Much like their parent club in Colorado, the Lake Erie Monsters enter the upcoming season with a number of question marks and limited expectations as the entire organization from top to bottom rebuilds.
The Monsters finished sixth in the Western Conference’s North Division with a record or 34-38-3-5 and 76 points. This was an 11-point improvement from their inaugural season on 2007-08, but was nevertheless a disappointment for a franchise seeking their first playoff appearance.
With a number of significant losses on the ice as well as a host of new players and a new coaching staff, it could be another long season in Cleveland for the Monsters and their fans.
In 2008-09, the Monsters finished third from the bottom in team scoring with 199 goals (2.48 goals per game). Such a poor offensive output can be largely attributed to three of the Monsters most talented forwards: T.J. Hensick, Chris Stewart, and Matt Hendricks playing a combined 74 games due to injury or NHL call-up.
To start the coming season the Monsters will again be without Hensick, Stewart, and Hendricks who have made the Avalanche roster out of camp as well as T.J. Galiardi, who impressed the Avalanche brass last season during a short tryout at the end of the season and during this year’s training camp. Chris Durno, the club’s second leading scorer from a year ago (45 points in 76 games) has also been retained by the Avalanche after an injury to forward David Jones. The return of Jones, however, should mean the demotion of Durno back to Lake Erie.
With the significant losses the Monsters face at forward, there will be increased pressure on last season’s leading scorers Philippe Dupuis (46 points in 67 games) and Durno to carry the bulk of the offensive load. The Monsters will also depend on a number of veteran players: Codey Burki, Marty Sertich, Tom Fritsche and Brian Willsie not only to produce some offense, but to play smart two-way hockey and help ease the transition of the rookies as they get acclimatized to the professional game.
Rounding out the forward ranks for the Monsters are a number of new faces making their professional debuts. 2005 second-round draft pick Ryan Stoa was among the final cuts for the Avalanche, and his large frame, speed and passing should allow him to make an impact offensively. Another center with offensive capabilities is Cedric McNicoll who last season led the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL in scoring with 104 points in 65 games and to a spot in the league finals. Other rookies of note are former NCAA players Brandon Yip and Justin Mercier. Yip, a smart, offensive-minded winger was a national champion with the Boston University Terriers in 2008-09. He finished the season with 43 points in 45 games and will give the Monsters another offensive weapon. Mercier, a more defensive-minded forward, will likely be best suited in an energy role, and in penalty-killing situations, similar to the role he played last season for the Miami of Ohio RedHawks.
This July, the Monsters defense took a significant hit as big defenseman Nigel Williams was dealt to the New York Rangers in exchange for Brian Fahey. This move seemed curious as Williams was perceived to be an up and comer and at only 21 years of age, his best days appeared to still be ahead of him, while Fahey was a career minor leaguer who at age 28 seems unlikely to crack an NHL roster. Nevertheless there is the belief that Williams’ development was not going as the Monsters and Avalanche brass had planned, which may have been the cause for the trade. Despite Fahey’s inability to make it to the NHL, he has had a somewhat successful AHL career, winning a Calder Cup with Chicago in 2008 and possessing he ability to provide some offense, last season he posted 24 points in 66 games.
Along with Fahey, the Monsters defense will be made up primarily of returning players with Derek Peltier, Ray Macias, Kevin Montgomery, Ryan Wilson and Wes O’Neill. With the exception of O’Neill, who is more of a physical, shutdown type defender, the Monsters other defenders all play a more offensive game and rely on puck distribution from the defensive zone and speed to be effective.
Also joining the defense corps for 2009-10 will be Brett Skinner, who was signed this summer and much like his counterparts, thrives in the offensive aspects of the game. Skinner does have some NHL experience as he played 11 games with the New York Islanders last season. The majority of his season however was spent in the AHL, split between the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Chicago Wolves. In 61 games last year, he posted 35 points.
There will be a great deal of pressure on the defense this season as they are a small group and will have to rely on positioning and speed to be effective. It will be important for the new coaching staff to establish a defensive system that plays to the strengths of their defenders, and hope that they are not to be out-muscled by bigger teams.
Goaltending for the Monsters was up and down for most of the 2008-09 season. Tyler Weiman showed some flashed of brilliance leading the AHL in shutouts with eight and being named to the AHL All-Star Game. Unfortunately a lack of overall team defense left Weiman facing a barrage of shots each night, which contributed to 21-20-2-8 record and a goals against average (GAA) of 2.46. Jason Bacashihua did not fare as well as Weiman last season, compiling a 13-21-3-2 record with a 2.77 GAA.
Bacashihua did not have his contract renewed for the coming season and Monsters will start 2009-10 with Weiman as the starter and two rookies, Trevor Cann and Billy Sauer, backing him up. Cann spent the majority of last season with the London Knights of the OHL, after a trade early in the season from the Peterborough Petes. Cann played very well for the Knights, posting a 30-10-1 record and has the talent to be an NHL goaltender. Sauer played the backup role last season for the University of Michigan Wolverines and posted a 5-6-2 record in a very limited role, unlike Cann and Weiman, Sauer is much more of a project and relies too much on his athleticism and not enough in sound positioning and instincts.
With Weiman firmly planted as the starter, he will play a bulk of the games, as this season is essentially an NHL audition with Peter Budaj entering the final year of his contract with the Avalanche. If Weiman plays well this season and Budaj struggles with the parent club, there is the potential for Weiman to win the role as backup to Craig Anderson next year.
After Joe Sacco was promoted to head coach of the Colorado Avalanche, the Monsters filled their coaching vacancy with David Quinn, a former AHL and IHL player who was most recently an assistant coach with his alma mater Boston University, winning a national championship in 2008-09.
Quinn has over 15 years of coaching experience, primarily in the NCAA as well as a stint with the USA Hockey as a development coach.