Ian Clark's On Hockey: Monarchs’ top line: Catch them if you can
MANCHESTER -- MANCHESTER MONARCHS head coach Mark Morris isn’t worried about his top line getting pushed around. After all, you’d have to catch them first.
Center Jordan Weal and wingers Brian O’Neill and Sean Backman are the prototypical small and skilled line. They all skate well and they can all find the scoresheet. Weal is the biggest at 5-foot-10 and some coaches might shy away from having a line of all smaller guys.
“All three of those guys are fearless. They compete exceptionally hard. I don’t have any hang-ups about the size on that line. It’s inspiring to watch them play,” Morris said. “Their energy and their chemistry is infectious. They really enjoy playing with each other. It’s obvious what they’ve been able to bring in the way of checking, scoring and their overall compete level. For guys that aren’t that tall, they play a big game.”
In his second full pro season, Weal leads the Monarchs (who host Hartford Friday at 7 p.m. and Portland Saturday at 3 p.m.) in scoring with 18 goals and 45 assists for 63 points. His assists total is fourth in the AHL.
Also in his second full season, O’Neill is fourth in the AHL in plus-minus at plus-24 and has scored 25-18-43 and could become the first Monarch since Brian Boyle in 2008 to score 30 goals. A four-year veteran formerly with Bridgeport, Backman has posted a career-high 24 points on eight goals and 16 assists.
“The biggest thing with us is that we try and be as consistent as possible,” Weal said. “We try and bring the same effort to every game and we’re all hard-workers so we try to control that and work as hard as we can and it seems like we’re starting to get some bounces. It’s nice because when you work hard you like to see results out of it.”
Backman and O’Neill were teammates in college at Yale University, overlapping for one season in 2009-2010. They did play together as Bulldogs, but that history wasn’t a guarantee of how they would play together in the present.
“It depends. Every situation is a little different. These guys have a connection that worked in the past and it continues to grow as the season wears on,” Morris said. “Even in drills you see them looking for one another and reading off each other and creating scoring chances. Their communication is very apparent. They have a lot of fun.”
O’Neill has been on fire as of late, scoring 12 goals in his last nine games and recording two hat tricks in the month of March.
“I played with Brian in college and it helped a little, but sometimes that doesn’t mean much at the next level. Right now he’s finding the back of the net and he’s a guy that’s hot and he’s staying hot so that always helps,” Backman said. “To reconnect with him in Manchester has been a lot of fun.”
The line has been a huge part of Manchester’s success this season, especially considering that the would-be top line of Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Linden Vey has been split most of the year with pieces in Los Angeles (right now, Toffoli and Pearson).
“It has elevated our entire game,” Morris said of Weal, O’Neill and Backman’s line. “We’ve started most games the second half of the season with them leading the charge. More times than not, they deliver.”
THE old college try: The Monarchs are expected to gain some players soon as college teams continue to fall away during the NCAA playoffs.
Among those that could be Manchester-bound are St. Cloud State seniors Nic Dowd (a Hobey Baker Award finalist) and defenseman Kevin Gravel and Wisconsin power forward Michael Mersch.
Underclassmen prospects include defenseman Paul LaDue from the University of North Dakota — UND is currently in the Frozen Four — and another St. Cloud player, forward Jonny Brodzinski. And then there are lots of undrafted players who just finished college careers.
“It’s nothing new,” Morris said of adding players. “New faces, new bodies, different chemistries…we have to think on our feet and get these guys acclimated to our team and the way we play. That’s the biggest challenge of coaching in this league is finding ways to adapt and take different personnel and make them into a functional unit.”
Adding new players, especially ones eager to prove themselves, can make for a fun time.
“These guys are coming in wide-eyed and inspired to show what they can do at the pro level. They’re coming off their own seasons and I think it’s a very exciting time for everybody,” Morris said. “The guys that have been drafted by the Kings have obviously been scouted and project to be good players. How quickly they learn and fit into useful components in our lineup is yet to be seen.”
Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.