A little over a month ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets AHL affiliate was mired in mediocrity. The first year of the Lake Erie M0nsters’ affiliation with the Jackets, while working well logistically, wasn’t producing a winning product in the NHL or AHL. But save for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Monsters have been one of the best teams in the AHL over the past 30 days.
And it’s not just one or two players leading the charge; instead, the entire team has shown marked improvement. A total of 10 players have 20-plus points for the Monsters this season, with the organization’s most promising pro prospects doing particularly well—Daniel Zaar and Josh Anderson are third and fourth respectively in team scoring while rookies Oliver Bjorkstrand and Sonny Milano are surging.
The Monsters are currently fourth in the Central Division and fifth in the AHL’s Western Conference and a steady finish to the season should guarantee playoffs for the Blue Jackets prospects.
Kerby Rychel, LW, 21
A first round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Rychel has split this season between Columbus and Lake Erie. The 6-foot-1, 212-pound winger recorded just nine points in 32 games with the Blue Jackets but is a much more trusted offensive option in the AHL, where he has 21 points in 24 games, 10 of which came in his first six games of the season. Rychel earned sporadic call-ups to Columbus throughout the season but was returned to Lake Erie at the trade deadline, unable to carve out a permanent role on the team. There have been trade rumors and reports of a trade demand from Rychel’s camp, but he will return to Columbus to fight for a spot on the team next season unless a deal in the summer is worked out.
Sonny Milano, C, 19
Milano won’t turn 20 until May, but he has already played 52 games in the AHL, including 10 a year ago after his season with the Plymouth Whalers wrapped up. Due to his age and perhaps relative inexperience he hasn’t exactly been taking the league by storm, but has looked real solid, posting 23 points in 42 games. He has been streaky, having recorded points in back-to-back games seven times this season, but has also been held pointless in consecutive games eight times. He also had eight points in seven games for the United States World Junior team.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW, 20
A big-time scorer in junior, Bjorkstrand struggled early this season to find his way offensively in the AHL, where checking is much tighter. The rookie didn’t score his first goal until his eighth game of the season and had just six points in his first 18 games, but since then has been a key factor in the Monsters’ success; since Jan. 9, Bjorkstrand has 19 points in 28 games, 12 of which have been goals. His 15 goals are tied for second on the team with Josh Anderson and he has a team-leading five power-play goals.
Dillon Heatherington, D, 20
Physical 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman Dillon Heatherington has been a huge surprise for the Monsters in his first season as a pro. The former second round pick isn’t regarded for his offensive ability, but has 16 points this season in 52 games, surpassing the 15 points he posted in 48 games of junior hockey last season. He has become a key member of the team’s veteran-laden blueline in the second half of the season and was a plus-nine in 10 February games as the team began its surge in the standings. He still has room to grow in regard to his mobility and thought process, but he’s surpassed early expectations.
Anton Forsberg, G, 23
Former seventh-round pick Anton Forsberg has provided stable, if not unspectacular goaltending for the Lake Erie Monsters; he owns a 17-9-1 record to go along with a .911 save percentage and a 2.47 goals-against average. And as the Monster players have improved in the second half so has Forsberg; he has given up three goals or less in 15 straight appearances, dating back to Dec. 27 and has a 36-save shutout during that stretch. He will battle for starts down the stretch with Joonas Korpisalo, who was recently returned from Columbus.
Michael Paliotta, D, 22
Brandon Saad wasn’t the only player the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer. Michael Paliotta, a Blackhawks third round pick in 2011, was involved in the trade and he looks like an early steal. Paliotta played four seasons at the University of Vermont where his offensive abilities from the backend were showcased. Those abilities have transferred over to the pro game; Paliotta leads all Monsters defensemen in scoring with 21 points in 55 games and his 135 shots are second-most on the team behind only Zaar.
Josh Anderson, RW, 21
Fourth on the Monsters in scoring, Josh Anderson has been a pleasant surprise this season. The fourth round pick in 2012 had just 17 points last season but has amassed 27 in 45 games this season, while still playing a physical brand of hockey (he leads all forwards with 99 penalty minutes). What’s odd is that Anderson cooled off offensively in the month of February while seemingly the rest of the team got hot. He had seven points in the month but went through a six-game pointless streak. Anderson also dressed in 10 games for the Blue Jackets this season, where he recorded three points and scored his first career NHL goal Jan. 9 against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Daniel Zaar, RW, 21
A sixth-round pick in 2012, Daniel Zaar is proving to be worth the wait. The Swede spent four seasons overseas playing for four different teams before coming to North America this season and his offensive abilities have been on display. Zaar isn’t going to wow anyone with his defensive intensity but he can shoot the puck; he has a team-leading 17 goals and 176 shots for the Monsters this season. He is also third on the team in scoring with 33 points in 57 games. Surprisingly just two of his goals have come with the man advantage, which shows how dangerous he can be five-on-
Joonas Korpisalo, G, 21
The 21-year-old Finn has played more games for Columbus than he has for Lake Erie this season, which is a bit surprising, even considering the injury to Sergei Bobrovsky. Korpisalo earned the promotion over Forsberg with some strong play through 14 games with Lake Erie, where he recorded a 2.31 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. Recently returned to Lake Erie, he’ll fight for playing time with Forsberg as the team readies for a playoff run.
Alex Broadhurst, C, 23
Also acquired from the Blackhawks, Broadhurst has provided solid secondary scoring depth to the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate. The third-year pro is fifth on the Monsters in scoring with 27 points through 47 games. He’s behind some younger players on the organization’s depth chart, but should have a chance to return next year despite his contract expiring in the summer.
Like Broadhurst, Chaput has fallen behind some of the organization’s younger stars, but he continues to produce. He leads the Monsters in scoring with 37 points in 55 games and has even scored once in three games with the Blue Jackets this season. The former third-round pick has proven himself to be a reliable offensive option at the AHL level but has yet to stick with the Blue Jackets bottom six.
T.J. Tynan, C, 24
Diminutive playmaker T.J. Tynan leads the Monsters in assists with 29 in 62 games, but has just five goals, a stark decrease from the 13 he scored in his rookie season last year. His offensive production has slowed considerably in the second half of the season, however. Tynan recorded 14 assists in his first 20 games and 24 points in his first 31 games; since Jan. 1, however, he has just 13 points in 31 games.
Nick Moutrey, RW, 20
Another winger with good size at 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, Nick Moutrey has adjusted well to the pro game in his rookie season with Lake Erie. The Toronto native has five goals and five assists through 45 games. Like many rookies, however, he has struggled in the second half of the season and is currently on an 11 game pointless streak.
Markus Hannikainen, LW, 22
Like Tynan, Hannikainen has also struggled in the second half of the season. The Finn, who signed as a free agent, had 11 points in his first 17 games this season but has just four in his last 19. Part of the reason for his dip in production can be attributed to the shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for two months from Nov. 25 to Jan. 22.
Oleg Yevenko, D, 25
Signed as a college free agent last spring, hulking 6-foot-7 defenseman Oleg Yevenko has provided some serious sandpaper to the Monsters lineup. The Belarusian leads the team in penalty minutes with 146, including 12 fighting majors. He has one goal and three assists in 49 games and was recently re-signed to a one-year, two-way deal.
Lukas Sedlak, C, 23
It has been a tough year for third-year pro Lukas Sedlak. After recording 14 and 16 points in his first two seasons the Czech has been used primarily as a fourth-line center and has just eight points through 45 games. His contract is over at the end of this season and it’s unlikely he is brought back.
Seth Ambroz, RW, 22
In his first full season as a pro, Seth Ambroz was the odd man out for the Monsters. The 22-year-old former fifth-round pick played in just three games for Lake Erie this season and has spent the season with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones, where he has just nine points in 48 games.
Peter Quenneville, RW, 22
Quenneville has had more success at the ECHL level than Ambroz. The Edmonton native has 24 points in 50 games with the Cyclones, good enough for seventh on the team in scoring. He has appeared in just one game this season with Lake Erie.
Prospect of the Month: Zach Werenski
First-round pick Zach Werenski put the exclamation point on a strong sophomore season in March by winning the Big 10 Top Defenseman. The Michigan native recorded 28 points in 32 games for hometown University of Michigan and capped the season off with six points in his final three games. Dating back to the beginning of February, Werenski recorded 11 points in 11 games, all while matching up against the opposition’s top line.