Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Antler Banter: See You Next Season?

If there is anyone who thinks that hockey doesn't have the most intense postseason play, I submit to you this postseason run turned in by the Manitoba Moose. As the image to the left suggests, the Moose fell short in their efforts against the Bulldogs, but I don't think that "falling short" is the right term considering that one goal was the difference between advancing and going home. While the Hamilton Bulldogs ousted the Moose from the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs for the second straight season, it was clear that there was a lot of fight in these Moose, and they have nothing to hang their heads about when it comes to this season. Yes, they came up short in terms of winning the Calder Cup, but they provided entertaining hockey all season long. And especially in the playoffs.

Goaltending: A Moose Trait

If there is one thing that Vancouver was known for, it was that it was a bit of a goaltending graveyard. Good goalies went there and disappeared. That sentiment began to change thanks to one Roberto Luongo, but it appears that they have a secondary source of incredible goaltending at their disposal: the Manitoba Moose.

It started with occasional call-ups of Wade Flaherty, Curtis Sanford, and Cory Schneider, but it became clear that the Moose are becoming a goaltending factory with Schneider having captured the back-up job to Luongo and having been called one of the most reliable backup goalies in the game. So much so, in fact, that teams needing a quality goaltender have begun to whisper Schneider's name as a solution. Indeed, after having watched Schneider while with the Moose, there was no doubt that his talent and skill was honed nicely with the Herd.

Fast forward to this season, and it was thought that former Lake Erie Monster netminder Tyler Weiman would carry the load while youngster Eddie Lack developed as a second quality AHL goaltender. Instead, Lack began to show signs of confidence and ability that drew immediate comparisons to Schneider in Moose-land. The former backup goalie in the Swedish Elite League was to be given a chance, but he took the inch provided by the Moose and ran a full three-minute mile in terms of his development. Being voted as the team MVP says a lot about how fast Eddie Lack developed his game for the North American rink.

And let's not forget about the importance of Tyler Weiman, either. The 26 year-old provided excellent goaltending when his number was called, and provided the Moose with two oustanding goaltenders at their disposal. Furthermore, Eddie Lack was made better by Weiman as Weiman's play pushed Lack to be better. A little healthy competition is good for both men, and, while Weiman didn't start the bulk of the games for the Moose, there is no doubt that the Moose were better with Weiman than they were without Weiman. The Canucks may still benefit from this development as well as it appears that the Manitoba Moose are creating a stable of quality of goaltenders that may very well take the next step to the NHL.

Defence: Youth Adds To Veteran Talent

The Moose opened the season with a number of question marks on their blueline, but they closed the season with positives. The development of some of the young defencemen that Vancouver has drafted was seen in spades by the play of these young men, and the veterans continued to show that they will be the constant when it comes to protecting the Moose zone.

Nolan Baumgartner, in what seems to be an annual fall tradition for him, got off to a slow start in the AHL season, but Baumgartner finished strong once again. The veteran leader of the Moose franchise should remain as one of the constants for this team for the foreseeable future. His presence on the ice is steadying, and he keeps the younger players level with his advice and hockey intellect. While he won't lead the team in scoring, he knows his role and does it well. His 29 points were a welcome addition from the blueline.

I would have liked to have seen what the Moose could have done with Lee Sweatt in their lineup all season long, but his broken foot kept him out of both Vancouver's and Manitoba's lineups for the duration of the season. The speedy, shifty, offensive defenceman could have impacted the Moose's play in a big way, so it was thought that his loss might have a major affect on the Herd's final standing.

However, contributions from Mark Flood and Kevin Connauton kept the Moose competitive as these two men chipped in 40 and 23 points, respectively. Flood and Connauton were especially impressive in the goal-scoring category where they each had 11 goals for the Moose from the back-end. That kind of production makes up for the loss of Lee Sweatt, and it helped the Moose immensely. While Connauton's plus/minus could be improved, there is no doubt that scoring goals, at times for the Moose, was at a premium. These two defencemen made that job a little easier with their contributions.

Chris Tanev, Travis Ramsey, Yann Sauvé, and Ryan Parent were clearly more of the defensive defencemen on the Moose roster this season, but they still contributed five goals and 37 points among them. What was clear was that they did their jobs well as all four men finished the season with an even-rating or better. These four men stepped up nicely to help secure the Moose zone, and they proved that they can contribute offensively when needed while not sacrificing their defensive games. If I am GM Craig Heisinger, I would be thrilled to have all four men back next season.

The one man I will miss simply because he is a solid offensive threat is Keith Seabrook. The young defenceman was on loan from the Abbotsford Heat, and he contributed in a big way in the Lake Erie series for the Moose. While Seabrook clearly needs some additional AHL seasoning before considering the next step to the NHL, he has shown flashes of brilliance in his short time with the Moose. The Herd will need to be aware of his talent next season in Abbotsford.

Overall, the blueliners had themselves a solid season, but that one offensive cog that was missing when Lee Sweatt went down was sorely missed. As much as Flood and Connauton made up for Sweatt's loss, having Sweatt on the ice was like having a fourth forward on most plays. In his absence, though, the Moose defensive corps had themselves a pretty solid campaign in 2010-11.

Forwards: Scoring Comes And Goes

As with any AHL team, call-ups and injuries affect the success of any AHL club. The Manitoba Moose certainly saw their offensive weapons up and down, both with the Canucks and in the injury reserve, and they struggled at times this season. There were certainly some inspired performances, and the overall outlook for this squad is good if they can add a couple of snipers in the off-season. The core group that remains, however, is as solid as they come in the AHL.

Sergei Shirokov, Marco Rosa, and Bill Sweatt were the leaders offensively when it came to this club for the majority of the season. Shirokov led the team in goals, assists, points, and shots on net for the season, so you know the speedy Russian was at the top of his game. Rosa, after missing part of the season with an injury, came back and looked inspired down the stretch. Bill Sweatt was a solid competitor every night, and was the only Moose player to appear in all 80 games this season. These three men are the foundation of the Herd's success.

The two highly-touted youngsters in Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder had an impact, but both men were limited in their production for different reasons. Hodgson was called up to the Canucks on a few occasions, and his extended stays in the NHL broke up the chemistry he was having with his linemates. Hodgson would have been a huge contributor for the Moose down the stretch and into the playoffs, but he was platooned in the Canucks' press box.

Schroeder, on the other hand, never quite found linemates that worked well. He disappeared for stretches of time that made it seem like he wasn't even in the lineup. Schroeder has to find a way to continue to contribute to the success of this team even if he isn't on the scoresheet. If he does, I guarantee he'll improve upon his ten goals and 28 points from this season. Hard work always returns good results, especially on the ice.

The NHL returnees really had a solid impact down the stretch for the Moose. Guillaume Desbiens, Alexandre Bolduc, and Rick Rypien all brought energy and physicality to the line-up while providing offence when they could. I thought that these three men had a huge impact on how this team played as they also provided veteran leadership for the club. There's no doubt that the Moose third- and fourth-lines were significantly improved with these three men in the lineup.

Adding to those lines were Mario Bliznak, Shawn Weller, Aaron Volpatti, and Kevin Clark. These three men brought unique abilities to the ice: Bliznak has speed; Weller brought size; Volpatti brought toughness; Clark brought physicality. What they all had in addition to their unique skill was goal-scoring when needed. While I would have liked to have seen an increase in scoring from each of these men this season, they played within their roles very well and the Moose benefited from their inclusion in the lineup.

The one man that made a huge impact on the Moose was Garth Murray. Murray wasn't a big scorer, although he did have a number of big shorthanded goals for the Moose this season. No, what Murray brought was effort, hustle, and determination. Those three traits allowed the Moose penalty killing units to be ranked near the top of the AHL all season long. Murray was a thorn in the sides of many powerplay units this season, and his energy was seen in spades when he was on the ice. Murray should be an inspiration to all of his teammates for his passion and determination on the ice.

Losing players like Jeff Tambellini (Canucks), Victor Oreskovich (Canucks), and Jonas Andersson (KHL) for the majority of the AHL season didn't help matters in Winnipeg either. I'm not going to tell players not to follow their hearts and their dreams, but these were important players to the Moose at the start of the season. The NHL is always the ultimate goal, so I find no fault with the Canucks or with Tambellini and Oreskovich, but Andersson's departure was a little frustrating.

Joel Perrault and Jason Jaffray will most likely not be with the club when training camp opens next season as they are still employed by the Anaheim Ducks, so it was a great run with them this season. Here's hoping they don't do too much damage against the Moose next season.

AHL: Business As Usual

For now, let's forget all the NHL-to-Winnipeg talk and just focus on what we have in front of us. Yes, the Moose could be gone come September 2011, but it sounds like there's a good chance that the Moose will be here for at least one more year, and I'm excited about that.

There's unfinished business here in Moose-land, and the Herd will most likely have one shot to bring home a Calder Cup. With players like Lack, Baumgartner, Flood, Shirokov, Rosa, and Hodgson in the lineup, there's no reason to believe that the Moose have any less of a chance of winning a Calder Cup than they did one year previous.

After a triple-overtime loss to the Bulldogs in Game Seven, the Moose were ever so close to being a threat to capture this year's Calder Cup. Let's get the Herd charging again next season, and there may still be a championship parade in Winnipeg's future! Thanks for a great season, Moose players, coaches, fans, and management, and I'm already looking forward to next season's action!

Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!

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