First of all, another season of Monsters hockey is set to begin, and I just want to say that I can’t wait to get behind the mic and bring you each and every game this season. I’m extremely excited to engage you, the great Monsters fans, during every game. In case you haven’t interacted directly with the broadcast yet, feel free to Tweet at me @DougPlagens, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For those new to the program, I’ll get to as many Tweets and emails as I can during the second intermission of all radio games, and the segment is always one of the most fun portions of the game.
Onto the team: the Monsters began training camp knowing there would be two new faces in net. Four rookies competed for the two spots on the roster, and Sami Aittokallio and Calvin Pickard emerged as the featured tandem in net for the Monsters to start the season. In the sports world, it’s perfectly normal to analyze- and sometimes over-analyze- the first-year players. After all, they’re the unknown; people have either never seen them, seen very little of them, or critics have never seen them at the level of competition that the young players are about to witness. In some cases, it’s all of the above. But when it comes to rookie puckstoppers, this broadcaster loves it; as both a concept, and in terms of the Monsters current situation.
First, the current situation: Sami Aittokallio, for instance, may be a rookie in North America. However, he’s not a rookie in the professional ranks. Aittokallio played in his native Finland’s top league over the last two full seasons, and had the opportunity to back-up and learn from an NHL veteran in former San Jose and Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala. Secondly, he’s no stranger to the big stage; he posted the top save percentage (.936) of any goalie at the last World Junior Championships, which included a 55-save effort against Sweden. Add in the fact that the Avalanche’s fourth-round draft choice in 2010 hails from Finland; a country that has produced an almost unparalleled line of goaltenders recently. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, Boston’s Tuukka Rask, Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom, and Calgary’s Mikka Kiprusoff headline an all-star list of Finnish netminders.
Onto Pickard; a 20-year-old who has been groomed into being a workhorse in net. Over the last three seasons for the Seattle Thunderbirds in the Western Hockey League, Pickard has played in 64, 68, and 62 games respectively. He’s the all-time leader in saves and minutes played on the circuit. He also has seen the American Hockey League firsthand. His debut was a perfect relief appearance for the Monsters late last season, and he was also victorious in his only AHL start; an 8-4 Monsters win on 4/1/12.
From personal experience, the 2009-10 Idaho Steelheads- for whom I was the radio and TV broadcaster- were built like an ECHL juggernaut. The team coasted to the Brabham Cup, annually awarded to the league’s best regular season record. The goalie: then 22-year-old rookie Richard Bachman, who could be seen last season stopping pucks for the Dallas Stars in the NHL. Bachman was the best goalie in the ECHL that season, and after about a week, you never even heard the word “rookie” mentioned in discussions about the guy. The season before that in Boise, the goalie was another then-rookie: Matt Climie. Climie was a total workhorse, and to this day is one of my favorite players to have seen perform on a night-to-night basis. Nothing bothered “Climes” in net, and AHL fans have seen the Bemidji State product post some nice stats over the last couple years. Stanley Cup-winning rookie netminders: Patrick Roy anyone? Ken Dryden? Okay, they may be hall of famers, but all I’m suggesting is that you can win with rookies, especially in a developmental league like the AHL.
Keep an eye on Mitchell Heard, Colorado’s second-round choice, and the organization’s first pick, in last Summer’s draft. Heard set a career high in goals with 29 last season during his final Ontario Hockey League season, while he also showed his physical side with 111 penalty minutes. In an interview currently on www.lakeeriemonsters.com, Heard talks about feeding off the physical side of the game. He demonstrated his prowess if he’s forced to drop the gloves during the Monsters second preseason contest; just ask Grand Rapids forward Louis-Marc Aubry. Heard’s ability to switch hands in a scrap was very impressive, but he also looks very comfortable in the faceoff circle and in front of the net. Heard and fellow rookie Michael Sgarbossa were trusted with multiple faceoffs during the preseason, and when added with veteran faceoff men in Mark Olver and now Brad Malone, among others, the Monsters have a good deal of depth up the middle.
Off the ice, there’s a big slate of concerts on the horizon here in Northeast Ohio, and a good chunk of them fall on Monsters off nights. For some reason, the start of hockey season always leads to a lot of Sum 41 on my iPod, which is not an issue considering the Ajax, Ontario quartet is one of my favorite musical ensembles of all-time. And yes, I just called them a quartet and an ensemble in the same sentence. Coincidently, they’re going to be at the House of Blues in November, and I already have my ticket.
Two games against Oklahoma City, and a third game this weekend will be a road affair against the Toronto Marlies on Sunday. Remember to always keep an eye on the Monsters broadcast schedule so you can follow along with each game whether the team’s at The Q or away from home. I’ll check back in next week with a review of the opening weekend and the first road trip- which hopefully will include some Tim Horton’s and/or Mr. Sub in Canada- and a look ahead to a trip to a couple of my favorite road cities, Oklahoma City and Austin. That’ll do it for this edition.
‘Til we meet again.