Weekend In Manch
A visit to the team’s AHL affiliate reveals a caring coach, a close knit group of players, and a strong desire to win
In the office of Manchester Monarchs head coach Mark Morris, amongst framed photos of family members and career highlights, there’s a picture of him drinking from the Stanley Cup.
Shortly after 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening, Morris was answering questions from established Monarchs radio broadcaster Ken Cail that would be used in that night’s broadcast. Cail’s broadcast partner, Chris Ryan, listened to the answers as his son stirred in the seat beside him. Hip hop and house music formed a muffled but steady white noise in the background as the players continued the process of preparing themselves for that evening’s game against the Providence Bruins.
To Morris’ left is a dry erase board containing magnets depicting the names of skaters that populate his own lines, and the lines and pairings of the Los Angeles Kings. Morris acknowledges that all spots in that night’s lineup had been filled, though there was uncertainty over who will play left wing on the fourth line. Hunter Bishop’s name is there, though Morris specifies he’d take the ice for warm-ups, an indication that his spot in the lineup that night isn’t as firm as it was on the magnetized version of the four lines in Morris’ office.
A.J. Gale ends up slotting in the fourth line role, a placement that doesn’t contradict Bishop’s assessment of his own role on the team. Earlier that morning, Bishop proudly stated that he was a member of “The NFL Line.” Asked what that means, he replied that it’s because they only play on Sundays.
The lightheartedness and the youth is evident throughout the Monarchs’ complex at Verizon Wireless Arena, a modern facility on the south end of Elm Street, the route that bisects the downtown core of New Hampshire’s largest city. All of the players were born between February of 1986 and October of 1992.
And there’s also an deliberate concentration on the final two games before the AHL All-Star Break. Though the NHL‘s Olympic Break came 60 games into a compressed season, and perhaps several teams’ focus waxed and waned in the lead-up to the league shutdown even if it wasn’t admitted outright, Manchester’s focus has been recalibrated with the assignment of goaltender Martin Jones and first line right wing Tyler Toffoli to the club, one week after defenseman Jeff Schultz rejoined the Monarchs.
“It’s a crowded locker room right now and we have a little bit more punch to our lineup,” defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk said. “If anything, for these next five games, it really allows guys to compete and show what they’ve got. As much as we’re a team down here, guys need to show their game and if anything, having a few more bodies around here keeps guys on their toes and ready to go every time they get called. So guys are battling for spots and battling for opportunities after the Olympic break.”
“They know that I don’t put up with 50 percent efforts,” Morris said. “I think our guys have to understand that they’re pros, and this is a good test for us.”
After heavy snow wiped out practice on Wednesday, the team returned with a good jump at practice on Friday and was ready to defend their spot atop the AHL standings with games against the rival Providence Bruins on Saturday night and the Albany Devils on Sunday afternoon.
Morris answered the broadcasters’ questions and clarified players’ spots in the lineup and their intended usage before walking into assistant coach Freddy Meyer’s office across the corridor in the coaches’ wing of the facility, where special teams meetings were well underway. Though the Monarchs have been an excellent five-on-five team this season, the team’s power play and penalty kill are situated in the lower half of the league rankings.
They would face a particular challenge on Saturday against Providence, which boasts a top-five power play. In the penalty kill meeting, it is clear that the coaches and players have respect for the Bruins’ top unit, and they’re educating the players to be aware of the opposition’s proclivity to work the puck to the front of the net with hybrid-type shot/passes. The name Ryan Spooner – a second round selection by Boston at the 2010 Staples Center draft – is referenced multiple times as a focal point of the opposition’s efforts with the man advantage, as is Matt Fraser.
On the game’s first power play late in the first period, Spooner sent a puck from the right wing boards to Fraser in front of the net after the forward had found a soft spot between Manchester’s defenders. Fraser brought the puck to his backhand and lifted it past Jones to take a 1-0 lead 27 seconds into the man advantage.
It was a game that didn’t drastically deviate from the script of several Los Angeles Kings losses this season. The Monarchs possessed the puck disproportionately, out-shot the Bruins 33-21 and finished with the higher quality chances. They lost 3-2 as a pair of controversial incidents kept Manchester from capitalizing on momentum surges and ultimately impacted the final score.
The first occurred on a terrific individual play by emerging power forward prospect Nic Deslauriers, who knocked down a puck out of mid-air and buried his own rebound of an odd-angle shot. As he tapped home the puck that had trickled past Niklas Svedberg, he was shoved by Providence defenseman Ben Youds, which set off a chain reaction of events that culminated in Deslauriers’ stick hitting the crossbar and ricocheting up to hit Youds in the face. Deslauriers both scored and drew blood, leading to a four-minute Bruins power play that restricted the momentum the Monarchs were able to generate from tying the game.
The second controversy arose during a Manchester three-on-two early in the third period. On a give-and-go with Vincent LoVerde, Linden Vey wristed a return feed past Svedberg, who slid to his left and knocked the net off its moorings as the puck beat him inside the near post. The goal was disallowed and followed shortly by a Providence goal that gave the visitors a 3-1 lead. Even when Vey one-timed a power play Deslauriers feed past Svedberg to bring the home team within one again, the net again left its moorings. This time, the goal was upheld.
After the 3-2 loss, there was talk downstairs about whether the pegs attached to the nets were embedded deep enough into the ice. Even when the troublesome net didn’t come off its moorings, it appeared wobbly and unstable. Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford surmised that the arena may have cost the team two points in the standings.
“Obviously, when they kicked the net off its moorings, that’s a game-changer right there. That’s two points,” Morris said after the game. “Am I happy about it? No. But I thought our guys played hard enough and well enough to win that game. We didn’t catch a break all game long.”
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The wider goal of developing players into professionals and incorporating them into the parent team’s lineup works in lockstep with the more front-and-center need to win hockey games and contend for an AHL Championship, which would be the first in franchise history.
“You ask any Manchester Monarchs fan, and that’s a huge goal for this organization,” Morris said before the Sunday afternoon game against the Albany Devils. Though the emotion from the previous night’s controversies had subsided, the two incidents were still on the mind of the coach who earlier this year became the first coach to win 300 games at both the collegiate and professional level.
Morris opened up an American Hockey League rulebook and read aloud a rule that would seem to indicate that referee’s discretion may have played a role in disallowing Vey’s apparent goal from the night before.
“The referee may award a goal…,” Morris reads. While fostering the players’ professional habits and developing hockey players remains an aim, like anyone who has played the game and worked in hockey operations, there is an essential competitive streak and an intense drive to win. Decisions made in the previous night’s game that were out of his control may have affected the team’s ability to do so.
On the back of Morris’ office door, magnets of player names that had previously occupied spots on Monarchs and Kings lineups remain attached as a reminder of those who at one point were committed to the organization’s success but have since moved on. Bud Holloway. Jeff Zatkoff. Dustin Penner. The magnets aren’t discarded. They’re no longer Kings or Monarchs, though they’ve been players who were involved in the construction of the teams’ success.
Asked to name particular players that have left an impact on him, Morris at first takes a diplomatic response before the names begin to flow.
“That’s the natural reaction of most American Hockey League players – finding your niche with your team,” Morris says. The name Marc-Andre Cliche, who captained the Monarchs from 2010-13 and scored his first NHL goal with the Colorado Avalanche the week before, brought a smile to Morris face. Dwight King and Jordan Nolan’s names were also recalled.
“The closest thing we have to a King or Nolan right now is Nic Deslauriers,” Morris said.
“I haven’t seen him lose too many fights.”
There is pride in having a say in shaping the Los Angeles organization, and pride in the 14 Kings who won a Stanley Cup in 2012 that at one point wore Manchester jerseys. A jersey honoring those 14 players hangs above the ice at Verizon Wireless Arena.
The players that aren’t under contract with the Kings and face a more uphill shot of wearing a National Hockey League jersey naturally receive an equal amount of respect and admiration.
“Those guys are the glue of your team,” Morris said.
Chris Huxley, who graduated from Harvard and spent the final season of his four-year collegiate career captaining the Crimson, spent the better part of his first two professional seasons in the Inland Empire as a valuable puck-moving defenseman with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign. After drawing into 27 games with Manchester as part of his debut American Hockey League season last year, Huxley has a goal and three points in 12 games in 2013-14.
Morris looked back to a March, 2013 game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in which Huxley engaged Bobby Farnham, who would eventually finish third in the league with 274 penalty minutes.
“He tuned the kid…,” Morris said of Huxley’s superior performance in the fight. “We had never seen that side of him.”
“At one time our guys that were our heavyweights were both Ivy League guys in (Kevin) Westgarth and Paul Crosty. I don’t know what they’re teaching them in the Ivies, but they certainly aren’t quick to back down. These guys, although they’re not big in size, they’re big in heart and intelligent kids. They help the leadership group in a big way.”
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The afternoon after falling to Bruins in a one-goal game, the Monarchs quickly returned to the ice to face another quality opponent in the Devils. Manchester had lost a 5-2 game in the teams’ previous meeting in Albany one month prior, a game in which the Monarchs had difficulty penetrating a sizeable Devils defense corps.
“I told our guys we were playing a bunch of sequoias tonight,” Morris said.
A suffocating and workmanlike 3-0 Manchester win was Sunday’s result, with Jones stopping all 19 shots he faced in a game that began only 17 hours after the previous game had ended.
The win ensured that the Monarchs would close out the pre-All-Star break schedule with the most points in the AHL. The team has been a model of consistency that has largely avoided losing streaks. The team has lost consecutive games only three times this season and is yet to lose three in a row.
“From day one we got really hot. We’ve haven’t had any real long losing stretches,” Bodnarchuk said. “We lose a couple games, then we really bounce back. Probably the resilience of the team and having depth guys come in that are able to fill roles [is important]. We have a few guys that came up from the [ECHL] when we had guys called up to L.A. or got injured that have done an unreal job, and consistently we’ve had good goaltending. Jonesy stood on his head, and then when Jonesy had to go up to L.A., (J.F.) Berube really stepped up for us. But I think we have a really good core group and everyone buys into their roles. We have good team systems.”
If there’s anything that the team doesn’t have, it’s a championship banner. The Monarchs have consistently played upper echelon hockey but have only made it out of the first round twice in the team’s 12-year history. They’ve qualified for the playoffs 11 times, have hung a pair of divisional banners and boast an all-time points percentage of .592, though the team hasn’t been able to emerge from the Eastern Conference Final, which they reached in 2007 and 2010.
“It would obviously be huge for everyone,” captain Andrew Campbell said of the title run that the team will vie to accomplish this spring. “If you look at teams in the past that make runs like that, there are a lot of guys who end up furthering their careers down the road from making a run and winning a championship in the American League. It’d be a great boost for everyone and we all love playing together and something hopefully we can do.”
Campbell, a 2008 third round pick of the Kings, is in his sixth season in Manchester after spending three years with the Soo Greyhounds, where he was a teammate of Jiri Tlusty, Wayne Simmonds and Jake Muzzin. Recalled by Los Angeles early in the 2012-13 season without drawing into a game, the timing of a deep playoff run would be beneficial for him and the players that surround him in the locker room.
“I’m just waiting for that opportunity,” he said of looking to ascend to the NHL. “I’m consistent and steady. I’m not flashy, but I get the job done. I’m just waiting patiently for that opportunity, and hopefully it comes. I just come to work every day with a good attitude, and I don’t let the other stuff bother me.”
He’s one of the club’s experienced players that form vertebrae of the teams’ backbone of character. Jeff Schultz and Bodnarchuk are also “pillars” and “mentors,” as Morris notes. As Schultz, the team’s oldest player, and Colin Miller, the team’s youngest player, have formed a balance in their defensive pairing, Campbell has also seen a heavy amount of ice time with 2010 first round draft pick Derek Forbort, one of 10 current 1992-born players.
“I’m playing my off side, and he’s on his strong side, so that’s an adjustment,” Campbell said of the pairing. “But it’s fun playing with Forbs. Him coming in, he’s got that fresh set of eyes in his first year pro, so I’m helping him as much as I can. We talk a lot on the ice, talk a lot off the ice and do a lot of work after practice together too – just supporting each other and whatnot.”
“They all come in hungry and excited and they bring that fresh energy to the room. They’re seeing a lot of buildings for the first time, players for the first time. So it’s their first kind of taste of the pro experience. I’ve got Millsie living with me so I kind of see him more than everyone else. You see Sabs in the locker room, you’d think he’d been around for 10 years. He’s loud and pretty comfortable, so we always like to get over him about that. Everyone is good. Shoresy’s great. I hope I’m not missing anybody.”
After Sean Backman, Andy Andreoff and Jordan Weal scored in Sunday’s win, the players gradually begin leaving the facility, where a light snow began to add an inch to the snow-covered blocks that surround the arena. Players were mostly heading in different directions for the All-Star Break, many catching flights out of the airport that evening.
And with the players leaving town, the evening’s news centered around one player who will eventually be making his way into Manchester. Colin Fraser, a winner of two Stanley Cups and a key character in Los Angeles’ dressing room, was assigned to the Monarchs Sunday night after clearing waivers earlier in the day.
“I just know he’s an honest hockey player and watched him win a couple Stanley Cups, and I’m sure having him around these guys will be a positive for our team in general,” Morris said. “He’s a class act, and he’s a guy that’s a no-nonsense person. I’m sure he’ll be a good influence.”
He’ll certainly be in good company.