The Manchester Monarchs were one of the top teams in the American League this season and witnessing their Game 1 dismantling of Portland in the playoffs, it's not hard to see why. But if you want to see the Monarchs flying next year, you'll have to switch coasts and head out to California, when they become the Ontario Reign.
As part of the AHL's new Pacific Division in 2015-16, the Monarchs will be much closer to the parent Los Angeles Kings, so if someone on the big club gets the flu on game day, a replacement can easily be called over. That hasn't been so easy in the organization's present alignment.
But the players are taking it in stride, as the results on the ice show. Paul Bissonnette has seen this play out before during his time with the Arizona Coyotes, who had potential relocation drama for years based on ownership woes.
“In Phoenix, we did a good job managing it," he said. "Internally, we just held each other accountable and it was awesome. It didn't really affect us until the last season and when we found out we were staying, it was a relief.”
At least with Manchester's move to Ontario, the players know where they're going, Bissonnette noted.
Amidst all the excitement of the AHL's new California division, it was easy to get swept up in what that meant for hockey as a whole. And I'll admit: initially I didn't consider what it meant for the towns that were losing teams. At least in Manchester, the Monarchs name will live on in the ECHL, so the team will still be there, just with a roster one tier down.
Manchester has a beautiful building in the Verizon Wireless Center. It's too big for an ECHL team and the AHL squad didn't bring in many folks for last night's game (minor league baseball was in town, too), but the Monarchs have been a successful draw in the past.
And in terms of quality, Manchester still delivers. The Monarchs topped the AHL standings this year and last year, despite a roster largely devoid of first-round talent, defenseman Derek Forbort being an obvious exception. But some of the team's best prospects came in the third round or later: Michael Mersch, Jordan Weal, Justin Auger, Colin Miller and Nick Shore among them.
“We're just workers," Weal said. "We come to work every day, bring our hard hats and lunch buckets and try to get better. It pays off in the end.”
It's funny to hear Weal use such terminology, since he's a high-skill player and finished second only to free agent Brian O'Neill in team scoring, but that's the attitude there. And the veteran Bissonnette, in his first year with the club, likes the environment that new coach Mike Stothers has fostered.
“You look at the way Mersch has developed and Auger – who, since I've been here is light years ahead of where he was – that's just hammering video," Bissonnette said. "It's being hard on guys, making them accountable, but putting them back in situations that they're going to see in the future. And they've ran with it."
Now the question is how far can they run. All the way to a Calder Cup championship? The pieces are there, it's just a matter of execution. And though it may be strange that the last dance in Manchester for this group will happen soon, it does add one more bit of motivation to win it all.
“It is a little different," Weal said. "Hopefully we can give the fans something to really cheer about for the next month or so.”