Tuesday, 29 September 2009

THN Moose Preview

Ok, that title is a little misleading since I don't work for The Hockey News in any way, shape, or capacity. However, I will follow their style of analysis for their team previews that they used in their annual yearbook for this Moose preview. Some of you might be asking why I would be previewing an AHL team. I said a while back that I'm going to focus more on minor-league teams this season, and this is the start of that focus.

Success breeds expectations, and there are high expectations in Winnipeg this season. After posting the best regular-season record in team history and capturing the Robert W. Clarke Trophy as the best team in the AHL last season, the expectations would be to do the same this season. In appearing in the Calder Cup Finals last season, nothing short of hoisting the Calder Cup this season will satisfy the fans who pass through the turnstiles.

With the Moose finishing first overall in the AHL, there will be a microscope on the team in terms of them repeating that task, but the real test starts in the Calder Cup Playoffs where the Moose came up two wins short of the Calder Cup. The Moose should make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference, but there will be some significant challenges this season.

STRENGTHS: The Moose will be anchored by good goaltending and solid, veteran leadership again this season. In knowing this, there shouldn't be any meltdowns if a few losses occur in a string. The Moose have been successful for a long time, and they can build on that.

Goaltenders Cory Schneider and Daren Machesney are established netminders who can carry the load if the other should falter. Veterans Nolan Baumgartner, Mike Keane, and Marty Murray should help to lead the youngsters to success, and head coach Scott Arniel has a firm grasp on running his team. The leadership at the top will only go to help this team achieve its potential.

WEAKNESSES: Losing Jason Krog, Jason Jaffray, Mark Fistric, and Maxime Fortunus will certainly hurt the Moose. Scoring, as seen with those four players, will be a little harder to come by this season, and there are no automatic "go-to" guys that Arniel can put on the ice initially. Of course, with the voids created by these players, there are opportunities for young players to step up, but someone has to step up. Krog led the team in scoring last season with 86 points, 37 points better than Jaffray who was second in scoring. There is a major void for someone to fill.

Defensively, Fistric and Fortunus were guys that Arniel relied upon heavily down the stretch last season, so there will have to be improvements from some of the younger Moose defencemen in order for the Moose to remain as an elite team. If they can't handle the added responsibilities, the Moose may struggle.

OFFENSE: The Moose believe they still have players who can put the puck in the net on a regular basis despite losing four-fifths of their top unit. Michael Grabner, Guillaume Desbiens, and Alexandre Bolduc will be expected to contribute as much or more than last season. The third- and fourth-line units will have to contribute with points more frequently this season to make up for the loss of the big guns, but the talent there says that shouldn't be a problem as long as they don't give up their defensive responsibilities.

The new guys will be expected to step up. Marty Murray and Marco Rosa will center the top two lines, and will be expected to make up the offensive output. Some of the younger players - Derek Leblanc, Matt Pope, Olivier Latendresse, Tommy Maxwell, and Dusty Collins - will have to come to play each and every night to compliment the scoring from the top lines.

DEFENSE: This may be the biggest question mark going into the season for the Moose. Back are veterans Nolan Baumgartner and Nathan McIver, and Travis Ramsey will be expected to eat up a lot of minutes as a shutdown defenceman. However, the Moose will need big contributions from these three men to help their offence as well.

Brian Salcido, Chris St. Croix, Geoff Waugh, and Neil Petruic will have to make up the difference on the back-end for the Moose. All are capable of playing at the AHL level, but none are "blue chip" prospects that could be gone mid-season to the NHL's Vancouver Canucks. There is an opportunity to see both Lawrence Nycholat and Michael Funk beef up the blueline. With Brad Lukowich being placed on waivers, there is a chance to have a second Stanley Cup winner in the Moose lineup, but the number of veterans will have an effect on the Moose roster this season, and Lukowich will only become another numbers problem.

GOALIE ZONE: This is clearly where the Moose have an advantage over some of the other AHL teams. Cory Schneider is the reigning Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award winner for being the AHL's best goaltender. Head coach Scott Arniel will go with Schneider as often as he can, capitalizing on the goaltender's strong work ethic and desire to get better. I'm not sure how much better one can get after being anointed as the best at your position, but Schneider has committed himself to being better this season.

The Moose signed backup goaltender Daren Machesney after watching him hoist the Calder Cup last season as the backup goaltender to Michal Neuvirth in Hershey. Machesney is a solid goaltender who essentially could be labeled as 1B in Manitoba. If Schneider needs a night off, the Moose won't notice a drop in the quality of goaltending as Machesney is a consummate professional and competitor.

ROOKIES: With no chance of getting Cody Hodgson to play in the AHL this year due to his age, the Moose were focused on Sergei Shirokov as one of their stars this season. However, Shirokov will start the season in the NHL with the Canucks as he replaces Pavol Demitra in the lineup. Shirokov's impressive camp may keep him in the NHL all season long. Hodgson, on the other hand, had a less-than-impressive camp with the Canucks, and was returned to the OHL's Brampton Battalion as he is still only 19 years-old.

Otherwise, the only rookie that appears to have a shot at making the Moose roster this season is Eric Walsky. The Anchorage, Alaska native had himself a solid camp, and looks to crack the roster at some point this season. Walsky, who turns 24 year-old tomorrow, appeared in five games for the Moose last season, recording two assists.

COACHING: The Moose have improved in each of the three years that Scott Arniel has been guiding the ship, but this season may prove to be his toughest to improve on past performances. None of that should worry Moose fans, though, as Arniel was crowned as the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award winner for being the best coach in the AHL. If Arniel can guide the Moose to 100+ points again this season, he might be looking at a second Pieri Award.

THE BUZZ: As stated, expectations are high for this team once again. Player movement can seriously hurt AHL teams as NHL teams move players that were vital to their AHL affiliate in order to improve their own standing, and the Moose saw some of the affect their off-season player decisions. However, the Moose should be competitive enough to challenge for the North Division title once again, and possibly give Chicago, Houston, and Milwaukee a run for the Western Conference title.

NEED TO KNOW: From last season's stats, Marty Murray would lead the team with 54 points. Marco Rosa scored 40 points last season for Houston, so the Moose need a major increase in production from those two to replace Krog's 86 points and Jaffray's 49 points. Nolan Baumgartner led the Moose in scoring from the blueline with 33 points last season, but the next three defencemen in scoring are all gone. Shaun Heshka is now in San Antonio, and both Raymond Sawada and Maxime Fortunus are with the Texas Stars. The Moose saw 66 points evaporate in those moves.

OUTLOOK: From this writer's perspective, there is a lot still to like about the Moose. While the scoring output has taken a noticeable hit, the Moose boast perhaps the best goaltending tandem in the league. GM Craig Heisinger isn't afraid to make a move to improve his team, and could do so once Vancouver has set their lineup. Jannik Hansen may return once he recovers from a broken hand.

In terms of how the Moose will fare this season, they will battle with the Abbotsford Heat and Toronto Marlies for top spot in the North Division. With a little luck in terms of avoiding major injuries, the Moose should win their division once again. While 100 points seems unlikely, a 90-point campaign should be attainable, giving the Moose another chance at the Calder Cup.

There is a preview of how I see the Manitoba Moose for this upcoming season. I'm excited for the upcoming AHL season, and it appears that there could be some good hockey on the horizon.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


John T. said...

Nice preview, very good idea to go with the AHL teams, their importance is overlooked (IMHO). Just a suggestion, you could add a link to the teams site and maybe just an overall feeling on uni (not in depth, just your feelings). Some of your fans are not in Canada or the US (Ireland here), so the teams are even more foreign to me. This is, of course, a selfish request and I thank you for checking it out.

Teebz said...

Pictures added, John. It was early in the morning when I finished that preview, and I was too tired to link everything up.

Lots of pictures of players now. :o)

John T. said...

Thanks for that Teebz, much appreciated. BTW did you enjoy the All-Ireland Hurling final?