(Photo: Heather Stebbins, The Pink Puck)

The Manchester Monarchs undeniably had a great 2013-2014 regular season. They ended up with the best record in the Eastern Conference. What was possibly more impressive was the way that the Monarchs did this.

Coming into the season, the Monarchs had high hopes for the season. They had a top line of Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, and Linden Vey. But, every member of that line spent time in LA and they were rarely able to stay in Manchester together. Toffoli got the most time up in the NHL, but still notched 15 goals and 8 assists through his 18 games with Manchester. Many fans might have expected those three to be up and down throughout the season.

However, what likely came as a surprise was losing impressive goaltender Martin Jones. When Kings starting goalie Jonathan Quick got hurt, Jones got the call he had been waiting for. Instead of relying just on Ben Scrivens to fill in, Jones had the chance to play. And Jones impressed them all, prompting the Kings to ultimately trade Scrivens away so that Jones could be the full-time back-up

Without Jones and the top line of Toffoli, Pearson, and Vey, the players in Manchester had to step up. Rookie Monarchs goaltender JF Berube showed just what he had. He had some big skates to fill when Jones left, but he made it look easy. Forwards like Jordan Weal, Brian O’Neill, and rookie Nick Shore stepped up too. If one thing was certain, it was that the Monarchs were a deeply talented team.

Then, the playoffs came. In a weird twist of events, the Monarchs did not have home ice advantage in the first round against the Norfolk Admirals. They played the first two games at home and then were due to play the next three on the road. Unfortunately, they dropped the series 3-1 and their Calder Cup hopes were over.

This season, the Monarchs are looking to learn from last season. Not only would they like to make it back to the playoffs, but they are hoping to make it all the way to the Calder Cup. As is to be expected, their roster looks a little different from last season. But with LA having won the Stanley Cup two out of the past three years, it is an appealing organization to join.

One big change is the change in coaching staff from last year to this year. Mark Morris and the LA Kings parted ways. Morris had been head coach of the Monarchs for 8 seasons and had his best winning percentage last season. Mike Stothers will be taking over the reigns this year. He has experience as an assistant coach in the AHL and NHL as well as head coaching experience in the OHL and WHL. Chris Hajt will join Stothers behind the bench. Hajt played part of 10 professional seasons before making the switch to coaching. He spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach in the OHL. The two will help guide the returning and new players back to the playoffs.

Back for his sophomore season will be stand out goaltender, JF Berube. This season, he’ll be pairing up with rookie Patrik Bartosak. Bartosak joined the Monarchs at the end of last season, after finishing up his juniors season. Although Berube had an excellent rookie season, the indication seems to be that he will share time with Bartosak.

While the Monarchs will not have Toffoli or Pearson at all, as both have earned spots on the Kings roster, or Vey, who has joined the Canucks organization, fans still have a lot to be excited for. Brian O’Neill and Jordan Weal, who both impressed last season, will return to the line-up. Forward Nick Shore and defenseman Derek Forbort also return to the line-up hoping to build off their rookie seasons. Manchester also had arguably one of the best defensive pairs in the AHL last season in Andrew Bodnarchuk and Vinny LoVerde, both of whom will rejoin the team.

To supplement the losses, the Monarchs will have some veterans joining their rank. David Van Der Gulik, who has played 8 professional seasons, all of which were in the Western Conference, joins the team as a forward. He already has two goals during the first three games the team has played. Josh Gratton, another forward, also joins the Monarchs this season. The veteran tough guy is in his 12th season and has already registered a fighting major.

Aside from the veterans, the Monarchs will have a young team. They are adding seven rookies to their rosters. They will add a variety of things from scoring to toughness and physicality. Through the first couple games, they have already contributed. Nic Dowd leads the overall scoring with points, all assists. Kevin Raine, along with the returning Scott Sabourin, have also showed they the Monarchs are not a team to mess around with.

The Monarchs opened their season with a 4-1 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. But the real excitement was when Manchester headed down to Norfolk, Virginia for a two game series against the Norfolk Admirals. Although there is not usually a rivalry between the two teams since they don’t play often, it was clear that one carried over from when the Admirals knocked the Monarchs out in the first round of the playoffs.

The teams split the series in Norfolk with the Admirals taking the first game, on Friday, by a score of 3-2. But, Manchester came back and took the game Saturday night 4-2 in Patrik Bartosak’s first start of the season. The six Monarchs goals came from five different players, a good sign that they could be a team with deep scoring yet again.

In the first game of the series, there were also four fights. Second year forward Scott Sabourin also fell victim to one of the new rule changes in the AHL this year. After his second fight of the night, he was ejected from the game. Players are no longer allowed to get in more than one fight in a game. It is one of many rule changes for this season and it will be interesting to see how it affects the game.

After playing their first three games on the road, the Monarchs will make their return to Manchester this weekend. They host the Portland Pirates in their home opener on Friday, October 24th. Once again, the two teams will battle for the VIP Cup. It is a sort of mini-series the teams have come up with decided by the 12 games they play against each other during the regular season. The Monarchs follow that up when they host the Providence Bruins on Saturday, October 25th.

A New England girl, born and raised, Jessica Higham has grown up loving few things more than hockey. Although she has never considered herself to be a good skater, she fell in love with hockey back when boys still had cooties and that love has only grown since. She genuinely wishes she had been alive to enjoy ‘Miracle on Ice’ and considers it to be one of the greatest moments in US history. Nothing compares to the feeling of September coming and signaling the start of a new season, complete with a whole new set of ups and downs. After having been an avid reader and occasional writer, Jessica wanted to try putting the two loves together and writing about hockey. Aside from hockey, Jessica also loves music, going to concerts, animals, and walking on the beach. Email: jessica@thepinkpuck.com @JessicaHigham

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