On Saturday night in exciting fashion the Lake Erie Monsters, Columbus’ AHL affiliate, took home the Calder Cup for the first time in their history. Up three games to none in the series against the Hershey Bears, the teams took a 0-0 tie into overtime before 21-year old Oliver Bjorkstrand iced the game with his playoff-leading tenth goal. The finals sweep was the first of its kind since the Norfolk Admirals won in 2012, easily triumphing over the Toronto Marlies in four games.
Bjorkstrand took home the playoff MVP award, joining past winners such as Tomas Tatar, Robin Lehner and Carey Price. He’s carving out quite a playoff career thus far, having put up 77 points in 59 games throughout his time in junior to go with his 16 this season.
For head coach Jared Bednar, this not only is his first Calder Cup victory, it’s the first time an AHL team under his purview progressed past the first round. Now carrying a strong .589 winning percentage through four seasons as an AHL head coach, he’ll surely start to get looks as a NHL boss soon enough.
If he does, he’ll be following in the footsteps of recent Calder Cup champions; Willie Desjardins took the Texas Stars to the Cup in 2014, and was immediately hired on by the Vancouver Canucks. Jeff Blashill won with the powerhouse Grand Rapids Griffins in 2013, and was the successor in Detroit after Mike Babcock left for Toronto. In 2012, Jon Cooper took the Norfolk Admirals all the way, winning 55 games in the regular season and taking home the championship. Two seasons later he was behind the bench for Tampa, and has now taken them deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs in consecutive years.
For players like Bjorkstrand, their days on the the Monsters might be numbered. After being selected in the third round by the Blue Jackets in 2013, Bjorkstrand returned to the WHL and finished an impressive junior career with 118 points in just 59 games, adding 25 more in 17 playoff contests. This season, he scored 17 goals for the Monsters in the regular season, and made a solid debut for the Blue Jackets, putting up 8 points in just 12 games with the big club. He’ll look to break camp with the team as early as next season.
The other Monster making waves this postseason was 18-year old Zach Werenski, last season’s eighth overall pick. After completing his season at the University of Michigan, the defenceman signed an amateur try-out with the Monsters, as to preserve his status for any future expansion drafts. His entry-level deal with the Jackets will kick in in 2016-17, keeping him a first year professional for that season.
Werenski played seven games down the stretch for the Monsters, before becoming one of their top performers in the playoffs. His 14 points ranked him third overall on the Monsters and second among AHL defencemen trailing only Marlies’ standout Connor Carrick.
While Werenski played exceptionally these playoffs for the Monsters, he’ll be hard pressed to crack the roster this fall. The Blue Jackets have seven defencemen under contract for next season, including young standouts Ryan Murray and Seth Jones. With a lot of money tied up long-term at forward in players that aren’t providing much value, the Blue Jackets will need to rely on their young pipeline on the back end for the next few years.
Winning the Calder Cup is an outstanding achievement, and for Monsters’ captain Ryan Craig, it’s a long time coming. Breaking in with Tampa Bay just after their 2004 Stanley Cup run, Craig has bounced up and down for the next decade, never securing a place in the NHL or repeating his strong rookie season of 28 points in 48 games. Now 34, he’s a champion at the pro-level for the first time in his career.
You can bet teams will be scouring this roster for players as the season draws closer, betting that success in the AHL could lead to success for their big club. It’s a young, talented group, with six players above the age of 29. While Columbus didn’t have much success at the NHL level this season, they possess the third overall pick in this June’s entry draft after moving up in the lottery and may find themselves in a position to deal from a stocked cupboard in order to improve the team this season.