The Cleveland Monsters (17-14-3-1) are currently fourth in the AHL's Central Division and seventh overall in the league standings. But the standings belie the work the team has put in as the season has progressed. After overcoming a six-game losing streak in late October, the team has had a productive surge of play and since Nov 30, they are 11-4-0-2.
"I'm very appreciative of the resiliency of this team after they went 0-6 and that they didn't tank," Monsters GM/Blue Jackets assistant GM Bill Zito told BlueJackets.com. "These are good players. That's what they're supposed to do.
"I think they just had a few bumps early on and they needed to adjust to a myriad of different factors sort of individually. And then they started to come together."
Coming into the season, the Monsters knew they had the talent on the ice, but some changes behind the bench took some time to acclimate to. John Madden joined Cleveland as head coach after Jared Bednar was named coach of the Colorado Avalanche, and Steve McCarthy was named an assistant coach after Nolan Pratt departed for a job with Colorado.
"We have an excellent coaching staff," Zito said. "Madden, who has three Stanley Cups and went to Game 7 trying for a fourth, is probably the most celebrated person in our organization. He had great success when he was in Florida with a bunch of young players. It's exactly what we need there as far as teaching and accountability and encouragement and support and more teaching."
Madden brought with him an approach that not only matches to John Davidson's "draft and develop" mantra for success, but also one that was grounded in systems that matched what Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella is doing in Columbus.
"I think continuity in the system and the teaching is great if you can have it," Zito said. "It happened that the ideology and the specifics of the system that Johnny wanted to teach mirrored what Torts was doing, so that worked. Depending on your personnel, it may not make sense, but that hasn't crept into the equation for us."
Perhaps as important as matching X's and O's between the two organizations has been matching the approach for development with younger players. The reason "draft and develop" has been the mantra in the Blue Jackets organization is because, as Zito points out, it works.
But that means that the focus in Cleveland has been to balance playing experience with on-ice success for the team and organization, and how each players grows within those moments is shaped by the consistency of what they hear from coaches at all levels.
"I think it's important to have them on the same page on the emotional level," Zito said. "If a player needs a kick in the butt, you've got to make sure the other coach isn't hugging him. The message to the player needs to be consistent and needs to be the same. I think it has been."
What else is working in Cleveland? Of course, it's goaltending. Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo have done the bulk of work in net for the Monsters this year, but with the loss of Curtis McElhinney in Columbus via the waiver wire, the two are now battling for a spot with the big club. Brad Theissen, who was a huge part of last year's success, is back in a Cleveland sweater.
"These three guys have so much character, are so mature and are true gentlemen. Competitors if you will," Zito said. "Thiessen is as professional a man as you'll ever meet who has accepted his role. He went 11-1 at one point last year and won AHL player of the month, and the other two guys are good friends and they battle it out."
The team has also been buoyed slightly by being connected to the success that is happening with their parent club in Columbus. There's an extra air of organizational pride in Cleveland as the group has watched the Blue Jackets go on a 16-game win streak and battle for top spot in the NHL.
The Blue Jackets' success is also serving as good motivation for players who want to be in the NHL.
"Maybe you work a little harder and you're a little less frustrated if you're not where you want to be yet," Zito said. "And you yearn to be part of it."
With 41 games to go, the Monsters are trending in the right direction. And the goal to be in the postseason conversation remains prominent.
"Be relevant in March," Zito said. "Get in the playoffs and see what happens, and that's the big picture."