CLEVELAND – After months of watching, waiting, hoping, and training, the beginning of the 2020-21 American Hockey League season is finally upon us. Right now, training camps are in the process of wrapping up while the rosters are finalized. Some teams, including the Cleveland Monsters, are getting things ready to go to hit the road to face their first opponent of the shortened season.
Before the puck drops, let’s review and preview what has led us to this point.
All times are in Eastern Standard Time
Friday, February 5 at Rockford Icehogs – 7:00 PM
Saturday, February 6 at Rockford – 2:00 PM
Friday, February 12 vs. Rochester Americans – 7:00 PM
Saturday, February 13 vs. Grand Rapids Griffins – 4:00 PM
Saturday, February 20 vs. Grand Rapids – 4:00 PM
Saturday, February 27 vs. Rockford – 7:00 PM
Friday, March 5 at Chicago Wolves – 8:00 PM
Saturday, March 6 at Chicago – 4:00 PM
Friday, March 12 at Rochester – 6:05 PM
Mike Eaves. This is Eaves’ second year as the head coach of the Monsters. In his first season, he had a 24-31-5-2 record.
Zac Dalpe. Dalpe is serving his first season as sole team captain. Last year, the honors were shared with Nathan Gerbe, who is currently on the Blue Jackets taxi squad. Alternate captains are Dillon Simpson and Justin Scott.
8th in North Division
15th in Eastern Conference
2019-20 Season Summary:
“Injury” was the main buzzword floating around the Monsters for most of the 2019-20 season. Whether it was injuries to their own roster or losing their experienced healthy players to fill holes left by injuries to their NHL affiliate Columbus Blue Jackets, the Monsters felt the effects of a depleted roster. Even though many band-aids were used in the rotating crop of players on tryout contracts, the Monsters struggled mightily.
However, the extended call-ups to Columbus gave players like Stefan Matteau, Kevin Stenlund, Gerbe, Matiss Kivlenieks, and Veini Vehvilainen key roles and a chance to shine. Each one rose to the occasion in his own unique way.
Despite their record, the team did reasonably well given the circumstances. Moral victories are bittersweet, but they had a decent number of those. The development of players both on and off the ice seemed to take center stage. Perhaps that was for the best, as player development will be the central theme around the 2020-21 AHL season.
Hot or Not?
Good question. Right now, I would give the Monsters a lukewarm. With having eight rookies and only eight returning players from last year’s squad, there so many unknowns that we can’t get a good temperature on the team.
On defense, the only returning player is Simpson. However, Cleveland has brought in some more experience in Gavin Bayreuther and Thomas Schemitsch. This will hopefully bring some balance to the rookies Jake Christiansen, Brandon Fortunato, and Wyatt Newpower.
Up front, the Monsters are getting a much-needed boost in veteran Tyler Sikura. Rookies Tyler Angle and Carson Meyer will look to make an impact on the score sheet.
- Zac Dalpe. Consistency, passion for the game, and experience. You will find all of this and more in Dalpe. He takes his leadership role in the club very seriously.
- Dillon Simpson. As we already established, Simpson is the only returning player on the blue line. While players like Gabriel Carlsson, Adam Clendening, and Andrew Peeke sit on the Jackets’ taxi squad, Simpson will hold down the fort in Cleveland. He prides himself in helping young players learn how to be a professional while helping catapult them to bigger things.
- Veini Vehvilainen. Vehvilainen, once a question mark in the Jackets’ organization, is quickly coming into his own. He, along with veteran goaltender and part-time goalie coach Brad Thiessen will team up with Cam Johnson to backstop the Monsters this season.
- Doyle Somerby. After three seasons in Cleveland, Somerby found himself a casualty of the questionable 2020-21 AHL season. Losing him will leave a void on both the ice and the community. Currently, he is with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays and is on loan to the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners.
- Marko Dano. Last season, Dano was looking to return to his scoring form and find a home back with the Jackets organization, who initially drafted in in the first round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. His physical play helped set the pace many nights. However, he is on the move again and is back with the Winnipeg Jets organization, currently with the Manitoba Moose.
- Kevin Stenlund. Now, Stenlund may be through, or he may come back. Right now, he’s sitting as the odd man out on the Columbus roster. There is always a slim chance Stenlund comes back down for some playing time, assuming he clears waivers. In my opinion, there is no way he clears. So, let’s just assume he’s through.
- Tyler Sikura. Sikura is an AHL veteran, having spent the last three seasons with Rockford. Last season, he posted 14 goals and a career-best 20 assists in 63 games. Sikura led Rockford in scoring. In 209 career appearances in the AHL with Rockford, Iowa, Portland, and Springfield, Sikura has tallied 44 goals and 48 assists while obtaining a plus/minus rating of +33.
- Carson Meyer. Meyer is a native to Powell, Ohio- just a few hours down Interstate 71 from Cleveland. The former sixth-round pick of the Jackets in the 2017 NHL Draft, Meyer looks to bring his scoring touch to the Monsters. Last season, he notched 17 goals and 14 assists in 35 games with the NCAA’s Ohio State Buckeyes.
What to Watch For?
The taxi squads of the NHL teams are currently housing some top-tier AHL talent. This is leaving some huge holes across the AHL. The Monsters are no exception. How will they fare without the likes of Stenlund, Clendening, Carlsson, Gerbe, and Kivlenieks? Is there a possibility that clubs with Cleveland and Columbus’s proximity play around with their rosters and rotate their two-way NHL players around to make sure everyone gets playing time?
The atmosphere of the games will be drastically different compared to previous seasons. Between having severely reduced fans or, in some cases, no fans at all, energy may have to come from within the team. How will they create this energy? Well, the answer for the Monsters may come from simply playing the same five teams over the course of their 28-game season. In a media availability earlier this week, Simpson likened this season to multiple playoff series.
“In my opinion, you might see some tighter games as the season goes along. You’ve got to get a feel of what the other team plays like. That will work both ways. At the same time, you can get a playoff-like atmosphere if things go South with a few teams and you are playing them over and over again. It makes for good rivalries. “
Chemistry across the team and lines could possibly be a little more challenging to come by this season. Normal team-bonding activities are on hold. Without any preseason games, it is hard to even get an idea of how lines will work or react to different game situations. In a media availability, Coach Eaves spoke to this.
“As far as line combinations, we’ve changed them every day. We are trying to see what guys can do with different people. I really don’t think that we are going to button that down until Wednesday, when we go on the road for our trip.
We, as a staff, do not know these young men. We can read about them, look at their numbers, and talk to them and kind of get an idea, but it’s not having them on the ice and having them in different situations.”
Coach Eaves has said that the coaching staff is looking at ways to keep things interesting for the players. After all, the practice/game ratio is flipped from a traditional AHL season. As he put it, they will have to use their imagination and get creative. No matter what they do, with this coaching staff, the players are in good hands!
Let’s Drop The Puck!
Despite all of the question marks surrounding this season, it is safe to say players, coaches, media, and fans are all excited to see some meaningful hockey again. Many precautions will be in place, and this season, pardon the cliché, will be unlike any other. We just need to remember the real purpose of the AHL as the season goes on: player development.