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As the final horn sounded at the end of the 2021-2022 season at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse following a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the rival Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings), the Cleveland Monsters continued their recent trend of being in, or near the basement of their division.
Last season, five of the seven teams in the North Division qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs. The Monsters, along with the Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs) missed out on the playoff party. The Monsters finished with a 28-35-8-5 record, which equates to 69 points, 10 points behind Toronto.
Over the last six seasons, Cleveland has finished near the bottom of their division four times. One of the two anomalous seasons where they were able to buck the trend occurred during the 2020-2021 season when the AHL had to modify the divisions and schedules due to COVID-19. Instead of being in the North Division, the Monsters were reacquainted with the Central Division. Rekindling their relationship with teams in the Central Division like the Griffins, Chicago Wolves (Carolina Hurricanes), Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild), Texas Stars (Dallas Stars), and Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks) was beneficial for Cleveland, as they came in second place in the Central that season with 35 points, just 10 points behind the Wolves.
The other anomalous season for the Monsters over the past few years was 2018-2019, their first season in the North Division. Cleveland navigated their way into the Calder Cup Playoffs where they met the division-winning Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning) in the first round. The Monsters eliminated the Crunch over four games in a best-of-five series. Cleveland's dreams of hoisting a second Calder Cup Championship in three years were cut short thanks to a second-round, four-game sweep courtesy of the Marlies.
When looking at why the Monsters have struggled to stay in contention every season for the better part of the last half decade, there are multiple variables, but one variable sticks out more than any other. Since the AHL is the farm system for the NHL, players from Cleveland are called up to Columbus and vice versa seemingly every day. When the Monsters host the Crunch on October 14th for their season opener, their roster won't look the same as when they host the Utica Comets (New Jersey Devils) on December 20th. Centermen Owen Sillinger and Liam Foudy, plus right winger Trey Fix-Wolansky could all find themselves in Columbus with the Jackets by the time snow starts hitting the ground.
The movement of the players is most apparent in the AHL because it changes who will be in the starting lineup each night and the roster as a whole. Along with calling up and sending down players, teams are conducting trades and signing free agents constantly.
Trent Vogelhuber was a player with the Lake Erie Monsters when they brought home the second of three championships to Cleveland in 2016. This year, Vogelhuber’s career will come full circle as he's going to be the Monsters' head coach. Vogelhuber was on the 2016 Calder Cup Championship team, and the Monsters are hoping he can bring some of that championship experience to this year's team.
The Monsters want to continue the precedent of strong play set by the Big Three in the city. The Cleveland Guardians are currently leading the American League Central. The Cleveland Browns traded for Deshaun Watson in hopes of getting back to the playoffs and fighting for an AFC North title. The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the NBA by acquiring Donovan Mitchell and appear ready to make some noise in the Eastern Conference.
The Monsters already have a difficult time staying relevant in Cleveland since they're not an NHL team. With the team stuck in this trend of being in or near the basement, they're going to continue struggling to gain a bigger fanbase. The Monsters must put an end to this trend and get to the level where we expect them to make the playoffs every year.
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