Dissecting another frustrating Manitoba Moose season

(photo courtesy of ManitobaMoosehockey.com/Jonathan Kozub)

While development is the prime focus of the Manitoba Moose, it’d be foolish to think that wins and losses don’t have merit for this struggling Moose team. Throughout the season, progression has been evident at times, yet the Moose remain 11 points out of a playoff spot and for the second consecutive season, the Moose have had an extremely disappointing year.

Mind you, the main purpose of the Jets affiliate is to develop and grow the team’s youngsters. That includes fixing habits that players may have grown accustomed to from their junior days, or facets of their games that need to be elevated to reach the NHL level. Throughout the course of the season, head coach Pascal Vincent has heavily preached winning “the right way,” while attempting to grab positives from games they lose. “If you run a marathon and you only think about the finish line (and) you forget to breathe, you’re not going to finish the race.” said head coach Pascal Vincent after the Moose’s 5-4 loss to the Toronto Marlies on March 12th.

As much as people like to joke about development being a “process,” the reality is, development doesn’t happen overnight. But that’s not to say there haven’t been bright spots sprinkled throughout the Moose’s season.

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For example, the resurgence of Kyle Connor has been a breath of fresh air for a Moose team that desperately needed some excitement. Connor has recorded 21 goals through 44 games, along with being named the AHL’s player of the week on March 6th. Jack Roslovic, who made an appearance at this year’s AHL all-star game, has developed quite nicely while not only leading the team in points with 40, but Roslovic has shined on the team’s first penalty killing unit and thrived down the middle in both ends of the ice.

Before suffering a lower-body injury, Brendan Lemieux looked to be finding his stride and his close friend Chase De Leo has displayed versatility while playing both centre and wing through the course of the season. Veterans such as Dan DeSalvo, Quinton Howden and Patrice Cormier have helped round out a respectable group up front. But all together, the Moose’s goal scoring ability has been less than average as the Moose have scored 166 goals to date, placing them at 19th amongst the entire league. That number becomes even more troubling when you look at the team’s shot totals. The Moose have accumulated 2042 shots on net to date, which is the fourth most amongst the entire league.

That’s not an optimal succession rate, to say the least. But attributing the Moose’s struggles to the team’s lack of scoring would be abysmal. The real issue with this team lies on the back end.

The lack of depth on the backend is a problem that stems from the top of the Jets organization down to the bottom. Alike the Jets, having such a lackluster blueline is affecting their performance as a whole. The Moose desperately need a puck moving defenceman to help settle things down in the offensive zone and start their breakouts. Last year, we saw Josh Morrissey thrive in that role, but upon graduating to the Jets, we are yet to see a player effectively fill that void. Brendan Kichton, who led last year’s Moose team in scoring and was expected to take on a bigger role this year, has been held goalless through his 53-game season and was a healthy scratch for Saturday’s game against the IceHogs.

No matter how much offence you have in your arsenal, if you can’t keep the puck out of your net, you aren’t going to be winning many hockey games. Ideally, the Moose would be developing promising prospects on their backend that they’d hope to one day move up to the big club. But as of now, It isn’t looking like anyone on the Moose can make that next step anytime soon. For example, Nelson Nogier was recalled this morning and while the 20-year-old first-year pro was a Jets draft pick, he has been a third-pairing defenceman for the majority of the season, thus further showing how thin things are on the blue-line.

Even if their own prospects aren’t the ones lining up on the blue-line, the Moose still need to have capable and solid AHL D-men that can be stop-gap options until prospects can graduate to the Moose. The Jets defensive woes is no news flash, as the Moose attempted to refurbish their blueline this past offseason.  The Winnipeg Jets signed defenceman Brian Strait to a one-year, one-way deal, while the Moose signed Kevin Czuczman to an AHL contract.

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If only the Moose could find more diamonds in the rough like Kevin Czuczman. Czuczman, 26, has consistently been the Moose’s best defenceman throughout the year. Czuczman has exemplified the prototype of what the Moose need filling up spots until capable prospects can win the jobs for themselves.”Working hard is a skill,” said Czuczman. “To be a pro (you need to) be able to work hard– that’s something our teams really working towards. It’s part of the culture of the whole Jets organization.”

Strait on the other hand,  was cut from Jets training camp and was anticipated as a top pairing guy for a Moose team that desperately needed a veteran presence. Strait has not been the top-pairing defenceman the Moose needed, but rather, has attributed to the team’s defensive woes. Looking at the move in hindsight, Strait shouldn’t have been expected to add much in a high-end role with the Moose. Of all the depth signings to make, the Brian Strait one was a curious one. Strait plays a defensive style of game with limited offensive and puck handling abilities. Strait’s game resembles the likes of Mark Stuart and as many Jets fans will empathetically tell you; the Jets don’t need another Mark Stuart on their roster.

With such a fragile blue-line, the potential of goaltender Eric Comrie can get lost in the wind. Comrie has posted a 15-23-2 record to go along with a underwhelming 2.96 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. Seeing those numbers, you’d likely think Comrie is having a down year. But in fact, Comrie has continued to make positive strides in his development throughout the year. It’s challenging to see with the naked eye how Comrie has progressed when the team in front of him can’t get the puck out of their own zone (hence his statistics being less than flattering). But the Moose have allowed 2100 shots this season, which is the most of any team in the AHL. For a young goaltender trying to take the next step, sitting in the basement of the AHL standings can be hard to digest. If the Moose can refine their defensive brass and take some pressure off Comrie, it won’t be long before fans are calling for Comrie to get a shot with the big club.

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Looking Onward

The Moose’s defensive depth is likely the reason they will miss the AHL playoffs by a country mile for the second straight year. But, better days could be on the horizon as the team could see some interesting additions. Recent signee Jake Kulevich, a former captain of Colgate University, is an intriguing addition. Kulevich, who is listed at 6’3 210lbs, skated in his first professional game with the Moose, finishing with an assist and a +3 rating, which lead to some compliments from his new head coach. “(Kulevich was) mistake-free,” said Pascal Vincent after the 24-year-old’s first professional game. “Good (use of his) stick, good size, a guy that can skate–I’m pretty happy with his game.” With Nogier, Strait and Melchiori up with the big club, we could see Kulevich in an expanded role when the Moose host Milwauke on Thursday and Friday night.

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The addition of Kulevich is an exciting one, but the Jets organization must find ways to strengthen not only their own back-end, but their farm teams. With a few tweaks to the blue line, one could forecast better days for this young Moose team. But for the remainder of the year, all that can be done is to continue what coach Pascal Vincent has done throughout the year;

Attempting to grab positives from every step of the way.

  • Joe hannah

    Having seen many Moose games this year, they will never be high in the standings with the philosophy the current coach is using. He roles the lines and does that regardless of who is hot or not that night. I witnessed many games where we were in fact out coached where he put out our young skilled guys who were struggling that night or put out our vets when the young guys were hot. He does not seem to have the ability to adjust on the fly. It is a tough league to win in and even tougher with a really young team.