by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
From day one of the 2014-15 American Hockey League season, the Manchester Monarchs have been a force to be reckoned with.
Finishing the regular season with a sparkling 50-17-6-3 record to earn the league’s Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the regular-season points champion (109), the Los Angeles Kings’ top development affiliate hasn’t slowed down, reaching the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2010.
Jordan Weal, a third-round draft pick (No. 70) by the Kings in 2010, has been an instrumental part of the Monarchs’ success all season, finishing the regular season third in league scoring with 69 points in 73 games. Through the first two rounds of the Calder Cup Playoffs, the North Vancouver, B.C., native had posted 10 goals and five assists for a league-best 15 postseason points.
“These first two series have been really hard battles, and kind of two different dynamics,” Weal said during the Monarchs’ eight-day break before opening the conference finals against Hartford last night. “It was a big rivalry against Portland, and then it was more of a systematic series against Wilkes-Barre. [But] whoever we play, I don’t think it’s going to change our game.”
The Monarchs jumped out to a quick 2-0 series lead over the Portland Pirates in the best-of-five conference quarterfinals, then saw the Pirates claw their way back and force a Game 5 before eliminating them with a 5-3 win. Against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, home to the AHL’s goaltender and rookie of the year Matt Murray and one of the league’s stingiest defensive systems, Manchester made quick work, winning the series four games to one to move another step closer to the Calder Cup.
Mike Stothers is in his first season behind the Manchester bench, returning to the AHL for a third time in his coaching career after stints as an assist with the Hershey Bears (1991-96) and Philadelphia Phantoms (1996-2000), and as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins (2007-08).
His familiarity with the Monarchs might have been low coming into the season, but his knowledge of Weal’s offensive prowess was deep thanks to a year of overlap in the Western Hockey League when he was coaching Moose Jaw while Weal was skating for Regina.
“He was pretty much the individual that you designed your whole game plan around,” Stothers said. “He was that good. He made things happen. He’s continued to do in pro what he did in junior. He’s competitive, he’s fearless, and he wants to be the best. Right now, he’s playing like he wants to be a man playing in the NHL next year.”
The 23-year-old Weal has 173 points in 221 regular-season games with the Monarchs, following a prolific WHL career with Regina that saw him finish with 385 points in 282 games, including a 116-point season in 2011-12. Acknowledged by Stothers as not having much left to prove at the AHL level, Weal earned his first recall to Los Angeles on Apr. 10 but did not play in the Kings’ season finale the next day. But by all accounts, the time is coming.
“They have a great team up there, and it’s really a great organization. I can’t ask for more,” Weal said. “They’ve given me lots of opportunity to play pro and get drafted, and I think I’m ready to take the next step and play with them. But you never know. It’s tough to crack a team like that.”
In his third full campaign as a pro, the centerman has spent the 2014-15 season stepping into the Monarchs’ leadership group. That core is described by both Weal and Stothers as a community effort, and Weal’s approach to the game resonates with his team.
“The best thing for Wealer is that his teammates know what he’s capable of and what he’s going to bring every night,” Stothers said. “That and his preparation and the detail in his game certainly set a good example and [he] is a really good positive role model. He’s got some very talented teammates that help him, and he helps them.”
The Monarchs have taken the ‘have a good start’ mentality to the next level thus far in the Calder Cup Playoffs, seven times scoring the game’s first goal within the first 2:07 of play. Three of Weal’s 10 goals have come in the opening frame, including the first of an eventual three he would score in Game 4 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for his first professional playoff hat trick.
Weal plays a focused game, the skill set and hockey IQ spoken of by Stothers apparent whenever he steps onto the ice or makes a play for one of his teammates.
As the Monarchs look to advance to the Calder Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history, Weal continues to fine-tune his game, playing with a quiet confidence that seems poised to finally help him nudge his way onto the Kings’ roster.
“Hockey is a game that always is changing. As you go from junior to pro, there’s things you can and can’t get away with anymore,” Weal said. “I think it’s just a matter of figuring those things out and playing with confidence. When you have that confidence, and you know you can play at a certain level, you’re going to be fine because this game is a lot of mental work.”