Normally in these Lake Erie Monsters updates we give you details of the previous week's games, which if you read them closely (and I hope you do) provide at least some clues as to how individual guys are doing at the AHL level.
Today the only thing I'll tell you about the Monsters as a team last week was that they split two games – both by 3-2 scores in regulation – against a very good Texas Stars squad. The two games were completed in about 18 hours and were very entertaining and evenly matched. Multi-point scorers over the weekend were Trent Vogelhuber (two goals), John Ramage (two assists) and Jaime Sifers (two assists).
The Monsters' record now stands at 22-16-4-3, good enough for fifth place in a very strong Central Division and seventh in the Western Conference overall, which would earn a playoff spot if the season ended today.
That playoff spot, by the way, would come about only because of the AHL's new postseason format, which allows the top four teams in each division to qualify, but with the following exception: "If the fifth-place team in the Atlantic or Central Division finishes with a better points percentage than the fourth-place team in the North or Pacific Division, it would cross over and compete in the other division's bracket." If the season ended today, Lake Erie would indeed have a better points percentage than the fourth-place team in the Pacific Division (Stockton), which means the Monsters would apparently be headed to California for a first-round playoff game.
In any event, that's as much of a team update as we're going to offer this week. Instead, with the Monsters' regular season nearly 60% complete, let's look at the individual players. In order to be considered for the assessments below, a guy has to be:
- Blue Jackets property (as opposed to Lake Erie's various ECHL signees)
- Someone who has skated in at least 20 games with the Monsters this season. Or, in the case of the goalies, someone whose name is either Anton Forsberg or Joonas Korpisalo.
Are we clear there? OK, let's take a look at the contestants:
Josh Anderson (28 GP, 9-9-18, -1, 64 PIMs): Josh has been good this year for the Monsters, great at times even. But like almost any 21-year-old at this level, he has been inconsistent. Some nights he isn't as much of a presence as you'd like your 6-foot-3, 221-pound winger to be. And he seems to take more than his share of obstruction penalties. The tools are there for a good career in the NHL, as he recently showed in a stint with Columbus. The mind and spirit just need to catch up.
Oliver Bjorkstrand (29 GP, 7-6-13, -1, 6 PIMs): Boy, does this guy have some stick skills. He can weave through traffic and maintain possession of the puck with the best of them. He missed several weeks with injury and just now seems to be catching up. Sometimes he makes passes that would work in the NHL because his linemates would be in the correct position to receive them. That's not always the case in the minors. In any event, I want to see him step up and start to control games with his skill a bit more over these next several weeks of the season.
Alex Broadhurst (32 GP, 2-15-17, -2, 10 PIMs): One of the pieces of the Brandon Saad trade, Broadhurst is a centerman who lacks size (listed at 6-0, 188) but works hard all over the ice. If he's going to make it, he'll need to hit the weight room a bit harder and work toward being, say, an NHL third-liner who can potentially contribute on special teams. I like his game in the AHL. I'm just not sure how and if it translates against higher-level competition.
Michael Chaput (42 GP, 9-14-23, -2, 24 PIMs): I'm a little stumped when it comes to Chaput. He's Lake Erie's second-leading scorer behind T.J. Tynan, he's great at faceoffs, and he seems to backcheck willingly and often. Good mix, right? But he also has the look of a guy who will always put up good AHL numbers and struggle to produce in the NHL. I hate to say that because it's such an inexact science, but he just looks like that kind of guy, you know? Yes, he had a goal when he spent a few games in Columbus back in November/December, and he competed hard during his call-up. But what you saw there may be all Chaput has. He's a third- or fourth-liner in the big leagues, for sure. It's just a matter of whether he can perform consistently enough to earn that role and keep it.
Brett Gallant (37 GP, 0-1-1, -8, 92 PIMs): Gally is what Gally has always been. He's a fierce competitor and feared fighter who often has a hard time finding guys willing to chuck knuckles with him. You can see the effort he gives out there every shift, and you love him for it. He's just not a guy with the skill to stick in today's NHL. But he gets decent fourth-line minutes in Cleveland and deserves them. He and big Oleg Yevenko are a pretty fearsome fighting duo as far as AHL teams go.
Markus Hannikainen (21 GP, 5-7-12, +2, 6 PIMs): Here's another guy with good puck-handling skills like Bjorkstrand. Pretty quick on his skates, too. The 22-year-old Finn isn't projected to be a scoring threat, apparently, though the potential is there to be a real playmaker. He disappears at times, but then again he's young and he did miss several weeks with a shoulder injury. Let's give him some more time to gel before we pass full judgement.
Sonny Milano (25 GP, 5-9-14, +4, 10 PIMs): He's 19 and playing against guys who are in some cases a decade or even a decade-and-a-half older. So relax, he's doing fine. Yes, I know there were rumors of him going back to the OHL when he returned from the World Junior Championships a few weeks ago. But honestly, I never saw that as a viable option. He has a lot to learn, and sometimes when you watch his play away from the puck you think, "Wait, what's he doing?" Which is OK, because Milano has special raw talent that he needs to continue honing as a professional, not as an overage junior. Like I said, don't worry about him. In fact, just put Sonny out of your mind for the rest of this year and let him season a bit. He'll be OK, or at least he'll be OK when he returns from whatever injury has kept him out of the lineup lately.
Nick Moutrey (31 GP, 3-5-8, +3, 27 PIMs): Moutrey is a young buck, just 20 years old. But he has Josh Anderson size (6-3, 222), doesn't mind taking the body and mixes it up when he's in there. The former Saginaw Spirit has been called a classic Canadian power forward, and I agree. The Jackets see some offensive potential in his game, but he hasn't shown it to any great degree yet in Cleveland. It's way too early to figure out what he's going to be and whether he fits long term into the organization's plans. Another one to file away in your mind while he gets professional experience with Lake Erie.
Lukas Sedlak (29 GP, 2-2-4, +4, 17 PIMs): Sedlak hustles and has a strong shot. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else to point to in his skill set that would particularly recommend him. He's a 22-year-old Czech kid whose NHL future, if he has one, is almost certainly as a third- or fourth-line, two-way center. He has to do all of the little things right to advance.
T.J. Tynan (45 GP, 3-24-27, -2, 28 PIMs): Hey, it's AHL All-Star T.J. Tynan! With Kerby Rychel sticking in Columbus for the moment, the Monsters' AHL representative is now officially Tynan, a small (5-8, 165), slick-handed center who leads the team in scoring and also did so last year in Springfield. Tynan, who played collegiately at Notre Dame and looks the part of a Fighting Irish with his red hair and red beard, seems to figure in every important Lake Erie goal. He makes good decisions with the puck and it pays off statistically for him, though it must be said that sometimes he manages to thread pucks through openings that I'm pretty sure wouldn't be there if he were facing NHL competition. Anyway, at his size he really has to dominate offensively in the minors. And despite having solid numbers, I don't think anyone would say he "dominates" games right now. Let's see where he goes from here.
Trent Vogelhuber (39 GP, 8-4-12, -2, 34 PIMs): Good penalty killer and team leader. Vogelhuber is also a sentimental favorite in Cleveland, having been born in Ohio and playing his college hockey at Miami of Ohio. In the AHL, you want him out there skating regular minutes in some form or fashion. He can excel here. But in the NHL? It's hard to see him making that leap. It would take the kind of advance in talent and output rarely seen in 27-year-olds.
Daniel Zaar (40 GP, 11-9-20, -8, 12 PIMs): The Monsters' Twitter feed insists on calling him "The Zaar." Fine, I can accept that. But can we get him to start living up to the preseason billing he had as a solid two-way player? He's not bad in the defensive zone, exactly, but sometimes I see him starting to skate up ice a little too quickly in his haste to get into the offensive end of the rink. Which is fine for the guy who leads the team in goals, but his development and advancement will depend on him fleshing out all aspects of his game. I like his shot, I like his skating (and he seems to have nice hair). I just want to see a more complete approach to the game from him. Keep an eye on "The Zaar."
Dillon Heatherington (38 GP, 2-7-9, +4, 25 PIMs): I am far more impressed with Heatherington now than I was at the start of the season. You just didn't notice him much, which of course isn't necessarily a bad thing for a defenseman, but he didn't seem to be much of a difference-maker on the ice back in October and November. Now, however, you notice him, and mostly in a good way. He and John Ramage are the two d-men I most want to have out on the ice when you're protecting a one-goal lead (OK, maybe Jaime Sifers figures in there, too) because you feel like Heatherington will make the right choices at crunch time. He's another 20-year-old who's learning the pro game, so let's give him some time. I'm intrigued.
Dean Kukan (23 GP, 3-5-8, +1, 6 PIMs): Kukan has been out the past month or so with the dreaded lower-body injury. Not sure when he'll be back, but pre-injury he was starting to live up to his billing as a good-sized (6-2, 209) d-man with a bit of skill. He's Swiss. Did you know that? Not a lot of Swiss guys in pro hockey these days. As I recall, he was getting some power-play time early in the season, so let's see if Coach Jared Bednar puts him back there at the point once he returns.
Michael Paliotta (41 GP, 6-12-18, -4, 19 PIMs): Paliotta, another product of the Saad trade, was a college hockey captain at Vermont and is doing fairly well in his first season as a professional. He plays physically and uses his 6-4, 212-pound frame to advantage, but I've also been pleasantly surprised by his offensive ability. He has a good shot and passes the puck fairly well. I'll go out on a limb here and say he'll be a #5 or #6 defenseman for the Blue Jackets in two seasons.
John Ramage (38 GP, 3-6-9, -3, 37 PIMs): Lately I've made a point of keying in on Ramage and watching him throughout his shifts. Like Heatherington, he didn't leave much of an impression on me early in the year, but now I feel like he's constantly making big plays, and he makes them because he puts himself in the right place. That takes vision and puck sense, and Ramage seems to have both. Am I overestimating the son of former NHL defenseman Rob Ramage? I don't know, maybe so. But I like his game a lot. He has that "shutdown defender" potential you like to see in a young blueliner.
Jaime Sifers (44 GP, 3-10-13, +13, 66 PIMs): Sifers is a heart and soul guy. Seriously, being plus-13 for a young team on which he's surrounded by rookies who sometimes make questionable defensive decisions is nothing to sneeze at. But even more important is the way he shows up every game (he has only missed one this year) and skates every shift hard. If the Blue Jackets came to me tonight and asked who they should call up from among the Monsters' defensive corps, I would unhesitatingly say the 33-year-old Sifers. No, he's not a long-term prospect, but you could get some good defensive play from him for the next couple of years while others in the system develop. Geez, it's hard not to like Jaime Sifers.
Oleg Yevenko (38 GP, 1-2-3-, -5, 118 PIMs): Yeah, Oleg. People ask me about him a lot. Jackets fans, that is, because I think they want him to succeed. They want a 6-foot-7 Belarusian out there patrolling their blue line and dropping the gloves with some of the NHL's best tough guys. And I'm here to tell you...I have no idea whether it will ever actually happen. He's a good kid, Oleg is. Plays for his teammates, hits hard, fights all comers and is willing to take a shot to give one (which he often doesn't have to worry about because he has such a reach advantage on some guys that he just holds them at arm's length when he fights). The two big knocks on Yevenko are that he doesn't yet know how to use that big body of his most effectively in the defensive zone, and that his skating is suspect. The former can be taught, while the latter can be marginally improved, but probably only marginally. The jury is still out on Oleg Yevenko, but it's certainly not because the kid doesn't try.
Anton Forsberg (25 GP, 13-8, 2.58, .907): Earlier this season I wrote that I felt Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo were even in terms of their readiness to join the Blue Jackets, and that Forsberg had simply been the victim of more bad defensive plays in front of him than Korpisalo had in Cleveland. The evidence suggests that I was wrong about that, and that Korpisalo is further along than his Swedish counterpart. Like many young goalies, Forsberg will make a series of great saves and then let in a soft goal that makes you scratch your head. The size and physical tools are there, but perhaps what's lacking is mental focus and full control of the pseudo-butterfly style of goaltending he employs. I wouldn't give up on Forsberg just yet.
Joonas Korpisalo (13 GP, 5-6, 2.34, .918): If you're a Blue Jackets fan, you're getting to know all about Joonas Korpisalo. Technically, he gets better and better all the time, as many of the young Finnish goalies tend to do (what is it about that country and netminding?) He doesn't get rattled very easily, either, and he's athletic. Where can he improve? Everywhere, of course, but decision-making is one area, and taking care of his body so that he's less subject to injury. But those are nitpicks. He's 21 years old and his stock is rising. It's good to be Joonas Korpisalo right now.
The Monsters will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a pair of games this weekend against the Charlotte Checkers. The teams have already faced each other four times this year, with Lake Erie posting a 1-1-1-1 mark in the season series.