Being a fan of an AHL team can be difficult: there are constant affiliation changes, the roster is in a near-constant state of flux, and for a lot of clubs, and relocation of franchises is a legitimate concern. This season has seen some of the most drastic upheaval in the AHL since they merged with the now-defunct International Hockey League in 2001.
The AHL made a bold move out West, adding a Pacific Division at the request of the Western-based NHL clubs. The Kings moved their affiliate from Manchester, NH to Ontario, CA; the Edmonton Oilers moved from Oklahoma City to Bakersfield, CA; the Flames uprooted the Adirondack squad, moving them to Stockton, CA; the Sharks brought their Worcester, MA farm team to their own barn in San Jose; while the Ducks switched coasts with the affiliate, moving it from Norfolk, VA to San Diego.
Relocation was not limited to the teams moving out West: Montreal moved the Hamilton Bulldogs to St. John's, after Winnipeg moved their affiliate from there to Winnipeg, resurrecting the Manitoba Moose franchise.
In addition to the relocated clubs, there was some shuffling of affiliations involving four NHL clubs. The Panthers changed from San Antonio to Portland, ME; the Coyotes left Portland for Springfield; Colorado teamed up with San Antonio after separating from Lake Erie; with the Jackets hooking up with the latter to make an all-Ohio affiliation.
There are many reasons for hockey fans in Ohio to be excited about the new partnership. The marketing advantages are obvious, and having the farm club a few hours up the road will be great for keeping a closer eye on player development and will make for easier call-ups.
For fans of the Lake Erie Monsters, they are in for a treat. The Jackets are loaded with excellent young forwards and many of them should highlight the Monsters roster. Granted, there will be some player changes between now and the start of the AHL season, but there's no doubt the Monsters will be one of the more skilled teams in the AHL next season.
Assuming sophomores Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano remain in the NHL, the Monsters lineup could feature a pair of former first round picks in Kerby Rychel and Sonny Milano. Rychel's name has been mentioned on trade rumors, but if he doesn't get dealt he'll give the Monsters a power forward threat with a nose for the net. Milano has skill to burn, and is perhaps one of the most skilled puck handlers in hockey.
Rychel and Milano are joined by a quartet of European prospects with high ceilings. William Karlsson was acquired from Anaheim in the James Wisniewski deal, and looks like a skilled center who should see NHL time this upcoming season. Daniel Zaar has been developing in Sweden the past few seasons, but is making the move to North America. Zaar is best known for his lethal wrist shot. Markus Hannikainen was recently signed out of Europe after putting up some strong numbers. It remains to be seen if he follows the path of recent European free agent signings like Simon Hjalmarsson and Ilari Melart who returned to Europe after not making the Jackets, make I like the chances of him accepting a role in the AHL as he works toward cracking the NHL roster. The most exciting player in the Euro quartet is Oliver Bjorkstrand, who is making the jump to the pros after dominating the Western Hockey League in recent seasons.
The Monsters will be well-balanced up front, with sophomore Josh Anderson bringing his rugged style, and coupled with rookie pro Nick Moutrey (making the jump from the OHL) the duo will keep the opposition honest. T.J. Tynan and Lukas Sedlak are two prospects who already have AHL experience, and they'll look to continue their development in Lake Erie. Tynan is a slick playmaker, while Sedlak has shown to be a responsible two-way forward.
Rychel, Milano, Karlsson, Zaar, Hannikainen, Bjorkstrand, Anderson, Moutrey, Tynan and Sedlak represent the future, but the Jackets will fill out the forward group with veterans to assist in their development. Ryan Craig has been the captain of the Springfield Falcons for the past couple of years, and it stands to reason that he will be brought back in a similar capacity with the Monsters. AHL veterans (and current free agents) like Michael Chaput, Luke Adam, Dana Tyrell and Sean Collins (or players of their ilk) have served as depth call-ups for the Jackets in recent years, and will round out the forwards. Not all will be back with so many great young players needing ice time, but looking at the names I just mentioned one can only be optimistic about the Monsters' chances to contend for a Calder Cup.
Milano - Karlsson - Rychel
Craig - Tynan - Bjorkstrand
Anderson - Sedlak - Hannikainen
Moutrey - Chaput - Zaar
(Adam - Tyrell - Collins)
The forwards will be the bright spot for the Monsters, but things are rock-solid in goal. Anton Forsberg was an AHL All-Star last season, and Joonas Korpisalo-a former third rounder by the CBJ-is making the move from Finland to Lake Erie. The duo is full of skill and promise.
The big question mark is on defense. Currently the only defensemen signed by the CBJ who are realistic options for Lake Erie are Justin Falk and Dillon Heatherington. Heatherington will be a rookie pro, making the jump from Swift Current of the WHL. Austin Madaisky is an RFA, and is a good bet to be re-signed after joining Forsberg as an AHL All-Star last season. Thomas Larkin and Will Weber are also RFA blueliners, but neither is a sure thing to be re-signed. Frederic St. Denis is a UFA who plays the veteran AHLer role- he or a player like him will be on the roster for stability and depth.
Last season the Jackets and Falcons filled out the defense with players on AHL/ECHL contracts, and there's a good chance that will be the case next season as well. The lack of defensive prospects in the CBJ pipeline should be addressed at the NHL draft in June, but these players won't be seeing AHL ice time for at least a couple of seasons.
One thing is certain - the Monsters should be a damned exciting team to watch. Sure, the players I listed may make the Jackets, or they could be dealt, or could even return to Europe in some cases, but at this point in the offseason there is a ton of optimism. The future is bright for both the Jackets and Monsters.