When Mike Eaves reported to Columbus in June to work at the Blue Jackets’ annual development camp, he wasn’t just there to help put the team’s prospects through the paces.
In some ways, it was a boot camp for Eaves as well. The new coach of the Cleveland Monsters, the Blue Jackets’ top farm team at the AHL level, spent the week getting a crash course from the Columbus coaching staff on its systems and the nomenclature they use to describe what’s happening in the heat of the moment on the ice.
The goal was to make moving between the two levels as seamless as possible, so that a player going up from Cleveland to Columbus wouldn’t need to spend any time adjusting to what the Blue Jackets were planning to do strategy-wise on the ice.
“He wanted to make sure he was telling guys the exact same things (as the Columbus staff),” said Chris Clark, the Blue Jackets assistant general manager who serves as GM of the Monsters. “That’s huge because when you get called up, especially as a young guy, you’re nervous anyway, and now they’re showing you a bunch of systems and you have to be here and you have to be doing this. Now they’re starting to think (too much), and the last thing you want to have guys stop what they’re doing to think about where they are on the ice.”
Clark said when he was an NHL player in the Calgary organization, the Flames structured things the same way with their top affiliate at Saint John, and he immediately saw the benefits. Eaves, a former NHL player, has been a coach for more than 30 years, but he was all-in on the decision to make sure his coaching was aligned with what the Blue Jackets were doing.
“It should be that way, there’s no question,” Eaves said. “Right from the first time that we went there for development camp, this was done right away. In talking with the players, it was Kole Sherwood who said that this was so much easier going up (to the NHL this year) knowing what they were doing and jumping in the deep end with that.”
So is that the reason the Blue Jackets have been able to shine over their recent 12-game point streak, in which the team lost double digits of players to injury yet still kept racking up results, in large part because of the contributions of what feels like nearly half of the Monsters’ roster?
That’s not all, but it certainly is part of the equation.
“The systems and the style of play is an easy transition because it’s similar there and here,” said forward Eric Robinson, who started the year with Cleveland before being summoned to Columbus. “I think that helps make it easier. It’s just getting adjusted to the game and the speed I think when you come back up.”
It also helps there’s some talented players in the group. Robinson joins Nathan Gerbe, Kole Sherwood, Kevin Stenlund, Ryan MacInnis, Andrew Peeke, Gabriel Carlsson and Marko Dano as players who began the season with the Monsters but who contributed to the team’s point streak as the injuries mounted. In addition, forward Jakob Lilja started the year in Columbus but played 18 games with the Monsters before being recalled in December and claiming a spot on the fourth line.
Whether those players are a 21-year-old rookie like Peeke or a 32-year-old veteran like Gerbe, they all have the ability to contribute at the NHL level.
“That’s the first thing is you have to have skill, and that’s a complement to the scouting staff and (general manager) Jarmo (Kekalainen) and (assistant GM) Bill Zito,” Eaves said. “They go out and they get the good talent. To me, the next level of development for those guys is to have good leadership around them in older players. Then the coach is the third phase who keeps it all together. It’s talent, it’s leadership, and then it’s the coaches creating an environment where the guys can go and learn.”
On the coaching side of it as well, the Blue Jackets management and Monsters players point to how much the staff in Cleveland has helped prepare players for the next level. Noted for his enthusiasm and personality — “He would have made a great high school teacher,” Clark noted — Eaves was an AHL coach early in his career but spent the past two decades in college hockey, where mentored players similar in age to many of the young players he inherited on the Monsters squad.
The assistant coaches also have drawn praise. Steve McCarthy, 38, played eight NHL seasons and also suited up overseas and in the AHL before immediately going onto the Monsters staff in 2016, while 31-year-old Dublin native Trent Vogelhuber has taken to coaching like a duck to water after making the jump a season ago.
“I think first and foremost, the coaching staff with Mike Eaves, Steve McCarthy and Trent Vogelhuber, they keep a great standard,” Gerbe said. “They’re great teachers. They’re great listeners. I think that’s huge. They’ve come in and tried to set a high standard. And the leaders down there try to follow suit. We try to hold that standard. Guys are buying in. It’s huge.”
The irony for the Monsters is that early in the season, there were simply too many players on the roster, leading the Blue Jackets to have to loan a handful of players to ECHL teams in order to find ice time. In recent weeks, Clark has had to be on the other side of the coin, scouring the Double-A level to find enough players to ice a team.
Through it all, Cleveland has posted a 17-15-1-2 record in the difficult North Division of the AHL, staying afloat in the playoff race despite all the callups — and a rash of their own injuries that has sidelined such players as Trey Fix-Wolansky, Zac Dalpe, Markus Hannikainen and Ryan Collins, among others, at times this year.
No one anticipated it being quite the wild season it has been at the AHL level, yet Cleveland has not just kept its head above water, it’s helped deliver players to help the big club win games.
“It speaks to a few things,” Robinson said. “The development in Cleveland, obviously, and the systems being the same. But then I think it speaks to the American Hockey League. It’s probably the second-best league in the world. There’s a lot of really good players there. As people have shown that come up, people are excited to play when they come up here.”