The big story of the off-season in Houston was regarding the long-term viability of the franchise. Rumors of a move to Des Moines caused some trepidation for Houston fans, but the signing of a five-year lease ensures that the Aeros are stable and likely Minnesota’s future will still run through the deep south.
But while stability off the ice may be the big story, change on the ice should see the club’s offensive fortunes improve and give the Aeros a better chance at a repeat visit to the post-season following a solid 45-29-0-2 regular season, which ended with a first-round loss to the Rockford IceHogs.
In the off-season, the club acquired a pair of high-scoring forwards with championship experience to bolster the attack. Former CHL player of the year Corey Locke was obtained from the Montreal Canadiens organization in return for blueliner Shawn Belle, and Jesse Schultz was imported from the defending Calder Cup champions in Chicago. Their acquisitions should help to offset the loss of last year’s leading scorer, Joel Ward, who signed as a free agent with the Nashville Predators in the off-season.
These two new additions will join returning forwards Matt Kassian, Morten Madsen, Peter Olvecky, and Marco Rosa in keying the Aeros’ attack. And the club’s second-leading scorer from last season, Ryan Hamilton, was just returned to the club’s line-up and will look to improve upon his 20-goal performance from last season. In addition, the club will look for improved production from winger Peter Kalus, who was obtained last year mid-season as part of the Manny Fernandez trade to Boston.
The Aeros’ offensive potential would be greatly boosted by the return of Cal Clutterbuck and Benoit Pouliot: Clutterbuck for his ability to create space for his teammates; Pouliot for his raw offensive potential, which saw him post totals of 10 goals and 24 points in just 46 games. Of the two, Pouliot is more likely to remain with the Wild, following his 10-game audition last season and Minnesota’s seemingly constant need for offensive firepower.
The Wild recently sent a quartet of blueliners down to Houston in the likes of Paul Albers, Maxim Noreau, Brandon Rogers, and Clayton Stoner. Rogers, in particular, will be looked upon to anchor the blueline corps. Last season, he was second among the club’s blueliners with 28 points in 63 games, and led all players with a plus-17 rating. Still at Wild camp, but likely to return is Erik Reitz. Although a seventh season in the minors wouldn’t bode well for his long-term viability, the Aeros would welcome his eight-goal, 34-point production from last season.
The return of these four (and potentially five) players would offer the Aeros with the rare opportunity to maintain consistency in the blueline ranks. The one new addition to the crew could come in the form of the well-travelled Tomas Mojzis, who was signed by the Wild following a season in Russia.
The Aeros have the benefit of experience between the pipes with the return of 28-year-old Nolan Schaefer, but he will face plenty of competition with both 25-year-old Barry Brust and 22-year-old Anton Khubodin in the organization. Brust signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Wild, Schaefer is still highly regarded by the organization, which leaves Khubodin as the odd man out and — barring an injury — finding his way back to the ECHL.
Veteran NHL coach Kevin Constantine stepped behind the Aeros’ bench last season and turned a club that had missed the playoffs the previous year into a formidable club. He’ll look to continue that development and should enjoy even greater success in light of the stability on the blueline and between the pipes, along with additional firepower up front.
As is the case with the parent club, defense reigns supreme in Houston and the club will again rely upon its back end to keep it in games. Last year the Aeros led the AHL in goals against, but only outscored three other clubs. Even with the addition of players like Locke and Schultz, expect more of the same this season.