Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ, Part IVB; A Calder Cup is Raised in Cleveland

Ryan Craig Receives the Calder Cup on the Jumbotron
This history has jumped around a bit lately, driven inexorably by circumstances.  The loss of Richards at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, the ascent of Tortorella, and the startling beginning of 2016-17 have driven the narrative of this history.  However, it is time to step back during this first ever 5 day bye week, and look to events after the end of the 2015-16 season that have great foreshadowing on what we have seen this year, and will see in the near future.  The events I refer to are those surrounding the startling run by the Lake Erie Monsters, the new Cleveland AHL affiliate of the Blue Jackets, to a Calder Cup Championship.

The first hint of this was the announcement of the good news in the summer of 2015 that the Blue Jackets had established an affiliation with the Lake Erie Monsters.  Notwithstanding the fact that the team was rebranded to the Cleveland Monsters for the 2016-17 season; for the bulk of this post I will refer to them as the Lake Erie Monsters, as that is the name they bore when they won the Calder Cup.  Future editions will celebrate the exploits of the Cleveland Monsters.

In their first year as a CBJ affiliate, the Monsters had a very good season, one of the best ever for a Blue Jackets affiliate.  The Springfield Falcons had made the playoffs for two years as the Jackets affiliate, and the Monsters looked to be well on the way to accomplishing the feat again when the Blue Jackets goal tending problems reached down to stir the waters of the affiliate.

The Monsters had cruised through the year, solidly competing for a playoff position.  They had a number of good players.  Josh Anderson, TJ Tynan, Michael Chaput, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Dillon Heatherington, Dean Kukan, and of course Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo as the goal tending tandem.  Finally the goal tending situation at the parent club became so dire that both Forsberg and Korpisalo were called up to the Blue Jackets, stripping the Monsters of their primary goal tending tandem.  At that point you wondered if the Jackets were cashing in the Monster's season because of the Jackets woes. 

Enter Brad Thiessen, called up from the ECHL.  Brad responded in a big way, in 22 games played, he recorded a 12-4-4 record with a sparkling 1.95 GAA and 0.929 save percentage.  Events later on might push Brad aside, but his contribution was critical to keeping the Monsters in the playoff hunt late in the season.  Then, once Sergei Bobrovsky was returned to health, a strange sequence of events occurred in the goal tending ranks.  But Brad Thiessen's contribution to the Monsters' success in mid-season cannot be understated.

While Korpisalo was leading Jackets goal tenders with 16 wins in 31 games played, with a .920 save percentage and a 2.60 GAA, Anton Forsberg was returned to the Monsters once Bobrovsky healed.  In spite of the fact that he has yet to break through at the NHL level, Forsberg returned to the Monsters and was very solid down the stretch, ensuring that the Monsters were in the playoffs in the first year of their affiliation with the CBJ.

With the Monsters on the cusp of a playoff appearance, an event occurred that continues to shake the organization's foundations to this day.  That event was the ending of the University of Michigan's hockey season, coupled with some artful work by the front office types of the Blue Jackets, the Monsters, and hockey agents.  In a bit of work that demonstrated an acute knowledge of the NHL and AHL collective bargaining agreements, Zach Werenski agreed to a amateur try out agreement, which made him eligible for the AHL playoffs.  Shortly thereafter, the Jackets and Zach agreed to his entry level contract, and things began to get interesting.

Zach Werenski with the Calder Cup
When a player comes from the NCAA to the AHL, it is often a very big jump.  The NCAA plays far fewer games, and the competition is quite different.  And all sides agreed that Zach would start at the bottom of the barrel in the AHL, and the only things he would get he would earn.  Using that simplistic assessment tool, Zach was soon a top pairing defenseman on the Monsters, because in hind sight it is easy to see that he was that good.  Watching it as it happens, there is an odd commingling of hope, desire, and what you are really seeing that can cloud the picture.  In this case, the first two things did not cloud vision; the guy was really that good.  And from there, great events flowed.  Zach Werenski played a mere 7 games in the regular season, but scored a goal, prefacing a more prodigious output in the post season.

Having said all that, it's not like Wereneski was all the Monsters had.  Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson had really good seasons, coming off strong campaigns in the Junior ranks, and the goal tending had been solid.  They were an accomplished AHL team.  The addition of Werenski was a catalyst to make them a truly great AHL team, as we shall see.

Going into the playoffs, the Monsters saw some changes.  Sweet relief to the Blue Jackets disastrous 2015-16 season had finally come with the end of the season.  Since Joonas Korpisalo had won the NHL job over Anton Forsberg, he was given the net for the playoffs in place of the red hot Forsberg.  Korpisalo did not disappoint, as he recorded a three game sweep of the Blackhawks AHL team, the Chicago Wolves.  About this time Lukas Sedlak was starting to catch fire, and start the process of scoring his 9 playoff goals.

The 3 game sweep of the Wolves propelled the Monsters into a second round series with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the affiliate of the Detroit Redwings.  The Monsters started quickly, winning the first three games.  In the fourth game, the Monsters rapidly scored 4 goals, yet Korpisalo inexplicably gave up 5 in the last period and OT to give the Monsters their first loss of the playoffs.  In game game 5, Korpisalo gave up two quick goals, and yielded the net to Anton Fosberg as the Monsters lost their second and last game of the 2015-16 AHL playoffs. 

Anton Forsberg in the final.
From that point, Anton Forsberg went on an incredible run, refusing to yield the net, and winning the next start against the Griffins, sweeping the Ontario (CA) Reign in 4 games, and in the Calder Cup final sweeping the Hershey Bears 4 -0, an incredible 9-0 run to the championship; refusing to yield the net to his friend who had taken it from him.  During this run, Lukas Sedlak scored many more goals than he did in the regular season, Josh Anderson carried the team at times, and Oliver Bjorkstrand was lethal.

In the final game of the 2015-16 AHL playoffs, in front of a sold out and rocking Quicken Loans Arena, the Monsters and the Bears went to overtime, before Oliver Bjorkstrand recovered and scored on a rebound from a Zach Werenski shot, and the Monsters were celebrating a Calder Cup Championship in front of yours truly.  What a moment, what a great game, and what a season by the Lake Erie Monsters.

In 2016-17 we have seen Zach Werenski bring many of the same things he brought to the Monsters to the Blue Jackets, and he has contributed to making history with the parent club with The Streak.  That Zac Wereneski is a special player is exemplified by the Calder Cup, and The Streak, but you have to have a strong supporting cast to accomplish great things.

The 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters
The 2016-17 Cleveland Monsters were decimated by the Calder Cup Championship.  Many players were lost to pro contracts in other franchises, and the promotion of Josh Anderson, Zach Werenski, and Lukas Sedlak left holes in the lineup.  Likewise, Coach Jared Bednar scored an NHL coaching position from the performance of the team.  So 2016-17 is a season of reforming for the Monsters.  Yet the Monsters of 2015-16 brought a historic championship to Cleveland, the first in 40 years, before it was soon eclipsed by a motivated Cleveland Cavaliers NBA team.  Props to the Cavs in all ways, for beating the previous year's champion, yet there will always be a part of this writer who thinks that the Cavs watched the Monsters raise a Calder Cup, get a parade, and form an unshakeable resolve that they wanted that too.  The Cavs parade was richly deserved, something to behold, and indeed did honor to the parade that preceded them.  The Calder Cup Championship of the 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters!

GO JACKETS!!
GO MONSTERS!!


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