It’s often said that one of the sternest challenges with minor league teams is striking a balance between winning and development.
The Blue Jackets are no different, with several of their top prospects playing for Cleveland’s Lake Erie Monsters (AHL), a team which recently wrapped up a record-setting regular season and now embarks on its second postseason appearance in franchise history. Things have gone well for the Monsters pretty much all year long, even in the face of roster challenges, injuries and a few minor slumps.
But now, the situation changes: the focus is fixed on winning. The team is well-constructed with skill and depth at all three positions, and has recently been bolstered by additions (assignments) from the Blue Jackets.
And as Monsters GM/Blue Jackets assistant GM Bill Zito said, there’s a correlation between the two objectives they’re juggling.
“The balance is that you have to maintain development. Part of development is winning,” Zito told BlueJackets.com. “You have all these young guys that want to play, but what if you don’t make the playoffs? You want to keep the big picture in mind and include as many people as you can, but at the same time, empower everyone – whether they're in the lineup or not – to make some kind of contribution.”
Monsters coach Jared Bednar and his assistants (both former NHLers) Nolan Pratt and Toby Petersen have been dealt some tough hands this season, from multiple NHL call-ups to injuries to a demanding schedule, but the team has kept on going.
They’ve relied on depth – it’s not always the same lineup every night and it’s not always the same players in the same roles, but everyone has bought in to the program. They’ve integrated AHL veterans, college free agents, first-round NHL draft picks and players returning from lengthy injury layoffs, and each time, the beat goes on.
“If you look at the teams who go deep in the playoffs, they’re not using 20 guys,” Zito said. “Tonight’s healthy scratch is tomorrow’s hero. The coaches have done a fantastic job balancing all of those elements, and it’s hard. We have 11 defensemen right now.
“On the character level, you always want to be as good as you can be. On the practical level, the four teams in our division are so close together. The home record was extraordinary, so the home ice advantage is a big deal and it’s a credit to the coaches and the players for keeping their goals in focus.”
The Monsters begin their Calder Cup journey tonight in Rockford, Ill., against the IceHogs. Game 1 is set for an 8 p.m. ET puck drop, and can be watched via AHL Live and heard on the Monsters Hockey Network.