With the Prospect Tournament about to get underway, it is a perfect time to take a first look at what to expect from the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, Cleveland Monsters. After another disappointing season last year, the Monsters look to climb out of the North Division basement and challenge for another Calder Cup. There will be a lot of familiar faces returning to Cleveland this year, with a few new ones sprinkled in. However, the biggest change for the club won’t be on the ice, but behind the bench.
Let’s take a look at where the Monsters are at prior to the 2022-23 season.
Losing the offensive production of Kevin Stenlund and the veteran leadership of Justin Scott will be felt this coming season in the forward ranks. At the same time however, the Monsters are hoping for some continued improvement from within and an influx of some new talent to fill the ranks (and the net).
If they don’t end up making the NHL club, the Monsters will lean heavily on youngsters, Liam Foudy and Trey Fix-Wolansky to provide the scoring punch. They should have the veteran presence of Brendan Gaunce back in the mix after he played his way to another contract last season. Carson Meyer will most likely be back in Cleveland this year with 13 games of NHL experience under his belt. Tyler Angle is a big player to watch for me, as this could be his final shot to prove he can play at the next level. He led the forwards in points last season, but after being near point-per-game the prior season, 36 points in 71 games is a bit of a letdown.
One signing that flew under the radar a little bit that I think will have a big impact is the signing of Owen Sillinger, who just happens to be Cole Sillinger’s brother. Sillinger has been a leader everywhere he has been, from Junior to College and I think he will grow in that role in the AHL.
The team also signed Justin Richards, son of former CBJ head coach Todd Richards, to a one-year deal. The 24-year-old Richards, is another former Ohio AAA Blue Jacket continuing his hockey career in the Jackets’ system. Richards had a promising start to his professional career after a successful collegiate run. Unfortunately, he had a disastrous season in Hartford last year, only totaling 14 points in 67 games, while more than doubling the next closest player's +/- with a gnarly -28. He is a reclamation project I do believe in, and he may just feel more at home back in Ohio.
Cleveland was in the bottom third of the league in scoring, and needs to see improvement from within if they want to make a return to the postseason in 2022-23.
The Monsters defense will once again most likely be led by young Jake Christiansen, assuming he doesn’t claim one of the final spots on the Blue Jackets’ defense. After leading the team in points and being tied for second in the league for goals by a blue liner, Christiansen will have a chance to prove he is the real deal by replicating and even improving on last years’ breakout performance. He has the potential to be one of Jarmo Kekalainen’s best signings should he continue on his current trajectory. I’d expect him to see a fair share of time in Columbus based on the health of the defense.
It is possible Monsters fans are treated to a season of David Jiricek while he acclimates to North American hockey. I personally don’t see this happening as I think it will be either the NHL for him (more likely than we have been led to believe) or a return to Czechia for another year of development in his home country. On the off chance Jiricek does land in Cleveland, it gives this defense a whole new look and a big boost. Which is saying a lot considering he is just 18 years old.
Captain Dillon Simpson is in the final season of his three-year deal and looks to have a bounce back year after a somewhat disappointing campaign. Cleveland is banking on Billy Sweezey and Tim Berni to take the next steps in their development after playing their first full seasons in the AHL. Berni is a former 6th round pick of the Jackets who will be entering the second year of his entry-level deal, while Sweezey starts the two-year, two-way deal he signed last spring. Sweezey is a bit older at 26, but has shown glimpses of being a physical, crease-clearing, stay-at-home defenseman.
Blue Jackets draft picks, Stanislav Svozil, Samuel Knazko and Ole Julian Bjorgvik-Holm should also see time on the back end. All three of them have NHL aspirations and should provide a boost in bolstering the blue line as they continue their development.
The Monsters had problems keeping the puck out of their net last season, with only three teams allowing more goals. They will need some big improvements to get back to relevancy in the North Division.
As long as both Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo remain healthy in Columbus, it should be the Daniil Tarasov show in Cleveland. Tarasov didn’t post great numbers last season in Clevaland compared to his stellar NHL numbers. He has a chance to really show what he can do as the undisputed #1 goalie on a team. It remains to be seen if the workload will be any easier behind the Monsters’ defense who struggled mightily last season, but a healthy Tarasov should be up to the challenge.
Sharing the net with Tarasov will be Jet Greaves. Greaves saw a heavier workload than anticipated last year thanks to injuries in the goaltending pipeline and performed admirably. He earned himself an entry-level deal — partly out to necessity to sit on an NHL bench — and will hopefully reward the Blue Jackets’ brass by continuing to develop to become another successful undrafted free agent signing.
This is my wild card. I think the hiring of Columbus native, Trent Vogelhuber, will have the biggest impact on whether or not the Cleveland Monsters have a successful season. Former head coach, Mike Eaves, just didn’t have the success he had at the college ranks, and a new voice in the room is just what this team needs. Vogelhuber played on the Monsters’ Calder Cup winning team under coach Jared Bednar, so he knows what it takes to win in this league and I’m very excited for a youthful coach to take over this team and instill some new life into it.
Overall, I’m not sure the Cleveland Monsters did enough to get back into the playoffs, but I do think we will see revitalized team that plays a more exciting brand of hockey under a new coaching staff.