Monsters trio trying to return to the top

by Doug Plagens || AHL On The Beat Archive

Some players are playmakers. Some are two-way forwards, some are grinders, and some are offensive dynamos. And, of course, every player is either a forward, defenseman, or goaltender.

But every player is trying to be a winner, regardless of the level. Some have already been to the top in their career, and when organizations are looking for talent, those who have been to the top of the mountain are more attractive and marketable. And they’re logical building blocks for success.

Enter a trio of Lake Erie Monsters forwards: Paul Carey, Mike Connolly, and Bryan Lerg. Each took a different path to the Colorado Avalanche organization. However, the path for each included a national championship at the NCAA level.

“These guys are battle-tested. They know what it takes to get to that moment and seize it,” Monsters director of AHL operations and assistant coach David Oliver said. “Everyone wants a winner. That’s something we talk about in the locker room all the time.”

“You want winners. Whether it’s Memorial Cup or national championship, it takes a certain type of player to play that long, and to compete at a high level in a playoff atmosphere,” said Monsters head coach Dean Chynoweth. “These types of players are a part of winning hockey teams. When you have that on your resume, it always helps. When you have one, you can shoot for the next title at the next level.”

Carey was drafted by the Avalanche in the fifth round (135th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. At that point, he was an 18-year-old from Massachusetts coming off a 66-point season in the USHL. Over the subsequent four years, Carey would be a part of Boston College’s national titles in 2010 and 2012 before making his professional debut with the Monsters late in the 2011-12 campaign.

Carey played in the Monsters’ final two games of last season, as the team was in the midst of a battle for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. He had to adapt in a hurry, and his championship experience gave him the mindset to do so.

As he becomes a key part of the Monsters attack this season, he says winning at the college level provides extra confidence.

“Winning takes a certain attitude,” Carey said. “You need to buy in, and you need to find your role. When you transition to the professional game, you do the same thing.”

Between Carey’s two titles with Boston College, the University of Minnesota-Duluth won a championship in 2011. A key member of that team: Connolly, who became a part of the Colorado organization after the February 2012 trade that brought him, Jamie McGinn and Mike Sgarbossa to the Avalanche from San Jose in exchange for T.J. Galiardi, Daniel Winnik and a draft pick.

Connolly credits the collegiate tournament format for enhancing his readiness to hit the ice every time.

“[College hockey] is a one-shot mentality. When that translates to pro hockey, where you see teams more and can learn their tendencies, you want to go out and establish your game, and play with that one-shot mentality. We’ve got a couple guys on our team who have been there. We’ve been able to carry it over,” Connolly said.

Over the summer, Lerg, who won a national title at Michigan State in 2007, signed on as a free agent. All three are a part of a deep Monsters lineup early in the season.

According to Lerg, the do-or-die nature of the NCAA tournament and the attention on each individual game provides experiences unlike most any other in the sport.

“Not many people are able to say they won a national title. It really helps confidence, just because you’ve been through the ups and downs. You’ve played in the regional games, and moved onto the finals where everyone’s watching,” Lerg said. “In the pro game, you get in some of these big rinks where you have 10,000, 12,000 fans. [In a championship game], you get to play in front of a lot of fans and in big situations.”

The players acknowledge the championships are a part of their hockey pasts, but it’s a great achievement they’ll carry with them forever. You can bet that the rings still come up in conversation.

“We’ve talked about it. Paul and I have talked about our run and their run, and some of the games. He wasn’t there the year we beat BC in the finals,” which Lerg noted as a reason he’s not able to chirp Carey too much about it.

Connolly and Carey both admitted that the topic comes up in conversation, but Carey noted that on occasion the idea of a championship mentality arises without spoken words.

“You want to look down the bench and see guys who are winners and will do anything to win and compete every game. That’s what it takes, ultimately,” Carey said. “It starts day one. Buy into the system, and when you have guys who can win and who’ve done it before, it makes it easier.”

Oliver, himself a product of the collegiate game at the University of Michigan, understands the value of championship experiences to young players.

“I’d love one of those rings. We came close, but not close enough. When you have a chance to play for a championship there’s nothing that can compare to it,” Oliver said. “Whether it’s the Stanley Cup, the Calder Cup; it doesn’t matter what league you’re in. A championship is a championship.”