stint with Lake Erie last season after leading all London Knights defensemen in scoring with 43 points in 63 games. Williams is a tremendous puckhandler and skater and possess an imposing 6’4, 225-pound frame. He should eat up a lot of minutes as a first-year pro.
Notre Dame alumnus Wes O’Neill and California-born Ray Macias should both see increased responsibility in their second seasons with the team now that leaders Jeff Jillson and Johnny Boychuk have moved on. Journeyman Aaron MacKenzie will provide some defense-first stability from the back end as well as veteran leadership.
Two of last season’s top four scorers won’t be back – Eric Healey and Brad Richardson – and another is making a strong case for himself in Avalanche camp.
T.J. Hensick, who scored 45 points in 50 games in Lake Erie and 11 points in 31 games in Colorado last season, is making fans quickly in Denver with his offensive prowess. But with Colorado deep up front, it’s been questioned whether Hensick has the tools to do the little things in a lesser role besides scoring. It looks like Hensick will have to overthrow Tyler Arnason as the No. 3 center if he’s going to crack the lineup. If he ends up back in the AHL, he’ll be Lake Erie’s go-to guy, unquestionably.
Regardless, Chris Stewart will surely find the back of the net. The soon-to-be 21-year-old scored 25 goals in 77 games last season, his first as a pro. That total nearly doubled the output of his older brother Anthony – a former top prospect – in any one AHL season. Chris should light it up this season and may even earn a call-up or two to the big club.
David Jones is another player on the bubble in Colorado, but his chances of heading back to Lake Erie are better than Hensick’s. Jones scored 30 points in 45 games last season in the AHL and six points in 27 games in the NHL.
Jones may find chemistry with former Dartmouth College teammate T.J. Galiardi. Galiardi is entering his first-year pro after leaving college for major junior last season. He has tremendous playmaking ability, with 52 assists making up his total 70 points last season with Calgary in the Western League. On a team light on high-end talent, Galiardi could step into a top-six role immediately.
Among the other returnees from last season’s team, Philippe Dupuis will be most expected to elevate his game. A 2003 fourth-round pick and a former 100-point scorer in the QMJHL, Dupuis’s junior success hasn’t translated to the pro game yet.
Other players who will vie for big minutes include newcomers Chris Durno, Matt Hendricks, Marty Sertich and Nathan Smith.