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October 10. 2012 11:51PM

Ian Clark's On Hockey: Optimism abounds in Monarchs Country

Boasting a strong nucleus of experience, adding talented youngsters and playing a new attacking style that led the parent club to a Stanley Cup, there's good reason for optimism in Monarchs Country.

Manchester opens its AHL season Friday night at 7:05 in Providence. The Monarchs have installed the Los Angeles Kings' system and the players have taken to it. Up and down the lineup, the weaknesses appear to be few.

Starting up front on the forward lines, the Monarchs return three of their four top scorers from last year in Brandon Kozun (20 goals, 26 assists, 46 points), Linden Vey (19-24-43) and captain Marc-Andre Cliche (17-24-41).

Veterans such as Rich Clune, David Meckler and Stefan Legein provide a backbone for up-and-coming players like rookies Tanner Pearson, Jordan Weal, Brian O'Niell, Tyler Toffoli, Nikolay Prokhorkin, Andy Andreoff and second-year players like Vey and Robbie Czarnik.

Andrei Loktionov and Jordan Nolan are also in town after closing the season with a Cup win in L.A. and Justin Johnson plays the enforcer role.

“We've got great depth. It starts with the veteran presence of Cliche, Clune, Meckler and Legein,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris, who enters his seventh season at the helm. “The other returners, they continue to make steady progress and seem to have a pretty good grasp of the way the Kings want to see us play. The newcomers, there's a ton of skill there. Every time out, you see something that pulls you out of your seat.”

The depth at forward will create some problems of the “good ones to have” variety for Morris.

“We have five really good lines. I wouldn't want to be in coach's spot to decide who is going to be in the lineup every game,” Cliche said. “It's really positive for the season.”

Cliche himself will act as the anchor for the forwards, playing alongside longtime linemates Clune and Meckler to form a solid checking/energy line that can also chip in with scoring.

“We know we won't get as many goals as the young kids on the team but we just work hard and give them energy,” Cliche said. “We're ready to accept that role and go forward with it.”

Moving back to the blue line, the Monarchs should be strong in their own end, with a good mix of puck-movers like second-year man Nick Deslauriers, Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov (another down from L.A. during the lockout) and steady stay-at-home veteran D men like Andrew Bodnarchuk, Andrew Campbell, David Kolomatis and Thomas Hickey (who plays both ends very well).

“It doesn't matter which two guys you throw out. I think there's a mix of guys with solid defensive play and guys who can move the puck,” Hickey said. “We're going to have some happy forwards this year because they're going to be getting the puck every time they're out there. I don't think we'll be playing in our own end too much with the capability we have out there.”

Moving from defense to offense will be key in the new up-tempo style.

“I think we have more of an aggressive attitude about defending the rush and also a very quick transition game equates into strong attacks and sustained offensive play,” Morris said.

The last line of defense is also expected to be a strong point for the Monarchs. Third-year goaltender Martin Jones is the No. 1 option in net. Jones was excellent in preseason action and appears ready to take the top job and run with it.

“I'm thrilled with what I've seen so far,” Morris said.

Backing up Jones will be either journeyman Peter Mannino or rookie J.F. Berube. A decision is expected today on the situation, though it is likely that Berube will be assigned to Ontario of the ECHL where he will see plenty of ice time to continue his development. Mannino provides capable backup insurance to offer Jones a breather during heavy stretches of the schedule.

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Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at iclark@unionleader.com.


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