The Manitoba Moose have gotten a huge influx of talent from the Jets taxi squad ahead of their busy 11-game February.
With the NHL’s decision to cease daily testing of asymptomatic players for COVID-19 and most players having tested positive already this season, taxi squads have been dissolved.
Sitting on the Jets’ taxi squad were most of Manitoba Moose’s regular players, and as a result, the Moose trotted out many ECHL call-ups and players on PTOs over the past two months. At times in December and January, the team was nearly unrecognizable from the team that began the AHL season back in October.
On Wednesday, the reassignment of seven key players made the Moose instantly stronger.
Forward Corp Deepens
Up front, the Moose will benefit greatly up front with the return of Mikey Eyssimont and Kristian Reichel.
In 25 games for the Moose this season, Eyssimont has six goals and eight assists for 14 points. He didn’t suit up for any NHL games, and last played for the Moose on Jan. 15.
Reichel, meanwhile, has also played 25 games for the Moose and recorded five goals and seven assists before being called up to the Jets in mid-December. He played five games for the Jets and scored his first-career goal against the Vegas Golden Knights on Jan. 2. He last played on Jan. 19.
Back End Gets Big Boost
As big as the additions are up front, the additions to the d-corp are even bigger — the Moose their four best defensemen back in Declan Chisholm, Leon Gawanke, Jonathan Kovacevic, and Ville Heinola.
The four d-men play in all situations and are reliable point producers, as much of the Moose’s offence originates from the blue line.
Chisholm, 22, has six goals and nine assists for 15 points in 30 Moose games and a plus-seven rating. He suited up for his first two games of his NHL career last month.
Jonathan Kovacevic also made his NHL debut in January, and played in the Jets’ past three games after being called up due to a rash of injuries to defensemen. Prior to his recall, the 24-year-old and one of the Moose’s most consistent defencemen recorded seven goals and seven assists for 14 points in 32 games.
Gawanke and Heinola, meanwhile, are the Moose’s two most potent blue line offensive threats. Gawanke has five goals and 14 assists for 19 points in 32 games, while Heinola has two goals and 14 assists for 16 points in 24 games. The European prospects both have plus-14 ratings and are key parts of the Moose’s power play regime.
Gawanke didn’t suit up for the Jets, while Heinola played four games, struggling in his first two but looking stronger in his last two. The 20-year-old took some heat for an ill-advised pinch in the final minutes of the Jets’ Tuesday matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers, which led to a Flyers’ two-on-one and the game-winning goal.
“Birdman” Returns to AHL Cage
While goaltenders Evan Cormier, Philippe Desrosiers, and Arvid Holm have held down the fort admirably, there is no doubt the Moose will benefit from having their number-one man back between the pipes.
Flashy Russian Mikhail Berdin dressed as Connor Hellebuyck’s backup while Eric Comrie was in COVID protocol, but did not make his NHL debut. In 17 AHL starts this season, the 23-year-old has a 10-7-0 record, 2.43 GAA, .902 SV%, and three shutouts.
Gustafsson and Suess Remain Out with Injury, Perfetti Likely Done with the AHL
Players who won’t be returning just yet include veteran CJ Suess and top centre David Gustafsson, as they’re both out with injuries.
Suess had four goals and eight assists for 12 points in 23 games for the Moose this season and was just heating up before he was called up. He played three games for the Jets before sustaining an injury after blocking a shot with his hand on Jan. 14 versus the Detroit Red Wings.
Talented and hard-working centre David Gustafsson was tearing it up with the Moose prior to his recall, recording seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 23 games. He was expected to provide the Jets with a big bottom-six boost and challenge for a full-time role.
Unfortunately for the 21-year-old, he’s had a rotten time. In his season debut on Dec. 17, he got injured in the first period. During an unexpected and extended Christmas break, he was able to recover and got back into action on Jan. 2, but once again got hurt in the first period.
On Jan. 25, Jets’ interim head coach Dave Lowry said “Gus is coming along but he’s not close to being a player.”
Another player who won’t be coming back is Cole Perfetti. The talented 20-year-old is currently playing on the Jets’ second line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor and has been one of the only bright spots in a miserable stretch for a team that faces a daunting uphill climb in the second half if they want to capture a Western Conference Wild Card spot.
Perfetti has one goal and three assists in 12 games, and has played too many games to be eligible for an Entry Level Slide, so it’s likely he remains a Jets for the rest of the season and perhaps for good.
Moose Could Challenge for Calder Cup
Despite dressing no fewer than 36 skaters and four goaltenders already this season, the Moose have kept on winning thanks depth players stepping up, a solid work ethic, and an inclusive and welcoming locker-room atmosphere for their many newcomers.
Their resilience has made them a compelling and likeable team, and they sit second in the AHL’s Central Division with a 23-11-2-1 record behind only the Chicago Wolves.
Going forward, with far fewer NHLers destined for COVID protocol, the Moose should have much more stability. Considering how well they played when severely undermanned, they could be a legitimate Calder Cup threat with more core players back in the fold.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.