With the AHL cancelling the remainder of the season and the Calder Cup Playoffs owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Manitoba Moose’s up-and-down 20th-anniversary campaign is over. They’ll finish with a 27-33-1-0 record and eighth in the Central Division with a .451 points percentage.
With the season officially kiboshed, now’s the time to take a look at who excelled for the Moose 2019-20, who disappointed, and what’s on the horizon for the Jets’ top affiliate.
Those Who Excelled
The towering Russian forward played well in his first North American foray.
The 27-year-old, signed to a one-year deal last June after spending five seasons in the KHL, posted seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points and recorded 75 penalty minutes in 53 games. He also played 2 games for the Jets, making his NHL debut on Feb. 16 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Prokopyevsk native was a locker room favourite and a physical force to be reckoned with, never afraid to be in the middle of a scrum or to get into a dirty area. He also showed off surprisingly soft hands for such a big man and he found chemistry with leading scorer Seth Griffith despite a language barrier.
He was brought in as cheap depth, but could be much more if re-signed.
The biggest beneficiary of myriad of injuries to both the Jets and Moose blue lines this season was rookie defenseman Leon Gawanke.
Upon turning pro after a strong, 57-point 2018-19 with the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, the 2017 fifth-rounder saw his role exponentially expand as the season went on as many other Moose defensemen either hit the shelf or were called up.
Gawanke showed his offensive upside and booming shot as he steadily improved; the German recorded four goals and 22 assists to lead all Moose d-men in points with 26. He was a healthy scratch for some games early in the season but was quarterbacking the top power play unit by the end of it.
“I knew he was good with the puck and making the first pass but he’s made some great plays in the season under pressure,” head coach Pascal Vincent said last month. “He’s a guy that is willing to take hits to make plays. Breaking the puck out and he got better as the season went on.”
While Gawanke, just 20 years old, will need at least another season in the AHL, his rookie campaign looks to be just a hint of a promising future.
A unsung leader and calming presence, the veteran of nearly 400-career AHL games led the Moose in scoring for a second straight season, potting 21 goals and adding 20 assists for 41 points in 58 games. It was his fifth-straight season recording 40-plus points.
Griffith had 11 multi-point efforts and two hat tricks as he showed both his playmaking prowess and penchant for coming through in clutch situations. The well-rounded right-winger is an invaluable player to the organization and should be easy to re-sign to another one-year deal.
“I didn’t even want to go to free agency,” Griffith told InsideAHLHockey.com about re-signing in Winnipeg prior to the season. “I just wanted to sign back here and my fiancée loves it here. She loves the people here. It’s a great organization, they treat you great. That was a big reason why we wanted to come back here.”
The greatest success story by far this season was Jansen Harkins. The forward got off to a scintillating start by putting up seven goals and 24 assists for 31 points in 30 AHL games — including 18 over a 10-game November point streak — and was named CCM/AHL Player of the Month for November before getting a much deserved call-up to the Jets on Dec. 21.
The 22-year-old, who was also named an AHL-All Star, recorded two goals and five assists for seven points in 29 NHL games — mostly in a bottom-six checking role — before the season pause.
Related: 3 New Jets Who Surprised in 2019-20
Harkins’ compete level, dedication, and understanding of the game were evident during his time with both the Moose and the Jets. It’s unlikely he’ll ever return to the AHL.
In an early April a chat with Illegal Curve’s Dave Minuk, Pascal Vincent spoke glowingly and at length about the 2015 second-round pick.
“All he did was do his job, improve and he did it with some kind of silent confidence. He just did his job. Practiced hard. Improved a little bit, improved his skating, improved his speed, improved his release, improved his shot. And you could see it. Little by little the pieces of the puzzle were coming together,” the fourth-year bench boss said.
“His reads are fast, his position is good, he is good on face offs, he’s playing a 200 foot game, he’s good along the boards, the one-on-one battles in tight he’s strong, he’s driving the net, he has a good stick, he can log heavy minutes at the AHL level…” Vincent continued. “Game after game he was one of, if not the best player on the ice, on both teams. He did a great job at investing in himself, he really did it.”
Those Who Fell Short
It was a third-straight lost season for Luke Green. While he has upside as a capable and mobile offensive defenceman, he simply cannot stay healthy.
After playing just 11 games in 2018-19 due to concussion issues (and only 14 in his 2017-18 campaign with the QMJHL’s Sherbrooke Phoenix) Green was hoping for an injury-free 2019-20.
Unfortunately, he got into only 13 games as he suffered an upper body injury in early December and never returned to game action.
As a result, the 2016 third-round pick has remained out-of-sight, out-of-mind and his future with the Jets — and as a pro hockey player — is questionable given his lack of durability.
A season after recording a career-high 41 points and representing a consistent offensive threat, Spacek fell off the radar this season.
He recorded just 20 points and struggled to produce with any regularity and at even strength, posting just nine goals and 11 assists in 45 games along with a minus-14 rating.
The fourth-round 2015 pick, who surprisingly got called up to the Jets in November but did not make his debut, was reassigned to the Ontario Reign in March, but didn’t play any games for the Pacific Division team and remains Jets’ property.
Spacek, a small skill forward, is not suited to a bottom-six checking role, so it’ll be harder for him to find a spot on a Jets’ team that has plenty of top-six talent.
The third-year captain and Winnipegger couldn’t do much leading by example on the ice this season as he was limited to 12 games due to an injury that was never really defined. The team desperately could have used his services.
Regardless, after playing 60-plus games for each of the prior three seasons, this one was a write-off for the Atlanta Thrashers’ last-ever pick.
Despite his lost season, the intelligent d-man still did his best to represent the team off the ice, making school library visits, penning various columns for Game On Magazine, and most recently, reaching out to community-minded Winnipeggers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Summing the Season Up and Looking Forward
Overall, the Moose’s season was tumultuous as they dealt with a lot of injuries and call-ups, especially in December and February, and they never truly found their footing or any sustained success. With only two first-round picks — Kristian Vesalainen and Logan Stanley — on their full-time roster, they weren’t exactly stacked with high-end talent as the Jets’ prospect pool is not as deep as it once was. Their farm system was ranked 24th by THW’s own Josh Bell back in January.
Many of their main offensive threats and cornerstone players such as Griffith, JC Lipon, CJ Suess, and Cameron Schilling were older guys who will all need to be signed to new contracts.
The Moose, as with every other AHL team, will receive a fresh crop of youngsters next season — if and when it begins — such as OHL standout d-men Declan Chisholm and Giovanni Vallati and potentially some players from the 2020 NHL Draft.
Players such as Ville Heinola and David Gustafsson — who both had short stints with team this season — should draw into far more games, and rookies such as Gawanke and Joona Luoto should continue to improve.
Despite the fact they likely would have missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons if the season had been completed, Pascal Vincent will continue as head coach. Winnipeg Free Press sports columnist Mike McIntyre wrote last month that Vincent is held in high regard by the organization as “an astute mind who can relate to young players” and “a great communicator (who is) very much on the same page with the Jets in terms of implementing systems and a consistent message of what it takes to get to the next level, and then stick.” (From ‘Jets have no worries about lead farmhand,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 04/20/2020.)
After all, the true measure of a farm system is how many players that spent time on it go on to become impactful NHLers.