Weekend Series Against Barons

A sixth season of Lake Erie Monsters hockey gets underway Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena as the Monsters welcome in the Oklahoma City Barons; perhaps the team that has been the biggest topic of conversation across the AHL because of a roster that boasts some high-level NHL talent in Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  But the Monsters, entering with a new head coach, several fresh faces, and a load of depth, are poised to welcome the challenge when the two-game set with OKC begins Friday night.

Friday marks the debut behind the bench for new Monsters Head Coach Dean Chynoweth, who takes over after David Quinn held the position for three seasons.  The latest edition of the Monsters includes depth at all positions, and an offensive punch that could rank among the best in the young history of the franchise.  David van der Gulik and his 28 points in 40 games last season return to the Monsters lineup, as do former AHL All-Star forward Mark Olver, and Brad Malone, who finished second on the Monsters in points (36) as a rookie last season.  Veteran additions up front include Bill Thomas, whose resume includes 87 games of NHL experience and 52 points in 65 games for the San Antonio Rampage last season, a 27-goal scorer for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton from a year ago in Bryan Lerg, and Geoff Walker, who mixed 18 goals with 114 penalty minutes last season.  Michael Sgarbossa- who won the OHL scoring title with 102 points last season- and Avalanche second-round draft choice Mitchell Heard figure to make an impact as rookies on what looks like a very balanced group of forwards.

But where this season’s club potentially could top last season’s offense most is on contributions from the blue line.  All-Star Tyson Barrie, Stefan Elliott, and Cameron Gaunce return, and veterans Thomas Pock and Sean Sullivan- both of whom have posted solid assist totals- will be on the defensive side for the Monsters.  Joel Chouinard, who led Monsters defensemen in goals with eight during the 2010-11 season, as well as late arrivals from last season in Barry Goers and Karl Stollery, make for a very deep defensive unit.

In net, the Monsters field two 20-year old rookies, but they’re experienced rookies.  Sami Aittokallio played professionally in his native Finland’s top league over the last two seasons, and was able to back-up and learn from a seasoned NHL veteran netminder, former San Jose Shark and Toronto Maple Leaf Vesa Toskala.  Calvin Pickard, who appeared in two games for the Monsters last season and won his first professional start on 4/1/12, played at least 62 games in each of the last three seasons in the major junior Western Hockey League.  Pickard also owns the WHL’s career records for saves and minutes played, so he certainly knows what it takes to be durable and endure a long season.

Oklahoma City was bounced in the Western Conference Finals by Toronto last season, but brings even more talent to the table now than they did in the Spring.  Teemu Haartikainen, Mark Arcobello, and Josh Green, among others, return from a talented group of forwards.  However, one of hockey’s big stories early in the season is the fact that the Barons’ roster includes the Edmonton Oilers goal scoring leader from last season in Jordan Eberle, and the top pick in the 2011 NHL draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  Eberle scored 34 goals for the Oilers, while Nugent-Hopkins tallied 52 points in 62 NHL games before taking a seat due to an injury for the final portion of the season.  Yann Danis, the AHL’s goalie of the year last season, returns for Todd Nelson’s club as well.

The Barons may have the star power, but the Monsters depth includes players with NHL experience who have defended against NHL-caliber players on numerous occasions.  Monsters goaltenders will be relied upon heavily to keep the Barons shooters in check, as the Monsters open the season with three games in three days.  The Monsters finish the weekend with a matinee in Toronto at 3:00 PM Sunday.

All the action at The Q begins at 7:30 Friday night, with the two-game set between the Monsters and Barons finishing up on Saturday afternoon with a 1:00 PM puck drop.  If you’re unable to make it to The Q Friday, the action can be heard live on AM 1220 WHKW, or via satellite on Sirius 202/XM 97.  Saturday’s game will be carried live on ESPN 850 WKNR, with the satellite radio coverage being at the same spot on the dial.

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