John Royal Aeros watch as Binghamton celebrates last season's Calder Cup win
Over and leaving them unfulfilled. Over and leaving them wanting more. Wanting it all. Wanting the Calder Cup to be theirs. To be passing it amongst themselves, raising it high over their heads while the home fans roared.
The Houston Aeros start a new season on Sunday afternoon at 5:05 p.m. at Toyota Center when they host the Chicago Wolves. And while the season is new, the focus, the purpose, is not. This season for the Aeros is about completing some unfinished business. It's about becoming the champions of the AHL. Setting right the wrongs that had so suddenly ended the 2010/2011 season on their home ice.
But this is the minor leagues, and that means things change, no matter how much people want them to stay the same. Head coach Mike Yeo and his staff are gone -- Yeo was promoted to head coach of the Aeros' parent club, the Minnesota Wild, and he took assistant coach Darryl Sydor with him while his other assistant, Brian Wiseman, became an assistant coach at the University of Michigan. Gone are scorers Patrick O'Sullivan (free agent who signed with the Phoenix Coyotes) and Robbie Earl (free agent going to Europe). Gone is longtime defenseman Max Noreau (traded to the New Jersey Devils). Gone is fan favorite Jean-Michel Daoust (another free agent going to Europe).
The new coach is John Torchetti, a veteran coach who has been a head coach in the CHL, IHL, AHL, and NHL. In are new assistants Mike Van Ryn, a recently retired NHL defenseman who previously played for Torchetti. Also in as an assistant is Sebastien LaPlante, another former player for Torchetti. In are centers, and high-scorers, Jeff Taffe and David McIntyre.
But don't despair. Returning are Jon DiSalvatore, Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters, Casey Wellman, Nate Prosser, Chad Rau, Carson McMillan, Matt Hackett, all key players in last year's title run. Being this is a minor league club, look for an infusion of youngsters getting their first taste of professional hockey. And being that this is a minor league club, be prepared for guys to move up and down between Houston and St. Paul during the season as injuries and ineffective play with the Wild come down to affect the Aeros.
Also returning will be the team's attacking offensive style that was brought in last year by Yeo, and which Torchetti will be employing so that the guys in Houston will be able to fit in with the Wild should that time arrive during the season. But style aside, Torchetti asks just one thing: don't judge the team by the way they start the season.
"I try and tell everyone don't judge the first 25 games," he says. "It's what's going to happen after that. It's like pulling a horse. You want him to go straight and he wants to run. But you want him to take right and then he can go straight." And Torchetti has a point. It wasn't until about the 25-game point last season that the Aeros began to fully grasp what Mike Yeo was getting at, and it was at about that point that the team went on an incredible tear that would propel them through the playoffs. So look for the vets like DiSalvatore and Ortmeyer to keep that in the mind of the youngsters as the season gets off to a start.
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And it can be expected that DiSalvatore, Ortmeyer, Peters and the other vets will also stress the whole unfinished business aspect of last season. DiSalvatore, while having experienced a good career, had never played for a title before last season. It was the second time in two years that Peters had lost in the Calder Cup finals. Ortmeyer's just that kind of guy who knows how to communicate and fire up a team. And Torchetti's not worried about keeping the team focused.
"You only play to go to the finals," he says. "That's how you're bred in this business. I was very fortunate when I played, the first six or seven years I was in the finals. And that's all I knew. When somebody was being lazy or undisciplined, it was uncalled for in the locker room and we pretty much handled it."
Lots of key components from last year's team are gone. But lots are still around. DiSalvatore, Ortmeyer, Peters, those guys know how to handle a locker room. They'll keep it in shape. And if Torchetti can keep his horses focused on the finishing stretch, then maybe that unfinished business will be handled.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: There are a few differences to the AHL this season. With the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg, the AHL's Manitoba Moose, located in Winnipeg, relocated to St. John's, Newfoundland. The league did a bit of a realignment, and now the AHL consists of 30 teams spread out over six divisions in two conferences. The Aeros remain in the West Division of the AHL's Western Conference where they are joined by the Abbotsford Heat, Oklahoma City Barons, San Antonio Rampage, and Texas Stars....The AHL season has been shortened to 76 games, and the first round of the playoffs will now be a best-of-five instead of best-of-seven. And each conference will have eight playoff teams, the three division winners and the next five teams with the best records.