(Photo: The Pink Puck)
This past season was the thirteenth for the Manchester Monarchs, AHL affiliate of the LA Kings, and it seemed like 13 might prove a lucky number. Throughout the season, they managed to stay atop not only the division but the conference as well. Despite the injuries and NHL call-ups that they had to contend with, their players found a way to step up in unexpected ways.
With the top seed in the East, they faced off against the 8th seeded Norfolk Admirals. They did so without young talents Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli who both logged some frequent flyer miles this past season as they traveled between Manchester and LA. They also headed into the post season without their leading scorer, Brian O’Neill, who ended the regular season in a cast. The 8th seeded Admirals proved too tough a team to beat in the 5 game first round series and the Monarchs made an exit much earlier than expected.
With the success Manchester managed to find through everything they faced during the regular season, many expected them to make it past the first round. However, it was not in the cards for them this post season. Although Brian O’Neill is just one player, it’s hard to look at his absence and say it didn’t make a noticeable impact. Without him, Sean Backman and Jordan Weal needed to find a new linemate. They found it in ATO signing Michael Mersch out of University of Wisconsin. Mersch certainly impressed and he did a lot of things right. But there was no replacing the chemistry of Weal, O’Neill, and Backman.
Through the first, and only, four games that the Monarchs played in the post season, something just seemed to be missing for the skaters. There was something off about the chemistry that had been so clear all season. There were also some players who had been impressive during the regular season that did not seem to live up to the pressure of post season.
Beyond the lack of chemistry and losing Brian O’Neill, veteran Jeff Schultz was only in the line-up for two of the four games. Although his impact on the team might have been overlooked, he provided an important steadying force. He was one of the few players on the team that had measurable postseason experience in the AHL or NHL. Many players had never seen the postseason and of the one who had, there were barely any that had made it out of the first round. One thing that it seems teams making a deep run in the playoffs usually have is at least a small core of veteran players with experience.
Despite the early exit, the Monarchs have a lot of things and players to be proud of. One player that definitely made an impact was rookie goaltender JF Berube. He came into training camp fighting for a position as the back-up to Martin Jones in Manchester. But when Jonathan Quick got hurt and Jones got the call to LA, Berube had to step up. And he did step up in a big way. After Jones’ impressive play in LA, he earned the back-up spot permanently and Berube became the permanent starter in Manchester. Sometimes he even started all three games of a 3-in-3 and he helped to keep his team atop the division and the conference. Although he had moments where he was not at the top of his games, the moments he came through for his team outnumbered those.
This season, the Monarchs also saw forward Brian O’Neill have his best season of his professional career. He went from 3 goals and 15 assists in 49 games during the 2012-2013 season to 26 goals and 21 assists in 60 games this season. This earned him a two year extension to stay within the organization. Although he’ll be 26 shortly, this is only his third professional season coming up in 2014-2015 and he is still very much a prospect. Prior to joining the Monarchs at the end of the 2011-2012 season, O’Neill spent four seasons playing at Yale.
Aside from Berube, a handful of other prospects made their professional debuts with the Monarchs this season. That included Nick Shore, who contributed 38 points in 68 games. This was despite him missing some time with an injury. It also included Zach O’Brien. O’Brien started the year in Ontario of the ECHL but worked his way onto the Monarchs roster. By the end of the season, he was a noticeable presence on the ice.
There are some definite changes coming to the look of the team for next season. The first being that there will be a new coaching staff. The LA Kings made the decision not to renew Head Coach Mark Morris’ contract for next season. Assistant coach Freddy Meyer will also not return. No new coach has been named and that is likely a decision that will come after the Kings finish their postseason run.
Mark Morris made an incredible impact in Manchester during his time there. He was the longest tenured coach in Monarchs history and the players loved playing for him. Throughout the season, his team routinely said what a big impact he had on them. He would never single out a player after a loss and instead focused on what the team needed to do. He was critical while still being there to support and educate.
Although Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson each have a year left on their contracts, it seems incredibly unlikely that they’ll spend any more time in Manchester. Along with Jeff Carter, they had made for an incredible second line in the postseason for the LA Kings. JF Berube, forwards Andy Andreoff and Linden Vey, as well as defenseman Brayden McNabb, acquired in a trade from Buffalo, are all restricted free agents. Defenseman Andrew Campbell, who served as the team’s captain, is an unrestricted free agent. All five of these players made significant impacts during their time in Manchester. It will be interesting to see what happens for the King in the offseason and how those decisions trickle down to Manchester.