The Los Angeles Kings have prided themselves on their ability to build from within with their AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, being a prime example of talent and prospects developed into everyday NHL players.
The Monarchs have a good mix of prospects with solid veterans sprinkled in across the forward and defensive core, mixing together a good combination of regular season dominance and prospect development. The next step? Turning that regular season success into an extended playoff run – particularly for those in the Manchester, NH area – before the Kings move their AHL affiliate closer to Los Angeles for the 2015-16 season.
Much like last season, the 2014-15 Monarchs are atop the Atlantic Division and have been one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season – currently seven points ahead of second-place Providence with two games in hand and only 15 games remaining on their schedule. Last year, the Monarchs were the top seed in the East before falling to John Gibson and the then-8th seeded Norfolk Admirals in the first round.
As would be expected of one of the league’s top teams, Manchester was well represented at this year’s AHL All-Star Classic in Utica two months ago, with a player at each position landing on the Eastern Conference’s squad including goaltender Jean-Francois Berube, defenseman Colin Miller, and forward Jordan Weal. The Monarchs also had forwards Brian O’Neill and Nick Shore named as AHL All-Stars, but both missed the event due to injuries.
“I think we have a lot of depth,” Miller said of his team during the All-Star break. “Our centermen right through the middle. Our back end is solid – we have six solid ‘D’ every night, whether a guy is up or down or injured we are always good – and an All-Star goalie. We are pretty deep all the way through.”
Miller is enjoying a breakout season for the Monarchs in his second full year of pro hockey. With 43 points (16 goals, 27 assists) in 56 games this season, Miller has more than doubled his production from his 65-game rookie season in 2013-14. The Kings’ fifth round pick in 2012 credits team depth for his personal successes this season.
“We could have had Nick Shore and Brian O’Neill [as AHL All-Stars] too,” Miller said, adding, “it shows the depth of our team and that’s what it is really, we have a really strong team in Manch and that helps individual stats, too.”
As for what Miller expects in this season’s playoffs, which will begin in about five weeks?
“That’s kind of an unwritten story so far,” Miller said, who was hesitant to talk about the postseason before the regular season ends. “Last year it was disappointing with the early exit, but we’ll see.”
In his second full season as the starting goaltender in Manchester, Jean-Francois Berube is following up last year’s 28-win rookie season with another 28 victories already this season in just 42 appearances.
“We have a really young group, including myself, and I think we are working really hard,” Berube said of his team in Manchester. “I think that’s what we are trying to bring every game is just our work ethic. Sometimes work takes over skills.”
Berube’s solid play in net and the team’s play in front of him is another reason the Monarchs have been dominant this season.
“Defensively, we are pretty solid,” Berube said, adding,”We are trying to keep guys away from the slot and eliminate quality chances, which makes the goalie’s job a lot easier. Its always easier when the shots are under 30.”
Berube wasn’t afraid to talk about last spring’s disappointing playoff run, instead using it as a learning tool and motivation this time around.
“Obviously, you learn from every season,” Berube said of last year’s 1st round exit. “Last year it didn’t quite end up where we wanted to. We learned from that. We are going to make sure we come ready and we want to go a long way in the playoffs [this year].”
While the Monarchs have been solid defensively, the offense has been equally as impressive for Manchester with players like Brian O’Neill and Jordan Weal leading the way, with a good “supporting” cast in Mike Richards on the forward lines.
“It’s been going really well,” Weal said earlier last month. “The first 10 games was a little rocky for us just finding our groove – we lost a couple guys from the year before – but we came around, we fixed a couple things and had a really good stretch.”
Weal, much like O’Neill, is averaging just about a point per game with 58 points (17 goals, 41 assists) in 61 games played in what is Weal’s third season of pro hockey in the AHL.
“It’s a lot of fun, even in practice when you get to practice with guys like that you are always making each other better,” Weal said about the depth of the forwards. “It’s a lot of fun when you come to the rink and you’re winning and it’s a good atmosphere.”
While Weal is only turning 23 in April, the former two-time 40-goal scorer in the WHL has yet to make his NHL debut with Los Angeles. But that doesn’t mean Weal isn’t continuing to work toward every hockey’s players dream and end goal.
“You have to try to get better every day,” Weal said. “Even in practice. If it’s a Tuesday and you don’t play until Friday just find something you want to get better at. Just focus on that every day, trying to get a little bit better, a little bit better and once you do that you’re not focused on the end result – you’re focused on the process and things will take care of themselves.”
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