The Houston Aeros are opening up season number 17 on Saturday when they visit the expansion Oklahoma City Barons.
The Aeros are coming off of a disappointing season where they missed the playoffs the year after making the Western Conference Finals, and this season they're hoping a mix of old and new faces will lead them back to the future.
The man calling the shots this season is Mike Yeo, the former assistant coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins who is also a former player for the Aeros.
This is Yeo's first season as a head coach, and he's ready to get started, as are his assistants, the recently retired NHL defenseman Darryl Sydor and Yeo's former Aeros teammate, Brian Wiseman.
"I feel great," Yeo told Hair Balls on Monday. "My optimism has grown from the first time that I got out on the ice with the guys in the prospect camp, and throughout this whole process of evaluating and getting to see and know the guys. That game [Sunday, a 5-1 Aeros exhibition win over the Texas Stars in Austin] was another step in that process. I think we feel good going into the season, but we do recognize that there's still areas where we need to improve and focus on. We just can't wait to get the season going."
While the Aeros do have several areas that need to be improved, such as a reliable, go-to goal scorer, there's one area where the team is, once again, apparently set: The position of goalie. Barry Brust has departed for Binghamton, but returning as the primary goalie will be Anton Khudobin, an AHL all-star last year who also excelled when given a few late-season chances with the Aeros' parent club, the Minnesota Wild. And as the season starts, the Aeros are without Khudobin who is with the Wild as they open up the NHL season in Finland.
But there will be a logjam once Khudobin returns (Khudobin's with the Wild because Josh Harding, the Wild's backup goalie, suffered a season-ending injury in camp. The Wild signed Jose Theodore late last week to serve as the backup in Minnesota, and Theodore's currently in Houston getting in game shape and awaiting the Wild's return to North America). Also in camp for the Aeros are Matt Hackett, a rookie, and Josh Tordjman, who has been a mainstay with the San Antonio Rampage for the past several seasons.
"We haven't even gotten into talks with [Aeros GM] Jim Mill or anybody at the Wild [about the goalie situation]," Yeo said. "We haven't even figured out yet what's going on with them up there. I know right now, the plan is for Jose, to be here, he's going to work out with us for at least four days, and I think once they get back from Finland they're going to sort that out. We haven't really put too much thought into it. All I know is that whether Anton is here, or not here, obviously he's a great goaltender and we'd be happy to have him. If he's not here, then we're comfortable with the guys that we have. And if he is here, then it's great for us as well."
The rumors are that, since Hackett and Khudobin have contracts with the Wild, that they'll be the guys sticking with the Aeros, while Tordjman will be the one who gets sent to the ECHL. But nobody from the organization has been willing to commit to that on the record, and though the moves makes sense, what really happens probably won't be known until next week.
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There is a feeling about the club that has been evident to those who have watched them in practice -- or who saw them in Monday night's skills competition in Sugar Land that replaced an exhibition game that had been cancelled due to unsafe ice conditions -- that the team is exhibiting a passion and excitement about the game that had previously been missing. And this is partly attributable to Yeo and his staff who are all relatively young guys and are as passionate as the players.
"I think he's getting there," Yeo said when asked about Sydor adjusting to being behind the bench and not out on the ice hitting people. "I think the emotional level, he's been able to keep it pretty controlled, but that's one thing I think the players can pick up on on our entire staff is that there's a passion behind the bench. We all love to play the game, and Darryl's only a couple of months removed from it, and so I'm sure there are sometimes when he would love to get out there. I think the players are sort of picking up on that passion we all have, and hopefully it's contagious for them."
Yeo is pleased that the guys are buying into his system of play, and that they seem, so far, willing to do anything to get things accomplished. The question is, of course, whether the players will be able to pull off that passion every night. Though for Yeo, it's not so much about the start of the season, it's all about the end of the season and winning the championship.
And the chance to win that championship starts this weekend.