The Springfield Falcons finished the 2009-10 season with a record of 25-39-12-4. Anytime a team posts a record like that vast changes have to be made although in this case Springfield will ice a completely different roster altogether as they are now affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
As a group, the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate last season, the Syracuse Crunch, posted a record of 34-39-4-3, but will look to improve upon that record as they have added key AHL veterans and an influx of top prospects.
The Blue Jackets appear to have better forward depth at the AHL level this season, combining a great mix of experienced veterans, prospects on the cusp of making the jump to the NHL, and fresh-faced rookies looking to make great first impressions. While many of the younger players have the potential to become key contributors offensively, it is expected that the bulk of the offense will come from veterans such as Derek MacKenzie, Kyle Wilson, Mike Blunden, and Chad Kolarik. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise for either MacKenzie or Blunden to make the Blue Jackets out of training camp, but it is almost assured that three of the four players mentioned will begin the season in Springfield. With Syracuse last season, MacKenzie was a point per game player, while Kolarik and Blunden came close to that mark as well in their time with the team. Wilson, a free-agent signing who played for the Hershey Bears last season, added 53 points in 77 games.
What will likely make or break the Falcons year is the play of those Blue Jackets prospects that are near the make or break phase of their career: Tomas Kana, Tom Sestito, and Maksim Mayorov. Kana, acquired in a trade with St. Louis last season, came on strong with Syracuse, scoring 28 points in 50 games, but will be looked upon to provide more offense this season. Plagued by injuries throughout much of his career, Tom Sestio will be looking to have an injury-free season in hopes of continuing his rugged style of play and adding more offense to his game. Mayorov, on the other hand, was expected to thrive in his sophomore AHL season last year, but was unable to do so as he was only able to equal his production from his rookie year. He did, however, finish the season on a high note, being named AHL player of the week for the final week of the regular season. He’ll look to carry that momentum into the 2010-11 season.
The Falcons will likely have high expectations for a pair of rookies coming off impressive junior campaigns as well: Matt Calvert and Tomas Kubalik. Calvert’s status as a prospect has been growing since Blue Jackets training camp last season, and he furthered the notion that he’s a player with legitimate offensive potential by registering 99 points in 68 games for Brandon of the WHL. Kubalik, in his first season in North America, played for the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL and scored 75 points in just 58 games. Both players will likely be expected to contribute in offensive roles.
That leaves just a few forward spots to be filled. Free-agent signing Ben Guite and returnee Trevor Frischmon will likely have their names penciled into the opening night lineup, while rookies Kyle Neuber, Chris Francis, and Tyler Murovich will either battle for final spots or be ECHL bound.
Michael Ratchuk may also get a shot at forward this season. He struggled with defensive consistency last season as a defenseman and thus was a healthy scratch for much of the year.
The Falcons’ defense will be characterized by a group of former Crunch defenseman combined with an infusion of rookies from both the CHL and NCAA. Jonathan Sigalet, Grant Clitsome, Nick Holden, and Brent Regner will be the returning defensemen expected to be in the lineup consistently, though with several high-end defense prospects joining the club, there could quite possibly be a revolving door of defensemen; especially in regards to the fifth and sixth spots. Nate Guenin, who split the 2009-10 season between Peoria and Wilkes-Barrie/Scranton of the AHL, will join the crowded Falcons’ blueline as well.
Rookies John Moore, David Savard, Steven Delisle, Dalton Prout, Theo Ruth, and Cody Goloubef will all battle for significant ice time on the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate. 2009 first round pick John Moore, if he is unable to make the Blue Jackets 23 man roster, will likely earn top-four minutes with Springfield. Cody Goloubef, after having left the University of Wisconsin before graduating, is also likely to begin the year as a top-six blueliner on the Falcons. Former Moncton Wildcat David Savard, who emerged as a true complete defenseman last season, and defensive defenseman Theo Ruth are both highly thought of throughout the Blue Jackets organization and will surely get a chance to begin the year in the AHL. However, with the glut of veteran defenseman and high profile blueliners John Moore and Cody Goloubef ahead of them, ice-time may be scarce. Dalton Prout and Steven Delisle, further behind on the depth chart, could possibly find themselves playing in Gwinnett of the ECHL.
After a dismal year of goaltending in Syracuse that has resulted in both Dan LaCosta and Kevin Lalande unable to find work in North America, the Blue Jackets have brought in two new goaltenders with plenty of experience. Twenty-five-year-old Gustaf Wesslau suited up for Djurgårdens IF last season, registering a 2.29 GAA and .917 save percentage in 32 games. He’s a rather large goalie at 6’4 and after playing well in Sweden for the past two seasons, Wesslau is a prospect with NHL-potential. Should the large Swede not meet expectations in his rookie season, the Falcons have a safety net in veteran goalie David LeNeveu. The 27-year-old signed a one year two-way deal with the Blue Jackets in July after spending the 2009-10 season in Austria. LeNeveu has spent parts of six seasons in the AHL and while he has never been able to stick at the NHL level, he has proven to be a reliable AHL netminder.
With a fresh start in Springfield, the Blue Jackets decided not to renew the contract of former head coach Ross Yates. Yates had spent four seasons as head coach of the Blue Jackets affiliate in Syracuse, but has been replaced by Rob Riley for the upcoming season. Riley spent the past four seasons as a regional scout for the Blue Jackets, but does have coaching experience after spending 18 seasons as the head coach of Army from 1986-2004. The club feels that his familiarity with many of the Blue Jackets prospects will be extremely helpful in his role as the Falcons’ head coach.
33-year-old Brad Larsen will join the team as an assistant coach. It will be his first coaching gig after a 13-year playing career which included 294 NHL games.
As with Matt Calvert last season, the Blue Jackets have had another surprise performance in training camp. This year’s hype has been placed upon 20-year-old Czech Tomas Kubalik. His desire to go to the net has been more than welcome during the exhibition schedule, and he has shown plenty of offensive flair. He’s scored a hat-trick early in pre-season, and has survived the cuts so far. Kubalik is making a late push to make the Blue Jackets, but will in all likelihood begin the season in Springfield earning top-line minutes.
Matt Calvert wasn’t able to have the camp he had last year, but he certainly didn’t look out of place. He was recently reassigned to Springfield, and like Kubalik, has a chance to earn significant minutes up front.
The impressive group of prospects at camp all seemed to fair well, though Theo Ruth, Cody Goloubef, Steven Delisle, and Dalton Prout have already been reassigned to Springfield. They’ll get a full AHL training camp in while both John Moore and David Savard will get an extended look in Columbus before likely being sent down.
Ryan Johansen was one of the few who had an impressive prospects tournament for the Blue Jackets, registering three points in three games. He has also displayed promise in the pre-season, showing impressive vision and an ability to feed the puck to the open man. He’ll likely be sent back to Portland of the WHL, though.
Of course, the biggest story in regards to prospects at camp has been the play of Nikita Filatov. Though it seems he’s been around for quite some time, Filatov still falls into the prospect category. He has shown dynamic ability and offensive flair that many had hoped to see since day one. He’s looked great on the Blue Jackets power-play in the pre-season and has displayed a near-lethal shot. Unlike last season, Filatov has been groomed to play in a top-six role and he’s certainly been thriving.