by Jen Sharpe || AHL On The Beat Archive
With the Calder Cup Playoffs on the horizon and a pesky cross-over keeping the North Division’s fourth playoff berth up in the air, the Manitoba Moose have picked a perfect time to ride the win column.
A balanced blend of outstanding goaltending, a potent top line, consistent special teams and secondary scoring have helped turn the club into the hottest team in the AHL with an eight-game winning streak and 27 of 32 possible points since mid-February.
While a handful of players have dominated the stats sheet and headlines by lighting the lamp – and keeping the Moose lamp unlit – it’s a recently-acquired familiar face that could be credited with kick-starting the club.
Ironically, Nolan Baumgartner is the first to admit that calming – not kicking – is what he does best, what he’s been asked to do and what he’s done since joining the Moose 10 games ago.
“When I got here, the coaches and management said they wanted me to come in and be a calming influence on the back end. The guys have been playing great, so it’s not like I’m yelling at guys every night. I just try to be consistent and lead by example,” he says.
“Being an older guy and having played in the American Hockey League for 10 years, I have that experience. Obviously (Moose captain) Mike Keane brings that up front and he’s our leader, but they said they needed somebody that could do that on the back end, be back there talking to the D-men. And hopefully I’ve done that so far.”
And done that he has, not just in the short term, but all season. A disappointing Dallas Stars training camp sent the veteran to Iowa in early October, but Baumgartner made the most of it, embracing his leadership role and tallying five goals and 18 points in 56 games, good for third among all Stars defensemen.
On the eve of this season’s AHL trade deadline, Dallas loaned Baumgartner to Manitoba. While player signings and acquisitions have kept the Moose lineup in flux all season, this move made waves within the media and the organization.
Why all the fuss? Baumgartner spent three seasons with the Moose from 2002-05 and played a key role in the club’s inspiring playoff run during the NHL lockout in 2004-05. That spring, Canadians were desperate for hockey, and in the second and third rounds of the 2005 Calder Cup Playoffs, the Manitoba Moose – led by captain Baumgartner – were the only Canadian team battling for a professional championship.
Although the Chicago Wolves eventually swept the Moose in the Western Conference final, come-from-behind victories over the St. John’s Maple Leafs and Rochester Americans delighted Canadian hockey fans and national media and energized downtown Winnipeg as the brand new MTS Centre was pushed to capacity.
Baumgartner remembers it fondly.
“We had a great team, and the fans were awesome. I think it really opened a lot of guys’ eyes as to how good the fans are here and how seriously Canadians take the game,” he recalls.
“Losing a game on the road and then sweeping all our games at home, and doing the same in the next round vs. Rochester was a great experience.”
Fellow defenseman, linemate and roommate Danny Groulx was also part of that Moose squad. In addition to remembering the excitement of that lockout-year playoff, Groulx remembers Baumgartner’s consistency and says his style of play hasn’t changed.
“He’s essentially the same. He’s really steady out there and makes it a little easier for the rest of us,” Groulx says. “He brings experience, and his first pass is usually always on the tape, which is huge.
“He’s been around for a few years, and it’s good to have him around with the young guys. He’s a real class act.”
Baumgartner’s off-ice demeanor is part of the reason why Manitoba general manager Craig Heisinger pushed to get the Calgary native back in Moose uniform.
“He’s been here before,” said Heisinger, “so we knew what kind of person we were bringing in, and the hockey side of it was up to Nolan. And up until this point, he’s certainly delivered on both sides, on the ice and off the ice. He’s done more than we can ask for.”
It’s impossible to say how much of Manitoba’s recent success can be attributed to Baumgartner, but it’s also impossible to deny that since rejoining the hockey club on Feb. 28, the Moose are undefeated in regulation time (9-0-0-1). In those 10 games, great goaltending and composure in the defensive zone have limited Moose opponents to just 12 goals.
He may not be a hockey hero, but Baumgartner fills a hole that’s been gaping all season.
“I said coming in that Baumer wasn’t going to be the savior and I don’t believe that he is, but he does bring something that we haven’t had all year, which was a veteran presence,” Heisinger explains. “Certainly with Nolan here and having played with Danny Groulx in the lockout year, there’s some stability there. In the last minutes or when the game is tight, it’s either Max (Maxime Fortunus) and (Nathan) McIver or Max and (Daniel) Rahimi and then Baumer and Danny Groulx, and I think that’s really helped us to have two pairings for a really solid top four.”
Stability and consistency. That’s what Baumgartner brings to the Moose, and – in turn – that’s what he’s found within the organization. After spending three seasons shifting between the Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars organizations, Baumgartner is happy to be back in Winnipeg, where the adjustment to a new team has been minimal.
“Coming back to the city, knowing where to go, driving around and not getting lost, knowing the areas and knowing where to look to find a place to live, those are all familiar to me and made the transition quite easy,” Baumgartner says. “The management, the coaches, and all the players made it actually quite easy on me too. But we’ve been winning, and you’re always happy when you’re winning, so nothing makes it easier than that.”