AHL stars NHL-bound?

Moose are maturing despite below-average season

Photo by Ryan Harby

The Manitoba Moose may not be a contending team in the AHL this season, but their lineup boasts a collection of blossoming talent that is en route to starring in the NHL. Masking their woeful 11-21-2-3 record are the individual displays of Chase De Leo, J.P. Lipon, Josh Morrissey, Brenden Kichton, and Eric Comrie.

Though defined as a young and blossoming franchise, the Moose’s below-par season can be attributed to the high-end youngsters in the system already cracking the Jets roster, such as Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, and Jacob Trouba. Earlier this campaign, the Moose lost brawny goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to an NHL call-up, leaving the starter’s job to Comrie – a first-year pro.

If anything, Hellebuyck’s call-up was a blessing in disguise. The native of Commerce, Mich. has emerged as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL since leapfrogging Ondřej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson to become the Jets’ starter.

Meanwhile, Comrie has also been in top form for the Moose since inheriting the starter’s position. The 20-year-old is getting accustomed to facing more than 30 shots per night, producing a respectable 2.80 GAA, 0.915 save percentage, and his first pro shutout. Expect Comrie to finish the season as one of the Moose’s lifelines.

Manitoba’s concerns lie within the defensive corps, with the back six giving up 35 shots on four occasions since their first game of 2016.

Aside from Morrissey and Kichton, the collective efforts from the rest of the Moose defenders have been nothing other than average. The temporary sending down of Paul Postma should provide the blue line with some much-needed physical presence for a team that has averaged 3.19 goals against this season.

Kichton has been an offensive stalwart, leading the team with 18 assists and three goals this season. Meanwhile, Morrissey’s dominant two-way display thus far this season should warrant him at least one stint in the big leagues by April.

Both blueliners are offensive catalysts from the back end with a feisty and disciplined defensive edge, and either would make a worthy successor should the Jets lose Dustin Byfuglien or offload Tobias Enstrom.

As epitomized by forward Nic Petan, the Moose have also been sorely lacking in the offensive department. The 20-year-old forward – who has 110 WHL career goals to his credit – has scored just two AHL goals this season. To make his next return to the NHL permanent, Petan’s scoring rate will have to increase dramatically within next few months.

John Albert is another Moose who has been scarce in the goal department. The captain has only scored five goals this season, while he netted 16 and 28 in his past two campaigns with the St. John’s IceCaps.

Despite the Moose’s league-worst 76 goals this season, 20-year-old De Leo has found a nose for the net. The AHL rookie’s 11 goals in 35 games leads the Moose after scoring just two in his first two months.

Manitoba has also taken advantage of Lipon’s sudden confidence in shot attempts. Often used on the right faceoff circle on the powerplay unit, Lipon has contributed to 23 per cent of the Moose’s successful powerplays this season.

Though the former Canadian World Junior player has declined since hitting 32 assists and 41 points as an AHL rookie, Lipon is on pace to hit the 20-goal mark after scoring just 14 in his first two seasons combined. Should his goal rate continue to reach new ceilings, his presence would be welcome as a second- or third-line winger for the next few seasons to come.