The Manitoba Moose, Winnipeg's AHL affiliate which features some of the Jets most coveted prospects, are being absolutely pummelled night after night. It's been a year to forget for both the Baby Jets and the organization as a whole. We all know about the Winnipeg Jets' troubles, but many things have also gone wrong with the Moose. With so many young prospects at the helm, there is concern over what impact this may have on development.
The Moose sit dead last in the standings with 61 points and have scored a very underwhelming goals total of 93 along the way. There is a long list of things wrong with the Manitoba Moose 2.0 inaugural season, but considering how goal scoring (or lack thereof) is one of the biggest issues, let's start there.
Look at the team's leaders in points: Chase De Leo leads the team with 26 points in 46 games played. This is a very average point total, and it's beyond alarming that the team's leading point producer only has that many points. One has to think De Leo's point production would increase significantly if he was playing with proven AHL players, but 26 points might be impressive considering the linemates around him and how he's just 20 years old.
Chase De Leo and junior teammate Nic Petan have been two of the best Moose forwards this season. Both are very skilled players that could have bright NHL futures ahead. Since being sent down by the Jets after making the team in training camp, Petan has been contributing as well as can be expected. Petan and De Leo are going from scoring well over a point-per-game in junior hockey, to the pros where they are being counted upon to provide offence against much stiffer competition. In their rookie season as professionals, relying on them to be the team's primary forward scoring weapons is a problem, especially given the lack of support around them.
Looking at Manitoba's points leaders, the top six in scoring are young players. Even Brenden Kichton is only 23, JC Lipon just 22. The AHL may be a developmental league, but it isn't junior hockey. It's a professional hockey league in its own right, one where having top AHL veterans can be very important.
It isn't uncommon for a young player in the AHL to lead their team in points, but to be the team's top six scorers while producing such low numbers is extremely alarming. Where are the veteran players on Manitoba leading the pack and making a significant impact? The first veteran you see among the scoring leaders is Moose captain John Albert, who has a mediocre 18 points in 40 games.
After that are the likes of Patrice Cormier, Matt Halischuk, Matt Fraser and Thomas Raffl, veterans who are supposed to be leaders on the team but produce very little on the scoresheet. Cormier and Halischuk aren't going to score a whole lot, it's just not the way they play. But Matt Fraser has been a 30-goal scorer in the AHL twice and played almost half of last year with the Edmonton Oilers. He has 4 goals with the Moose and hasn't lived up to expectations. Many thought Thomas Raffl would make the Winnipeg roster after a strong training camp. Even when he was cut, it was easy to believe he'd be back with the Jets in no time. But while battling injuries and poor play, Raffl has become an afterthought for both the Jets and the Moose.
Fraser scored his fourth goal tonight. Goals for other Moose vets...— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) January 30, 2016
Cormier - 6
Albert - 5
Halischuk - 4
Raffl - 2 (injuries)
Zajac - 0
These veterans were supposed to help Winnipeg's coveted kids make the adjustment to the pro game. Over halfway through the season, the kids are carrying the vets and helping them keep their jobs in the league. It shouldn't be that way.
In the offseason, longtime Manitoba Moose 1.0 forward Jason Jaffray talked about how he wanted to return to Winnipeg and help the kids transition, but was told the team was going in a younger direction. A solid AHL scorer and leader in Jason Jaffray could have helped this team, just as he helped lead the then Jets affiliated St. John's IceCaps to the Calder Cup Finals in 2013-2014. Experience and success in the league should not be overlooked.
It's not just the Moose that need more veterans to battle with the kids. A similar situation happened with the big club, when Winnipeg went in a " younger direction" rather than re-sign NHL veterans such as Lee Stempniak. The Jets depth has been lacklustre, and surely general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff would like to go back in time and have Stempniak in his bottom-six. The Winnipeg Jets organization is trying to go too young too fast, and it's hurting the prospects rather than helping.
When observing the way other NHL franchises have been handling their prospects and how they run their farm clubs, there are many cases where young studs are placed in the minors and only called up once they have at least a season of AHL experience under their belt, if not more.
Look at how the Toronto Maple Leafs are running the Toronto Marlies. As things are, the Leafs are going to receive a high draft pick this year. They could recall reinforcements from the fountain of youth that lies below them, but they have resisted that urge. Marlies players have to prove themselves in the AHL and earn their way over time to the NHL. They are more likely to be ready when they eventually do.
For example, look at 2014 first round draft selection William Nylander. With 40 points in 30 games, he is playing exceptionally well in his first AHL season. He could probably contribute in some capacity right now for most NHL teams, and would certainly help the struggling Leafs, but despite this Toronto has kept him stashed in the minors to further develop.
What if the Jets had sent Nic Petan down to the minors straight out of training camp? What if Andrew Copp had been with the Moose this season? Would that first year in the minors help their careers down the road more so than being handed NHL jobs to begin the season?
There has been plenty of bad and ugly this season for the Moose, but the team's goaltending has performed as well as can be expected, given the team in front of it. Connor Hellebuyck started the year with Manitoba, and in the 10 games he played was an absolute beast. Since being recalled by the Jets, the torch was passed on to another promising Jets prospect in Eric Comrie, who has been a steady presence for the Moose.
Unfortunately, the Moose haven't returned the favour with solid play in front of him. Comrie is often hung out to dry and has been the team's workhorse this season. Both goalies were named to the AHL All-Star Game this year, and while Hellebuyck couldn't participate due to NHL commitments, Comrie attended the festivities. It's a shame that two great young goaltenders, and Comrie in particular, have had to play behind such a terrible AHL team, buried by shots night after night after night.
McCambridge has spoken w Comrie to reassure the young goalie that he has a long career ahead of him. The problems aren't on him. #AHL— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) February 5, 2016
If Eric Comrie had teammates who could relieve the constant pressure, ones that make the other team's goalie suffer rather than our own, how different would the Manitoba Moose be this year? How much better would it be for young prospects taking their first steps as professionals? There are issues top to bottom with this team, and it has an impact on the development of the prospects themselves.
It's been a season to forget for the Moose and for the Winnipeg Jets organization. The Moose are an important factor in the develop portion of 'Draft and Develop'. If this organization is serious about development, they can't have the Moose continue to be as atrocious as they've been. It's going to hurt the talent they're attempting to develop, talent we hope becomes the next wave of Winnipeg Jets.
These kids need some help.