Two seasons start this weekend in the Blue Jackets organization. Just up I-71, the Cleveland Monsters begin their 2017-18 campaign Saturday by hosting the Rockford Ice Hogs. It's the first of six home games in the month of October for the Monsters, and there will be a lot to watch for this coming season.
Last year, the Monsters faced the challenges of having a new head coach in John Madden who joined the team just weeks before the start of camp and the regular season. The group also saw nine members of the 2016 Calder Cup Championship team graduate to the NHL.
After battling through 76 games and earning a record of 39-29-0-8, the time has come to show what this year's group can do.
"(With all the change) we were very accommodating in our evaluations last year," Jackets assistant general manager and Monsters general manager Bill Zito said. "We know these things happen, and we're going to develop. But we missed the playoffs by a point. Our message this year is 'everything is one point,' and that winning is development."
The AHL is a league where many players want to prove they are good enough to earn an invitation to go to the next level. It's about developing and moving on, but from Zito's perspective winning is just as much a part of that as anything.
"If you do every single thing you need to do to win, you'll develop," Zito says. "That's what works."
Zito and his team of coaches are setting the stage for that message early. Compared to previous years where a player finds out at training camp that they are joining the AHL team in a quick meeting, Zito's brainchild was to have coaches and management meet with each player in a more in-depth manner in Cleveland.
The meetings will talk through where management believes a player is in their development and what they need to work on and then, more importantly, ensure that the player's perspective is in line with that evaluation.
"It's really interesting," Zito said. "If we think on a scale of 1-10 they are seven, and they think they are a nine, we need to communicate. We need to get on the same page. We want to sit and spend the time and go over what they've done, where we think they can get to, where we think to get better. And them similarly hear from them where do you think you are?"
An area of development management will be watching for as well is leadership. The Monsters are without long-time captain Ryan Craig who retired at the end of last season. Veteran and assistant captain Jamie Sifers has also left the organization.
"It's exciting because it's going to force people to step up, and it's going to force the collective to fill the void that Craig and Sifers left," Zito said. "They left an indelible fingerprint on that room. Now we'll find out who wants to step up. We'll find out did they really learn? Does everybody have a little Ryan Craig in them, did they have it already?"
These are exciting things to watch for, and there are even more exciting things to anticipate on the ice. Returning players like Nick Moutrey, Blake Siebenaler and Alex Broadhurst had strong off-seasons and training camps. Paul Bittner is healthy and ready to take on his first full AHL season, and new faces like Calvin Thurkauf will be looked at to make an impact on this Monsters squad.
They are joined by veteran players who are new to the organization like defensemen Cameron Gaunce and Andre Benoit on the blue line. And goaltender Brad Thiessen is slated to be part of the goaltending team for the third season in a row.
Thiessen is joined by two rookies who join the Monsters fresh off remarkable seasons in the USHL, Matiss Kivlenieks and Ivan Kulbakov.
"(Kivlenieks and Kulbakov) have both been great, they're hungry, and they're good friends," Zito said. "And Thiessen is one of the most remarkable human beings. Just his patience and his understanding. He's a great goaltender. We'll figure out a way to get all these guys the time."
As this Monsters squad prepares to take on the demands of the upcoming season, they'll have the support of not just Madden and his coaching staff, but development coaches Chris Clark and Gregory Campbell. That team brings years of NHL experience and more than a couple Stanley Cup rings.
"We have some guys who know hockey," Zito said. "They are all excited they've all had a summer to work together, they've been planning. The common denominator is going to be winning. That's what we hope to see help bring the team to come together."