CLEVELAND MONSTERS AHL HOCKEY TRAINING CAMP 2018

Tony Brown's Training Camp Notebook

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DAY ONE:

While the Columbus Blue Jackets’ training camp continues, Wednesday, at long last, marked the official beginning of the Cleveland Monsters’ 2018-19 season and the team’s annual preseason training camp. As players trickled onto the Monsters’ camp roster over the past several days by way of their individual assignments by Columbus, the pool of talent from which the Monsters’ Opening Night roster will be culled, took to the ice at OBM Arena in Strongsville in the form of 23 players, 14 on NHL contracts with the Blue Jackets, five on AHL pacts, and four competing for jobs on a training camp tryout basis.

Following an up-tempo skate that featured nearly ninety minutes of crisp drills and some late conditioning courtesy of 14 forwards, eight defensemen and just one rostered net-minder (veteran backstop Brad Thiessen), I spoke with Monsters Head Coach John Madden on a number of topics heading into his third campaign behind the bench in Cleveland.

 

John Madden on:

His focus in the first few days of camp…
“It’s going to be a lot of structure and systems. We know [the players] are in shape from [Blue Jackets] camp, so we’re not too worried about that, but we’re just trying to get a lot of guys acclimated to their new surroundings, find them good housing, somewhere to live and someone to live with so they can get into good habits and just overall getting a feel for guys…Getting a feeling where they might play on our roster this year; are they power-play guys? Are they penalty kill guys?...We’ll go from there and keep progressing throughout the week.”

Growth in last year’s rookies returning to Cleveland this season…
“That’s the first thing I noticed; we did a lot of drills we did last season and they all picked it up real quick. Their habits are a lot better than they were last season at the beginning and with the veteran guys we’ve added, it made for a great practice.”

On the core of veteran leaders on the Monsters’ training camp roster…
“It starts with [Nathan] Gerbe – just his work ethic, with Tommy Cross – just his leadership skills, [Dillon] Simpson, [Zac] Dalpe, Galley (forward Brett Gallant), the list goes on with guys that have been around a little bit. They’re pushing the pace and holding guys accountable, so it was a fun day out there.”

Among those attempting to play their way into the picture is a Hudson-born, Columbus-raised member of Cleveland’s 2016 Calder Cup Championship team, Trent Vogelhuber, who spent the past two seasons with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage in the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche’s system. I caught up with Vogelhuber after practice and he weighed in regarding his mindset heading into his seventh professional season.

 

Trent Vogelhuber on:

Having an opportunity to return to Cleveland…
“It’s very special…[Columbus] is the first organization I was with and I have such special memories here in Cleveland and [the city of Cleveland] definitely has a special place in my heart so it’s really exciting to be here…We’ll see what happens here going forward, but if it works out, [my family] would be just as excited as I am for me to be back in the home state.”

His mindset heading into this season…
“The last few years have been tough with my missing a lot of time due to injuries. I spent a lot of time this summer getting my body back to where it was and I feel the best I have in a long time. For me, I just want to be a consistent player out there on a day-to-day basis, not have as many ups and downs as I’ve had in the past few years and that starts today.”

The unfamiliar feeling of competing in camp on a tryout basis…
“I’m just trying to do the same thing I’ve done my whole career, and I know we’ve got a lot of [players] in this organization and a lot of good young players and that’s a bonus for me. I want to be a part of something good here…I’m a little bit older now so I think I can bring a lot to the table in a different way in helping these young guys out. I’m just going to be what I always try to be and that’s the hardest worker on the ice, help the young guys along and see what happens.”

 

An already-crowded ice surface will become more so tomorrow with the announcement, just after the start of Wednesday’s session, that the Blue Jackets assigned forwards Eric Robinson and Sam Vigneault, and defenseman Michael Prapavessis (who recently inked an AHL deal with the Monsters), to Cleveland. Additionally, experienced net-minder Jean-Francois Berube, should he clear waivers, will lighten the load for Thiessen in the Monsters’ nets in the near future.

 

DAY TWO

With just eight days remaining prior to the Monsters’ season and home opener at The Q, the ice was carved by 27 skaters at the team’s practice facility, OBM Arena in Strongsville, on Thursday on the second day of the club’s annual training camp. Taking their first strides of the season at the AHL level were recent Columbus assignees Sam Vigneault, Eric Robinson, both forwards, and the recent recipient of an AHL contract with the Monsters, blue-liner Michael Prapavessis. Following another lengthy and intense on-ice session, goaltender Jean-Francois Berube also made his Cleveland camp debut on a solo basis, working with Blue Jackets Goaltending Development Coach Jim Corsi and Monsters Assistant Coach Carey Krug after Berube’s clearing waivers at noon EST.

Following practice, I caught up with returning Monsters forward Paul Bittner, entering his third full professional season with Cleveland.

 

Paul Bittner on:

The challenges of competing against teammates in camp while trying to come together as a group…
“You’ve just got to stay upbeat, stay on top of things, know what guys are doing, see what the drill is, and just kind of focus on what you’ve got to do and what your successes are. Driving wide, for myself, I’m a big guy, so I try to do that and stay focused on what I’ve got to do for myself instead of getting caught up in everything else and what everyone else is doing.”

How prepared for the season he feels this go around, compared to past seasons…
“I’ve been injury prone here for my first two seasons in [the AHL] and coming to camp [in those years], I wasn’t one-hundred percent, but this year, having afull summer under my belt, a whole five and a half months or whatever it was, off, I got myself into good shape, a good bodyfat percentage, and good weight, and I feel fast and I feel light, so it’s just one of those things that I’ve just got to stay on top of my eating habits and be ready for the first game.”

Choosing to train in Columbus all summer, rather than back home in Northern Minnesota…
“It was the best option I had. Back home we don’t have a lot of options for working out and getting ice and things like that, so [training in Columbus] was right up my alleyway. There’s a lot of guys in Columbus that stay there with [the Blue Jackets] and with other people from other organizations too…So there’s a good nucleus of guys in Columbus to skate with and work out with, so it was pretty easy for me to make that decision, it’s just where I needed to be.”

Areas of focus in his game to start the season…
“I think consistency come into my game. That’s one thing they want to see from me up top is consistency. Consistently hitting people – throwing my weight around, or consistently getting points on the board, whatever it may be, just finding my niche in the lineup and do my role and do my job.”

Formerly a captain in his collegiate days at Princeton, New Jersey native Eric Robinson aims to make a splash with the Monsters this season. A self-described “responsible two-way forward,” Robinson stated Thursday that he likes to work from his own net out. “I take care of the defensive zone,” explained Robinson. “I think skating is one of my bigger assets, so I want to use that to create opportunities offensively.”

 

Eric Robinson on:

How making his NHL debut with the Blue Jackets last season, and his experiences at the NHL Prospects Tournament and at Columbus’ training camp, have helped prepare him for his first full professional season…
“I think I can draw back to all those experiences; college for four years has been great for me to develop my game and obviously the two weeks of [professional experience] I got in last year will be huge coming into this year, but I’m still a rookie, so I’ve got to keep my eyes and ears open and learn every single day.”

The wealth of veteran players on the Monsters roster as a resource to young players, such as himself…
“It’s been really good, there’s a lot of leadership in the room, a lot of guys who have been around professional hockey and obviously the coaching staff is experienced as well so just being able to listen and watch those guys and learn from that is going to be really good.”

Competition between teammates in training camp…
“There’s definitely some competition out there, but I think that’s good for a team to be competing. If guys aren’t going hard, no one’s going to get better, so the competition, I think, helps build team camaraderie.”

 

By the time the Monsters take to the ice on Friday for day three of their annual training camp, there will remain just one week left with which to work as Cleveland Head Coach John Madden and his staff work to whittle their current roster into its first official iteration.

 

DAY 3

As the Cleveland Monsters officially hit the one-week-remaining mark before the start of the AHL’s regular season, the team returned to OBM Arena in Strongsville on Friday for a newsy third day of the club’s annual training camp. Prior to the start of the team’s regular on-ice session, players were broken into two groups split between an up-tempo series of drills on one sheet of ice, run by Cleveland Assistant Coach Steve McCarthy, that featured 11 skaters and two goaltenders (Brad Thiessen and Jean-Francois Berube), and a smaller collection of individuals on OBM’s second rink, hard at work with incoming Assistant Coach Carey Krug on a specialized set of skills-related exercises.

News & Notes:

New Contract for Nikita
The day’s headlining news item came well after the players retreated from the ice, when forward Nikita Korostelev, competing until now on a training camp tryout agreement, inked an AHL pact with the Monsters for the 2018-19 season. The skilled Russian-born forward posted some gaudy numbers in the OHL last year (30 goals, 75 points in 64 appearances for Peterborough) and was selected by Toronto in the seventh round (185th overall) of the NHL Draft in 2015.

Letestu’s AHL Arrival
In a major development on Thursday, the Blue Jackets announced their signing of nine-year NHL veteran Mark Letestu to a one-year, two-way NHL/AHL contract for the 2018-19 season. Columbus simultaneously announced Letestu’s being waived by the Jackets for the purpose of assignment to Cleveland. On Friday at noon, Letestu’s waiver clearance made him a Monster officially, and yes, I’m told the well-liked and even more well-respected veteran will wear his familiar #55 in Cleveland returning to the AHL, a league in which the Elk Point, Alberta native hasn’t competed since the 2009-10 campaign.

EBUGs Abound
One of my favorite hockey-industry quirks (and definitely my favorite hockey acronym) is the occasional need, in practice and occasionally in real game action, for an EBUG. What the heck is that? Why, an emergency backup goaltender, of course! With Berube yet to clear waivers on the first few days of practice, the Monsters turned to off-ice official Billy Ferkol to aid Thiessen in Cleveland’s cages and on Friday, Monsters Membership Development Specialist Dan O’Leary, a member of the team’s ticket sales staff and former backstop in the junior ranks, took his lumps (literally) in net.

Jackets Wrap Exhibition Slate
With the Blue Jackets wrapping their preseason schedule tonight at home versus the Penguins and Saturday on the road in Chicago, we’ll have to keep our eyes peeled collectively to see if any currently Cleveland-assigned reinforcements make their way back up to the NHL level on an abbreviated basis. Columbus Head Coach John Tortorella has additionally indicated that another round of roster cuts at the NHL level is likely looming following the Jackets’ exhibition slate, an eventuality that could make an already crowded and competitive Cleveland dressing room that much more congested. As numerous players have told me this far in Monsters training camp, more players mean more competition and intensity and those are welcome environmental factors at any time of the season.

Following a weekend of off-ice preparation and deliberation, the Monsters will return to OBM Arena for a Monday skate at the team’s regular 10 am practice time.