Defenders form foundation of Moose’s success

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

📝 by Anthony Fusco | AHL On The Beat

Manitoba Moose and Winnipeg Jets fans had plenty to be excited about coming into the 2021-22 AHL campaign. The Moose blue line shows enormous potential, with seven of its eight members selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL Draft. That youthful exuberance, balanced by some veteran players to guide the way, is an important piece when looking at Manitoba’s 15-7-1-0 start to the campaign.

Through their first 23 games of the season, the Moose have allowed just 2.39 goals per game, third-fewest in the league. The club has allowed a paltry 23.6 shots per game, roughly two shots per game fewer than the next-stingiest team, in that span. Meanwhile, the team’s blueliners are contributing at the other end of the ice: As of Dec. 13, the Moose are the only team with multiple players among the top-15 scoring defenders in the league, and they have three on the list. Defensemen have scored 18 of Manitoba’s 74 goals this season, accounting for 24.3 percent of the team’s goals.

The group is headlined by Winnipeg Jets first-round pick Ville Heinola. The talented Finnish blueliner recently spent some time on recall with the Jets, but returns to the Moose as one of the team’s top producing players. Heinola is second among Moose defensemen with 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 18 games this season, and leads the defenders in points per game. Heinola, who was selected 20th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, is a dangerous playmaker who becomes more well-rounded with each passing game.

The slick defenseman receives ice time on both the power play and the penalty kill while continuing his career’s upward trajectory.

“I just want to play as much as I can,” Heinola said. “Of course, I know I have to earn my minutes and play well.”

Heinola is the youngest member of the Moose defense corps this season and speaks highly of the more senior players he relies on.

“I feel comfortable around them. I think that’s the biggest thing,” explained Heinola. “I can talk to them about everything. It’s good to have older friends that know what they’re doing.”

Just ahead of Heinola in the points category is Leon Gawanke. The third-year pro sits in the top-10 of the AHL in scoring from the blue line. The Berlin, Germany, native has 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 23 games this season and is trusted member of the Moose defense. Gawanke feels the group’s mindset is geared toward offensive production.

“Our defense is doing a pretty good job offensively this year,” said Gawanke. “You could tell before the season started that we had some players that liked to play offense. You can see how many points we have from the defense. It’s really good to see.”

Despite the early success in the offensive zone, the 2017 fifth-round pick knows he needs to remain aware of his play in his own end.

“I also have to work on my defensive game,” added Gawanke. “I try to always look out for the defensive side of the game either on the ice or up in the gym so that I can get stronger with boxing out and winning battles.”

Gawanke’s early production is due in part to chemistry with his consistent defensive partner. Along with Gawanke, Declan Chisholm is on an offensive tear that began in November and rolled right into December, and is up to 13 points (five goals, eight assists) through 23 games of his second professional season. That already matches Chisholm’s 28-game point total from his rookie campaign and more than doubles his previous goal total. Chisholm’s five goals on the campaign leads the Moose defense and has him tied for second among the league’s defenders.

A key cog on the Moose blue line is the veteran leadership of Jimmy Oligny. The defenseman was recently named the 11th captain in franchise history, and he is also the most experienced Moose with over 400 games of AHL experience.

The club’s new captain was humbled by the selection. “It’s a huge honor. We have such a great group of leaders in our room,” stated Oligny. “It could have been me or anybody. It’s a huge honor and I hope I can fill the role to what it’s worth.”

Oligny is the only member of the Moose blue line not drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. The mentorship roll of the Saint-Michel, Que., native is a crucial element to the development of the organization’s prospects.

Dependable shut-down defenseman Johnathan Kovacevic found his scoring touch at the end of the shortened 2020-21 season. He kept that momentum rolling through the quarter-mark of 2021-22. The Grimsby, Ont., product recorded a career high last season with 14 points in 29 games with the Moose, and now in his third professional season the 2017 third-rounder is on pace to surpass that mark with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 23 games played. Kovacevic is a valuable member of the Moose penalty kill which is currently ranked in the top-three of the AHL.

Dylan Samberg’s return from injury brought him back into a pairing with Kovacevic. That reunited one of the AHL’s top shut-down duos from the 2020-21 campaign. Samberg is in his second season with the Moose, recording one assist through 10 games. The Hermantown, Minn., product already has plenty of hardware in his trophy case, including a silver medal with Team USA at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship and back-to-back NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Samberg was selected by the Jets in the second round, 43rd overall, in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

“They have good sticks, their gap is good, and I think the communication between those two is really good right now,” said Moose assistant coach Eric Dubois of the Kovacevic-Samberg pairing. “They got to know each other and where they’re going to be and to feed off each other. Also, they have size. They are two big bodies on defense. They defend hard and position themselves well. So, it’s hard to offensively get around them because of their size and gain position over them.”

Assistant coach Eric Dubois’ charges have helped the Moose to a strong start in 2021-22. (Photo: Jonathan Kozub)

Along with Oligny, Nelson Nogier brings valuable experience to the Moose blue line. The native of Saskatoon, Sask., played for both Saskatoon and Red Deer during his junior career in the Western Hockey League, and is currently in the midst of his sixth season with the Moose. Nogier has 36 points (five goals, 31 assists) in 225 career AHL games, and owns a bounty of experience to draw from beyond his games played in the league. The Jets’ fourth-round pick in 2014 faced the high of playing 11 NHL games with Winnipeg and the low of losing nearly an entire season to injury. Nogier’s knowledge gives the younger defensemen on the crew something to lean on.

Impressively, seven of the eight defensemen on the Moose suited up for the team last season. That continuity is certainly a boon for the team and the group’s early chemistry is another one of the keys to Manitoba’s early success. It can be tricky joining an established group, but Simon Lundmark slotted in smoothly as the new addition to the Moose blue line. The 21-year-old made his North American debut this season after playing his entire previous career in Sweden. The Stockholm native scored his first AHL goal on Oct. 30 in a 5-3 win against Iowa, and has two points in his first 15 AHL contests. The young blueliner was drafted by Winnipeg in the second round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

Coaching is a crucial element of the development process. In his role as an assistant, Dubois focuses on the back end for the club. The former defenseman has over 500 professional games to look back on, and is now in his sixth season with the Moose following 11 seasons as an assistant and head coach in the QMJHL. The Montreal native’s experience is a valuable resource for his pupils whether it’s Oligny with over 400 AHL games or Lundmark with 15. With so much talent on the blue line, it’s natural the Moose defensemen are a big part of the team’s offense. So it doesn’t surprise Dubois that Manitoba already has four defensemen with over 10 points on the season.

“Early on we said that most of our offence will come from the back end,” explained Dubois. “I didn’t expect them to score goals the way we have, but we knew early that the blue line would be a source of offense.”

The next generation of Jets wants to take flight and their time with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL is priming them for take-off. With a bevy of talented players, this Moose squad has winning aspirations. If the blue line continues to produce the way it did through the first quarter, Manitoba is primed for an exciting rest of the 2021-22 season.