When the Houston Aeros season gets underway come October, you truly are going to need a scorecard to tell apart the players. Because while it may be a way of life in the minor leagues to have roster changes during the off season, the Aeros, who made it into the AHL's Calder Cup Semi-Finals last season have been undergoing a rather massive changeover.
Gone from the club are leading scorer Corey Locke who signed a contract with the New York Rangers, human high-light reel Krys Kolanos who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, Marco Rosa who signed with the Manitoba Moose, and Peter Olvecky who signed with the Nashville Predators. The team's second leading scorer, Jesse Schultz, is also a free agent, and it's thought that he will be signing a contract with one of the other AHL clubs located in Texas. And Matt Beaudoin, who turned into an offensive force in the playoffs, is still an unsigned free agent.
Fan favorite Mitch Love is also a free agent, and though he's hoping to return to the Aeros, and has such, there appear to have been no efforts made to get him under a contract. Forwards Benoit Pouliot, Danny Irmen, Robbie Earl, and defenseman Clayton Stoner, who were all free agents, will be returning to the club.
It's also looking as if last season's number one goalie, Nolan Schaefer, will not be returning to the team. The Minnesota Wild, yesterday, signed to a two-way contract goalie Wade Dubielewicz. Dubielewicz split last season between Russia's KHL league where he went 11-8-3 (2.77 goals allowed average and .892 save percentage) and the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets where he was 1-2 (3.56 goals allowed average and .870 save percentage). Dubielewicz is currently set to play in Houston where he would probably split time with last season's number two goalie, Barry Brust. But should the Wild trade back-up goalie Josh Harding, which has been speculated, then Dubielewicz would probably get the Wild back-up job, leaving Brust as the number one in Houston and playoff hero Anton Khudobin as the back-up.
The Wild yesterday made some moves to address Houston's offensive problems with the signings of forwards Jon DiSalvatore, Duncan Milroy, and Pete Zingoni. DiSalvatore, who spent last season with the Lowell Devils of the AHL and Milroy, who spent last season with Germany's Ingolstadt ERC, signed two-way contracts which could find them spending time with the Wild during the season. Zingoni, who played with the AHL Norfolk Admirals last season, signed an AHL contract which means he should be with the Aeros for the season.
New Aeros GM Jim Mill likes the signings, and told the Chron's Andrew Ferraro that DiSalvatore and Milroy are great character guys who bring leadership and offensive ability to the team: "(DiSalvatore) is a real versatile forward and can play the point on the power play," Mill said "I have known him a long time, and he brings with him great leadership. "And there is a tremendous upside to Duncan Milroy. He is a really good all-around player and a great character guy."
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While the Aeros might look to be less offensively coming into the season, the Wild did sign two defensemen who look to be spending most of the season in Houston. Jamie Fraser spent most of last season with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and Jamie Sifers spent most of last season on the bench of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs.
The lack of offense shouldn't be too much of a problem for the Aeros should the defense jell. Kevin Constantine is known as a defensive-minded coach -- last year's offensive-minded squad was kind of a different one for him -- and he got the 2007-08 Aeros into the playoffs despite a team that was so offensively inept that it had trouble getting the puck into an empty net. But that team, along with a good defense, had fantastic goal keeping from Schaefer and Brust. Brust, when healthy last season, was not as good as he was in the previous season. And while Khudobin has shown promise -- see his playoff play -- he can be shaky, and he is also coming off an injury.
A somewhat worrisome thing for the goal keeping is that assistant coach Luke Strand, who was in charge of the goalies, has left the team to become the head coach of the USHL junior league Sioux City Musketeers. Strand was the one who helped prepare four different goalies to play during the playoffs, and without his work with the goalies, it's doubtful the Aeros would have advanced as far as they did in the playoffs.
On a personal note, I dealt with Luke Strand a lot the past two seasons, and I'm really going to miss him. He didn't treat me as an idiot because I don't know hockey as well many others know it, and he was always in a good mood. I hope he's very successful as a head coach. (For what it matters, Kevin Constantine is pretty good to deal with, as well. I'm sure there have been many times when he just wanted to say that I had just asked the stupidest question in the world, but he always paused, thought, and gave an answer to the question I really meant to ask.)