Predicting the fortunes of an American Hockey League team can be a dicey proposition. The inconsistency of youth, the difficulty of transitioning to the pro game, and the unforeseen nature of call-ups to the NHL parent club all conspire to make preseason prognostication a fruitless endeavor in the minors.
All of which is why "cautiously optimistic" is probably the best way to approach the 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters. The Monsters, entering their first season as the primary affiliate of the Blue Jackets, appear on paper to be loaded with raw talent, especially up front. Perhaps more raw talent than Cleveland hockey fans ever saw during their eight-year affiliation with the Colorado Avalanche. But there are many variables that affect how well raw talent translates into wins at the AHL level.
The general consensus is that behind the solid corps of forwards in Cleveland will be a less-certain group of defensemen and a perhaps-even-less-certain goaltending duo. It could be that the Monsters will be a team that scores a lot of goals while also giving up a lot, which if nothing else makes for some interesting hockey for the masses to watch. But I think people might be surprised at how well the Monsters' blueliners play this season.
Let's take a look at what we can expect up in Lake Erie, starting up front:
How the top two lines in Cleveland shake out will obviously depend largely on which on-the-bubble guys get sent down by the end of camp. Kerby Rychel is still with the Jackets, but may very well ultimately be on his way north to the Monsters to get consistent ice time and serve as a likely candidate for a call-up if/when one of the Columbus forwards is lost to injury. Other guys still in camp who may get sent down include Markus Hannikainen and Michael Chaput, and the injured Josh Anderson and Daniel Zaar.
As for guys already reassigned to Cleveland and likely to stick there, that group includes the likes of Sonny Milano, T.J. Tynan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Ryan Craig, Alex Broadhurst, and Brett Gallant, among others. Bjorkstrand is probably the most intriguing skater on that list. Put some meat on the 6-foot, 174-pound Dane's bones and, combined with his natural talent, he's going to be fun to watch. He may be a permanent fixture on the Jackets' roster by the time all is said and done this year.
William Karlsson is another guy who has done enough to stick around with the big club so far in training camp. If he ends up getting sent down, though, watch out. The scoring lines in Cleveland could include some combination of the dynamic Karlsson, Milano, Rychel, Chaput, Tynan, Anderson, Zaar, and potentially Bjorkstrand, if he comes down. Take it from a guy who watched eight years' worth of Avalanche prospects come and go through Cleveland: The Monsters have never had such a rich abundance of talent at the forward position. Never.
Vying for spots on the other two lines are potential team captain Craig, enforcer Gallant, Broadhurst, and prospects Seth Ambroz, Trent Vogelhuber, Lukas Sedlak, and Peter Quenville, among others. Craig may actually find a place on those two top lines, depending on how things shake out.
We again hedge our bets here with the usual disclaimers around youth, call-ups, etc., but the forwards are reason #1 to be excited about the Lake Erie Monsters this season.
There's not an abundance of minor-league depth in this group, but the guys they do have are solid. I believe they're collectively underrated, assuming they mostly stay healthy.
The unofficial captain of the blueliners may be Andrew Bodnarchuk IF he loses his battle for one of the final defensive slots in Columbus. Bodnarchuk knows how to win, having played a key role with the AHL Calder Cup-winning Manchester Monarchs last spring and being included on the roster of two Stanley Cup winners in recent years (Boston and Los Angeles). He's obviously top four material in Cleveland and will be counted on to supply veteran leadership.
Michael Paliotta, he of the Brandon Saad trade, has been sent to Lake Erie and should also log significant minutes. He has good size (6-3, 200) and cultivated a solid set of skills in four years at the University of Vermont. The reports on Paliotta say he's already very positionally sound and plays a nice physical game, and over the last year or two he has also developed offensively (9-27-36 last season for the Catamounts).
Other guys to keep tabs on include Austin Madaisky, Dillon Heatherington, Dean Kukan, Oleg Yevenko, Jaime Sifers and John Ramage. Yevenko has been the topic of some discussion this summer because of his size (6-7, 230) and willingness to play it rough. He turned some heads in Blue Jackets camp and will not be forgotten by the brass in Columbus, to be sure.
The netminding duo in Lake Erie is all but set: Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo. Neither one is going to challenge for a spot in Columbus right now.
The #1 guy in Cleveland may initially be Forsberg, a seventh-round draft pick in 2011 who spent time with the Jackets last season when Sergei Bobrovsky was hurt, then injured his knee and missed half the year. He had the knee scoped over the summer and is reportedly healthy, which could be a very good thing for Lake Erie when you consider that he was among the AHL's top goalies as a rookie before getting hurt.
What Forsberg needs right now is to play, and to play consistently. He should get a chance to do that with the Monsters. His style is an interesting butterfly hybrid, and he's not afraid to come out of the net. At 6-2, he has good height and needs to learn how to use it more effectively against North American shooters.
As for Korpisalo, he did some impressive things in training camp that should put him in good stead with the organization. Like Forsberg, he also stands 6-2 but with a little more weight on his frame (186 pounds to Forsberg's 176). Korpisalo, a 21-year-old Finn, moves well laterally and plays aggressively – sometimes a bit too aggressively, according to some reports.
If Forsberg fumbles his chance to maintain the #1 job in Cleveland, there's no indication the Jackets organization will hesitate giving the bulk of the minutes to Korpisalo. Some scouts actually feel that, of the two, Korpisalo has better long-term potential to be a starter in the NHL.
Looming in the background in all of this is Oscar Dansk, another Blue Jackets goaltending prospect who will play this year in his native Sweden after a rough stretch last year with Springfield of the AHL. In time, Dansk may surpass both Forsberg and Korpisalo, but for this season the only Swedish netminder playing in Cleveland will be Forsberg.