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Going North: Taking a look at the Cleveland Monsters’ season that went south

Monsters finish the season dead last in their division and conference

AHL: APR 14 Laval Rocket at Cleveland Monsters Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was a tough season for the AHL affiliate of our Columbus Blue Jackets. The Cleveland Monsters wrapped up their season on April 30th with a 5-2 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Monsters finished in last place in both their division and conference with a final record of 28-35-8-5.

In my opinion, it just appeared like the team never had a chance to really gel and come together to establish their identity of the type of team they were going to be. Honestly it was tough to follow them this year with all of the new and unrecognizable names that were often filling out the lineup.

It seemed like a perfect storm of unfortunate events played out this year in Cleveland. Stick with me if you care to see some of what contributed to a (preferably) forgettable season.

How’d we end up here?

Fowards

The Monsters were led in points by defenseman, Jake Christiansen (13-32-45), who had himself a breakout season in the AHL, and has earned himself a long look next season to potentially become more of an NHL regular. Their next leading scorer, Tyler Angle, put up just 37 points in 71 games. Angle came back to Earth this season, after being a point-per-game player in last years’ abbreviated season. That just goes to show how often goals were at a premium for this Cleveland team this season. In their defense, they were missing multiple pieces who figured to be leading the offensive charge.

Liam Foudy missed the latter half of the season with a lingering shoulder issue. His last game was on Jan. 30th before he was shut down. He played at a .66 ppg in the games he did appear in, but only showed flashes of NHL skill, which is something you really look for in a first round talent. I’m sure the team extends Foudy, or at least qualifies him to keep him team under control. If he has any trade value anymore, I could see him as a name the organization is more than willing to move.

Kevin Stenlund was probably the biggest disappointment in my eyes this year. I’ve always been intrigued by his game and wanted to see him with more of a consistent chance in a bottom-six role. I really thought this year would be his chance, considering the lack of center depth.

Boy, was I wrong. Stenlund suited up for three games this year with the Jackets, seeing a grand total of 22:34 TOI, with just over four minutes in his last appearance. Apparently HC Brad Larsen and management had seen enough.

Back in the AHL, Stenlund put up modest numbers, but it had to be demoralizing for him to see himself passed on the depth chart by so many others. He put up 25 points (8G, 17A) in just 42 games, but it seemed like the writing was on the wall for him in Columbus when he failed to make the opening night roster. Sadly (for me at least), I’d imagine Stenlund will be playing elsewhere next season. I can’t imagine he’s too eager to stick around here without much of a shot at cracking the CBJ lineup, considering he’s turning 26 at the start of net season. It was hard to find much info on Stenlund’s injury and why he played just over half of the team’s games. It led me to believe there could have been something more going on there.

The other player who missed significant time was Trey Fix-Wolansky. The Jackets knew TFW was going to be out for an extended period of time, but it still hurt and the team missed his energy and scoring touch. He did impress once he managed to return and earned himself a call-up where he also impressed. In my opinion he is ready for a full-time job in the NHL, so its very possibly the Monsters will need to replace his production when next season rolls around.

The Monsters were also short a number of other players at random times during the season, like Brendan Gaunce, who was tied for the team lead in goals even though he played under 40 games. A player who also shared the team lead in goals, Carson Meyer, also spent a significant amount of time in Columbus.

Such is life in the AHL, but that is going to be tough to overcome for any team.

Defense

To make things worse, in addition to their anemic offense, their defense was atrocious many nights. It is somewhat surprising considering the defense, aside from young Jake Christiansen, has some veteran players on it. Every single defenseman who played regular minutes— sans one— was negative in terms of +/-, which individually isn’t the most telling stat, but when the entire defense is on the wrong end of that stat, you know it was a struggle.

Captain Dillon Simpson is a seasoned vet in the AHL who had somewhat of a down year, posting just 16 points in 67 games. This was comparable to many of his prior AHL seasons, but when you consider he put up 17 points in just 23 games last year, I think both he and the team expected bigger things this season. He was the last regular player on the team to score a goal this season which probably began to weigh on him early in the year.

The Monsters defense was also cursed by an unmotivated Scott Harrington eating, or should we say choking on minutes down in the minors. Harry’s NHL career is most likely done and he knows it. He was content to cash that one-way check and cruise to taking home the green jacket for Cleveland with an ugly -25 in just 50 games played. It’s still crazy to me that even with all of this, the Jackets still won the Rychel-Harrington trade.

In addition to Christiansen, another bright spot on the defense was Billy Sweezey. Sweezey was playing on an AHL deal and impressed Jarmo Kekalainen enough to be rewarded with a two-way contract beginning next year. Sweezey is a big, physical presence on defense which is something the Jackets are desperately needing on their back end. Sweezey led the team in penalty minutes, amassing 114PIMS along with 8 fights and was the only player on the defense who was in the positive with a +3. If he can continue to improve, and the Jackets don’t address that need for physicality, it’s not out of the question for him to make his NHL debut next year.

Goaltending

The icing on the misfortune cake was the injury to Daniil Tarasov. Tarasov should have been the undisputed starting goaltender this year, gaining invaluable experience playing North American hockey. We all know what happened, and the result was that the Monsters never really had a steady #1 goalie this year. J.F. Berube was the next in line for heavy minutes in Cleveland, and he got them when he wasn’t riding the pine with the Jackets. However, he was pretty stinky when he was between the pipes, only registering a .879 save percentage to match a 3.65 GAA. Woof.

Jet Greaves performed admirably in his first real taste of professional action with Tarasov hurt, and Berube with Columbus, He was credited with a .905 save percentage and a 2.84 GAA. Greaves made a name for himself and will most likely be in line for a larger share of the net next season.

Overall it was just a disappointing season, and you can argue it wasn’t all their fault. Injuries, call-ups, and PTO players were the story of the Monsters this year.

The real MVP(s)

The Cleveland Monsters have a passionate and dedicated fanbase and are usually near the top of the league standings in terms of attendance. However, this year was even more impressive. Even with a last place team, Cleveland ranked #2 in the league with an average attendance of nearly 7,200 fans. In their meaningless home finale, they drew a total of 12,123 fans. For some perspective, somehow the Toronto Marlies barely manage to draw an average of 2,000 per game in the Hockey capital of the World.

So shoutout to Monsters fans for helping to make playing in Cleveland that much more of a top notch, big-league experience for the CBJ prospects.

A New Voice

Probably the biggest story of the offseason will be the team’s search for a new bench boss. Head coach Mike Eaves is set to step away from coaching after three years in Cleveland, prior to a much more impressive stint in college hockey, particularly at the University of Wisconsin.

Eaves was a highly-touted hire when he replaced former NHL defenseman, John Madden, behind the Monster’s bench. Unfortunately, Eaves’ collegiate and International success never translated to the AHL. In his three seasons leading the team, the Monsters amassed a 68-75-14-9 record. To be fair, the circumstances weren’t particularly ideal for a new coach, as the AHL had a pretty bizarre last few seasons. In 2019-20, the season was straight up canceled upon the arrival of COVID, followed by an abbreviated season in which the playoffs simply didn’t happen and the Calder Cup was not awarded. In the only season that Eaves’ team had a chance to win anything, they finished in last place.

A name that has already popped up as a potential replacement is already behind the bench and should be a familiar name to Columbus hockey fans: Trent Vogelhuber.

Whatever direction the team chooses to go, I think the change was needed. The Monsters have a lot of young talent that will be making their way through the organization in the coming years, and it will be a huge boost if they can recreate the success that occurred at the beginning of the Cleveland-Columbus affiliation.