Thursday, 29 April 2010

Antler Banter: See You In September

Well, Moose fans, the season is over. The Hamilton Bulldogs retired the Moose in overtime in Game Six of their series, and won the series by a 4-2 margin. Honestly, I'm a little disappointed because I would have liked to have seen the Moose advance to at least the second round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs, but it wasn't to be. That's the trouble with professional sports: there has to be a winner and a loser. Unfortunately, the Moose were the latter in that equation, and everyone might speak of how the Moose season ended because of Grant Stevenson's skate. I'm here to talk about the positives we saw this season, and what I want to see going forward with the AHL's best franchise. Sit back, relax, and let's take a look at a few of the highlights that stood out in my mind.

Best Of The Best

First off, Cory Schneider may just be the best goaltender on the planet who isn't playing in the NHL right now. Yes, he's been called up to the Canucks and is sitting in the press box right now, but what he did this season in leading the Moose to another 40-win season was simply outstanding. I'll even go on record right here in saying that he might be the best goaltender to have ever laced up the skates for a Winnipeg-based professional hockey team.

Schneider was clearly the most valuable player on the Moose roster this year, and his statistics reflected how important he was to the Herd. His 35 wins were the second-most in the AHL. He played the most minutes between the pipes in the AHL this season. He saw more vulcanized rubber than a Goodyear factory this season, and still was near the top in almost every goaltending category.

The only thing that bothers me about Cory Schneider this year is the fact that he may not be back next year. Schneider played out his contract this season after spending four seasons tending to the Manitoba nets, and he has gone on record that he is interested in competing for an NHL job. He didn't quite close the book on the Moose just yet, but it appears that he'll be willing to listen to offers once July 1 rolls around.

Personally, I can't fault Schneider for looking to move up the food chain. Vancouver has a pretty good guy looking after their goaltending duties right now, so a starting job may not be in the cards for Schneider just yet. However, if Vancouver GM Mike Gillis offered Schneider a competitive contract to be Luongo's back-up, Vancouver would suddenly have two outstanding goaltenders at their disposal. And if, for some reason, Schneider needs a little seasoning, he would be welcomed back with open arms to the Moose.

Don't get me wrong - Schneider has put his time in with the Moose in spades. He has done some exceptional things in Manitoba, played some of the most memorable hockey this city has ever seen, and deserves a shot at the bright lights of the NHL. If he leaves, I'll be happy for him. But I won't be very happy if he returns to Manitoba wearing a different uniform.

The Kids Are Alright

I'll be honest when I say that a youth movement for the Moose next season would certainly be welcomed if the kids play like they did over the last twenty games of this season. No less than four rookies were in the lineup at the end of the season for the Moose, and all brought intangibles that the Moose needed.

We'll start with the season-long rookie campaign for Russian sniper Sergei Shirokov. Shirokov came in with high expectations, and he certainly lived up to his billing as he finished the campaign ninth in rookie scoring. While certainly a streaky scorer, Shirokov was always dangerous when on the ice thanks to his blazing speed and hockey sense. What impressed me the most was the evolution of his defensive game towards the end of the year. Full marks should be given to head coach Scott Arniel and his staff for making Shirokov into a solid two-way player rather than just a one-zone scoring threat.

With the University of Minnesota's season at an end, the Canucks wasted no time in trying to get Jordan Schroeder signed to a pro contract. Schroeder inked his first contract and was assigned to the Moose for the stretch run where he looked the part of an NHL first-round pick. Schroeder had seven goals and eight assists in 17 total games this year with the Moose, including six points in six Calder Cup Playoff games. Schroeder found chemistry with Yan Stastny and Guillaume Desbiens to form a high-scoring, hard-working second line - something the Moose were desperately needing in the playoffs. I'm not sure how long Schroeder will be in Manitoba for, but get down to MTS Centre to see him play before he's with the Canucks.

The Moose went out and signed another collegiate player in Kevin Clark. Clark played with the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and scored 51 goals and 57 assists in 141 games with UAA over four seasons. He was a rugged power forward who didn't shy away from high-traffic areas. The Moose put this to good use as Winnipeg-born Clark scored three goals and two assists in 13 games. More impressively, he showed some solid defensive play and excelled in his defensive role as a shutdown forward. Clark would be a welcome addition next season as the Moose searched for some sandpaper all season long after releasing Darryl Bootland.

Perhaps my favorite signing came courtesy of Brown University as the Canucks inked senior Aaron Volpatti and assigned him to the Moose. Volpatti didn't set the world on fire with his scoring, but he was the grinding, agitating, sandpaperish player that the Moose desperately needed all season long. He came in as a player who didn't mind mixing it up, so his hard-nosed approach won him over fans early as he was willing to drop the gloves if the situation called for it. In his 13 games with the Moose, Volpatti scored two goals and one assist, but his 38 PIMs showed he would stand and deliver when necessary.

Ryan McGinnis, Matt Clark, Geoff Waugh, and Taylor Ellington were solid defensive additions when the Moose came calling as well. For a revolving door at the blueline with the amount of call-ups that the Canucks made this season, it's a surprise that these youngsters stepped in and played as well as they could with little to no AHL experience, but the kids proved they were alright. I'd offer up spots in training camp to all of them as they proved they could compete at the AHL level this season.

We didn't get to see highly-touted pick Cody Hodgson this season in a Moose uniform due to injuries that kept him out of the lineup, but Hodgson's past performance with the Moose shows that his potential is limitless, and we should expect Hodgson in Manitoba next season for at least a few weeks. Needless to say, the young man would be a huge help down the middle for the Moose, and his solid two-way play have earned his rave reviews in the OHL. Hodgson should be another solid addition to the Moose next season providing that he doesn't crack the Canucks' lineup.

The Grizzled Veterans

I'm anxious to see who returns from the current corps of forwards that suited up for the Moose this season. Players who should find a locker next season, if I were in charge, would be Moose captain Mike Keane, Marco Rosa, Yan Stastny, Mario Bliznak, Guillaume Desbiens, Peter Olvecky, and, if he returns, Matt Pettinger. Their leadership, experience, and scoring are needed, and the Moose relied upon these men this season. If Michael Grabner is back, that would also be a solid scoring addition to the Moose lineup as well.

On the blueline, I'd like to see Nolan Baumgartner, Evan Oberg, Tom Galvin, Travis Ramsey, and Lawrence Nycholat come together as a group again. Again, the revolving door that seemed to be spinning all season long for the Moose as players were shuffled between Winnipeg and Vancouver was ridiculous, but necessary for the NHL club. The problem, though, is that the Moose suffered due to the inconsistent lineup they iced night in and night out. While this is life in the AHL, the Canucks may want to look at bolstering their depth on the blueline so that the Moose aren't playing games with five defencemen as they did a couple of times this season.

Of course, both Dan Sexton and Brian Salcido will most likely be playing for the Syracuse Crunch next season as the Anaheim Ducks have partnered with them as an AHL affiliate. Sexton was everything and more while he was here in terms of meeting the expectations placed upon him, and I truly think he'll have a spot with the Ducks next season. Salcido, for some of his defensive lapses, will probably play for Syracuse next season, and the offensive defenceman will be looking to improve upon his 18-point season with the Moose this past year.

Daren Machesney would certainly be welcomed back, despite his numbers being nowhere near what was expected this season. Machesney, in his defence, played behind a potent offence in Hershey the last few years, so allowing three goals normally got him a win. With the Moose this season, three goals-against would be a difficult task to overcome for the scoring-challenged Moose, but Machesney played well enough to warrant another shot at tending the Moose nets.

The Man At The Top

Head coach Scott Arniel has put together some of the best seasons of hockey that this city has seen, and it appears he will be rewarded with multiple NHL interviews for head coaching vacancies. Atlanta and Columbus have been granted permission to speak with Arniel, and you'd have to think there's a good chance he'll get hired after stringing together four seasons of 40-win hockey, and an overall record of 181-106-33 over those four seasons. The Moose have seen Randy Carlyle and Alain Vigneault take the next step to the NHL level and show that the lessons they learned as a coach in the AHL readied them for the NHL bench job. Arniel certainly has a great shot at being the next man in line to earn an NHL job after spending time as the Moose's head man.

In Conclusion

I'm not going to lie. I wanted more Moose hockey this season. Another run at the Calder Cup would have been a perfect ending to the season, but the Herd came up a little short.

However, full marks to the team for banding together, rallying to make the playoffs, and sending some pangs of fear through the Hamilton Bulldogs in their series. There were a lot of solid efforts this season, and I really liked the additions the Moose made at the end of the season with the kids they brought in.

I'm already looking forward to next season, and I'm excited for more Hardcore Hockey! Antler Banter is calling it a season, but we'll be back soon to look at the Moose as they take on the AHL in the 2010-11 season!

Have a great summer, and keep your sticks on the ice!

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