Houston Aeros 2011-12 season preview

By Peter Prohaska
Photo: After a strong training camp, Zack Phillips returns to the QMJHL for the 2011-12 season where he and the rest of the Saint John Seadogs will try to win another Memorial Cup. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Although the team fell short of its goal, losing in game six of the Calder Cup finals to the Binghamton Senators, the Aeros overachieved past most expectations in 2010-11. Personnel changes in the AHL are inevitable, however, and success often means changes as thorough-going as any rebuilding franchise experiences. Case in point: Mike Yeo's work in Houston won him the opportunity to take over the Wild. However, the core players have the playoff experience now, and will look to build on their improbable run to within two wins of the league's highest prize.

Forwards

Jon DiSalvatore and Chad Rau will return as offensive leaders, but Patrick O'Sullivan is gone to try the NHL again with Phoenix, while Robbie Earl went to Austria, and Jean-Michel Daoust to Germany.

Colton Gillies is currently penciled into the Wild lineup, but could see time in Houston as well. Though his game still borders on reckless abandon, Gillies was a key contributor in the playoffs.

The key to the Aeros' success this season lies with guys like Casey Wellman, Jarod Palmer, and Kris Foucault finding the next gear, to be strong possession players and not just opportunists who rely on perimeter shots. Joel Broda should also push for a spot as a scoring threat after spending a good chunk of last year in Bakersfield.

Continuing a trend of college free agent signings, the Wild inked Justin Fontaine of the national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, who should also be a difference maker offensively.

Another new arrival is Jeff Taffe, former Hastings and Minnesota star, who has seemingly played for every AHL team, but is still a dynamic player who provides a needed experience quotient.

Defensemen

Chay Genoway should replace any offense lost from Maxim Noreau was traded to New Jersey in the off-season.

A major question on the blue line is where the organization sees fit to slot Marco Scandella. He opened the season in the NHL but could very well see time in the AHL before all is said and done. That leaves Nate Prosser and Tyler Cuma to be the most likely top pairing for the Aeros. A full season as a top pair defenseman for Cuma could rescue his career.

Wild 2006 fourth-rounder Kyle Medvec could also make the team's top four after a strong college career at the University of Vermont, especially if Justin Falk sticks with the Wild.

Goaltending

Goaltending has been a strength of the Wild system, and this was prevalent last year as Matt Hackett, a third round pick in 2009, took over the starter's role and never looked back. He is the presumptive starter this year, but will be pushed a bit by German free agent Dennis Endras, whose numbers in the German League are not very encouraging, but who seems to play very well at international tournaments.

Darcy Kuemper was the only other goalie in camp, is coming off an incredible season with Red Deer. He was named CHL Goaltender of the Year and WHL Player of the Year, and is undoubtedly ready to take on the big challenge of professional hockey. That may well be playing a lot of minutes in Bakersfield this year, but the Aeros don't figure to take much of a step back between the pipes.

Coaching

With the Wild failing to accomplish much on either end of the ice last season, a coaching vacancy appeared. Whether another inexperienced coach like Mike Yeo is the cure or not, he certainly did a lot for his resume with an inspired playoff performance.

The vacancy in Houston meanwhile is to be filled with a very experienced coach in John Torchetti. An NHL head coach twice, albeit both times on a limited basis, Torchetti was also behind the bench as an assistant as the Blackhawks won their Stanley Cup, so the Aeros appear to be in good hands. The Aeros also brought in an experienced NHL veteran defenseman in Mike Van Ryn to replace the promoted Darryl Sydor.

Prospects

There were only a couple of open slots for incoming players on this year's preseason version of the Wild, and no more than one in the top six. Consequently, the club's CHL prospects were quickly returned to junior, while the European prospects trained with their respective clubs overseas. Presumably next year's version of training camp will see a very different incoming group.

Zack Phillips (QMJHL) had a very impressive showing at the Traverse City Tournament and, to a lesser degree, in preseason play, but there still remains little room for the talented first-rounder on the current lineup. His club, Saint John, will see almost its entire Memorial Cup-winning club return, and Phillips (as well as their other blue-chippers) will have to focus on improving mental skills, as well as pure hockey skills throughout the course of another season. Tyler Graovac used his brief stay at camp as motivation, and returned to Ottawa (OHL) invigorated to start his season.