The Houston Aeros season ended a bit earlier than I expected. I didn’t expect them to win the Calder Cup, or to get to the Calder Cup finals, but I still thought they would defeat Rockford.
But that’s not why I’m writing. I just wanted to rehash bits of the season and give a few of my thoughts.
The good news is that the Aeros improved by 32-points this season from last. This was the second largest single season improvement in team history. Goalies Nolan Schaefer, Barry Brust and Anton Khudobin teamed up for 11 shutouts, a team record, and they gave up the fewest points of any team in the AHL.
The playoff lost was destined, however, because this team just wasn’t very good on the offensive end. What helped them to overcome the lack of offense was the system employed by Kevin Constantine that relied on defense and goaltending.
Brust was one of those goalies, and he was very high on the play of his teammates. “Unbelievable,” he told me after last Friday’s loss. “You go through the team, and the guys either have a better plus/minus rating or their best plus/minus rating. Obviously some guys had their highest goal totals. Guys really stepped up. The number of blocked shots we had this year was just unbelievable. And [fellow goalie Schaefer] had an unbelievable year.”
And captain and defenseman Erik Reitz was very high on Constantine and the system he employs. “If the team can get some really good offensive players next year, and if Constantine is back, the team could be very good,” he said. Constantine and his assistants Luke Strand and Troy G. Ward “do a great job from the ground up. They teach every player. There’s no certain player they just rely on. They rely on everybody, all 20 players out there. I think if they get some more offensive players in here next season they can be a real, real threat with this system. It was just tough this year. A lot of guys had career years, but it just wasn’t enough for us.”
But Reitz, however, probably won’t be back next season. His contract with the Minnesota Wild is up, making him an unrestricted free agent, and Reitz has said he is hoping to sign with another NHL team or to sign a deal with a European team. But he liked his time in Houston, and he liked this team. “This is definitely the hardest working team I’ve been a part of,” he said after the loss to Rockford. “And the most committed to the game. And to learning more about it.”
It took the players time to grasp Constantine’s defense-heavy system, which is partly the reason they got off to such a slow start this season. I remember talking to Reitz after one early season loss, and he was frustrated by both the loss and the inability of some of his teammates to grasp the way they should be playing. Reitz, being the team captain, refused to throw any of his teammates under the bus, but as the season went on, and based on statements made to the Edmonton Sun, it’s obvious that one of those players was left wing Benoit Pouliot.
But Pouliot aside, I watched these guys bond as the season went along. Players volunteered to play out of position if it would help the team, and would give up being on scoring lines in order to help out on penalty kills. “It was a team thing,” defenseman Maxim Noreau told me after the last game. “We could come back from anything. We had a big meeting before the playoffs and we said it didn’t really matter who was in the lineup…we all worked so hard…whatever happened we could pull out a win.”
Constantine thought the team’s willingness to sacrifice was the key to the season. “And so from that standpoint it was a very very rewarding year for me enjoying the job coaching. We had players that just changed the way they played from the beginning of the year to the end they became a better team,” he said.
“I know early in the season when we were struggling at 2-5-1 and even when we were at 8-10-2 at one point,” Constantine said. “I [didn’t] know how many games we’re going to win all year.”
“There was a point where we were barely hanging in games, we were getting out-chanced by a ton,” he continued. “We had a three percent power play. And I was only buoyed by I’ve kind of been through this, so I know it can work out, but what I’m seeing, I’m wondering if this will work out. And then to see the team in the last half of the year…the fight and the stick-to-it-ness to make it to the playoffs, and the fact they kept getting better all year long, and the fact they got better no matter who came into the lineup or who left. The injuries and the call-ups had no effect on our win-loss record. And the only reason you can ever get away with not having injuries or key players called up bother you, is if you’re willing to play a team game, play together, stick to the system, and stick to the details.”
If Constantine returns next season – there’s always the chance a NHL team will come calling – then the 2008-2009 Aeros can be very good if the Wild supply Constantine with some skilled offensive players.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
I just wanted to take this chance to thanks Patrick Armstrong and Scott Henninger with the Aeros media relations department for all of their assistance this season. No matter how stupid the question I asked, they had an answer, and they didn’t laugh in my face, though I wouldn’t blame them if they did laugh behind my back from time to time.
I’d also like to thank Fred Trask for the use of his photos in these last several blog posts.
I look forward to returning next season, though I’m really going to miss Erik Reitz. He’s the last remaining player from the team’s Calder Cup Championship. The Aeros won’t be the same without him, but I hope he goes on to much success.
As such, my final quote for the season is a little something Reitz said after the series defeat to Rockford: “It’s really a sad day today. I’m at a loss for words.” – John Royal