With a flair for the dramatic, the Chicago Wolves qualified for the post-season by six points last year, faced elimination in each of their first three playoff series and went 12-2 at home, including nine straight wins, to capture their first-ever Calder Cup.
The road to a repeat won’t be any easier this season. Some of the top contenders to take Chicago’s title come out of the Western Conference: Grand Rapids, Houston and Syracuse.
Looking to put their best foot forward in the first of a five-year affiliation in their home state, the Detroit Red Wings have fortified the Grand Rapids Griffins with veterans and prospects.
The Syracuse Crunch have almost everyone back from last year’s Central Division champs, the first title in team history, while the Houston Aeros will mesh many familiar faces with some key off-season acquisitions.
Here is a quick look at the Western Conference by division, with NHL parent team, last year’s finish and playoff result.
Teams marked with an asterisk (*) will recieve some players from other NHL clubs in addition to their primary affiliations (Utah-Montreal, Hershey-Edmonton):
GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (Detroit Red Wings, 42-27-11, first West, lost first round).
Coach: Danton Cole (1st year).
Though all-stars Martin Prusek and John Gruden went with Ottawa’s prospects to Binghamton, the new-look Griffs won’t be lacking. Detroit signed G Mark Lamothe, D Ed Campbell and Patrick Boileau and F Michel Picard, Derek King, Bryan Adams and Mark Mowers to be heart of the team. Captain Travis Richards (7th year) brings stability and leadership, and the Wings are high on young D Danny Groulx (Memorial Cup MVP) and Paul Ballantyne.
SYRACUSE CRUNCH (Columbus Blue Jackets, 39-28-13, first Central, lost second round)
Coach: Gary Agnew (2nd year).
The main question here is whether G Jean-Francois Labbe earns a much-deserved shot as backup in Columbus, which would leave top prospect Pascal Leclaire on the farm. Though sniper Donald MacLean (herniated disk) won’t be available until late November at the earliest, the forwards return en masse led by top goal-scorer Brad Moran and newcomer Mike Pandolfo. Trent Cull comes to a defense that lost some experience but gained considerable size.
ROCHESTER AMERICANS (Buffalo Sabres, 32-33-15, second Central, lost qualifying round).
Coach: Randy Cunneyworth (3rd year).
The Amerks lost D Brian Campbell and G Mika Noronen to Buffalo and didn’t bring back vets Mike Hurlbut and Darren Van Oene, but the team should be much bigger and tougher than last year. Jason Botterill (Saint John) and Chris Taylor are here, and the addition of D Peter Ratchuk should pump some life into the AHL’s worst PP, and rookie Ryan Miller should continue the tradition of top young goalies to come through Rochester, under the watchful eye of partner Tom Askey.
CINCINNATI MIGHTY DUCKS (Anaheim Mighty Ducks, 33-36-11, third Central, lost qualifying round).
Coach: Brad Shaw (1st year).
Though still high on Ilja Bryzgalov, new G Jean-Francois Damphousse is a proven AHL performer. No longer partners with Detroit, Anaheim stocked its roster with free agents like F Jason Krog, Nick Smith, Cam Severson, Rob Valicevic and Francis Belanger. Travis Brigley and Ben Guite return to spark offense and Todd Reirden was brought in to provide veteran blueline influence, especially if Chris O’Sullivan stays in Anaheim.
CLEVELAND BARONS (San Jose Sharks, 29-44-7, last Central, missed playoffs).
Coach: Roy Sommer (5th year).
Forward and leading scorer Mike Craig and D Brandon Smith and Steve Bancroft are gone, but Ryan Kraft isn’t expected to stick in SJ, Jeff Nelson was brought in and LW Lynn Loyns has turned many heads with a solid camp off a nine-goal, nine-assist season. The Barons are excited about rookie RW Nico Dimitrakos, whom Sommer called one of the most skilled players in camp. The status of Evgeni Nabokov’s contract will determine whether Vesa Toskala returns to the goal and Gregg Naumenko stays around to back up Seamus Kotyk.
PHILADELPHIA PHANTOMS(Philadelphia Flyers, 33-32-15, third South, lost first round).
Coach: John Stevens (3rd year).
Veteran leaders G Neil Little and two-time top AHL D John Slaney return from a team that started off hot and cooled considerably down the stretch. Nearly the entire defense corps is back from a team that allowed just 210 goals, but scoring will be at a premium beyond Slaney, especially with Mark Greig and Pavel Brendl with the Flyers and Mark Freer gone. How quickly the younger forwards mature and adapt will be important.
HERSHEY BEARS (Colorado Avalanche*, 36-33-11, second South, lost second round).
Coach: Mike Foligno (5th year).
A dramatic late-season turnaround gave the Bears new life, but much of that club is gone, including captain Kelly Fairchild and vet F Jeff Daw and Matt Herr. In their place, however are players like Steve Brule, Eric Bertrand, Serge Aubin and Mark Freer. The defense will be solid, anchored by two-time team MVP Phil Sauve in goal. Some talented youngsters remained in Colorado, so whoever comes down will provide a welcome boost. New $75 million Giant Center replaces Hersheypark Arena.
NORFOLK ADMIRALS (Chicago Blackhawks, 38-30-12, first South, lost first round).
Coach: Trent Yawney (3rd year).
Key to hopes is a repeat performance from AHL’s top rookie goalie Michael Leighton, though defense will be young in front of him, at least to start. D Dmitri Tolkunov and Steve McCarthy and F Mike Peluso and Peter White were sent down by Chicago, which is still evaluating whether it wants its players in Norfolk beyond this season. Several top players are gone, including captain Nolan Baumgartner and top AHL rookie Tyler Arnason, who will get a chance to shine full-time with the Hawks.M
WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON PENGUINS (Pittsburgh Penguins, 20-47-13, last South, missed playoffs).
Coach: Glenn Patrick (4th year).
An influx of talented high-round draft picks, the maturation of a young defense and goalie Sebastien Caron should help the Pens show a better effort than last year after trip to the Calder Cup finals in 2001. Leading scorer Tom Kostopolous was an early cut in Pittsburgh’s camp, so may have something to prove, while soph Brooks Orpik has been outstanding. A lack of significant veteran leadership won’t help.
HOUSTON AEROS (Minnesota Wild, 39-31-10, second West, lost third round).
Coach: Todd McLellan (3rd year).
GM Dave Barr has built another serious challenger here, adding the likes of C Sylvain Cloutier, LW Jean-Guy Trudel, Jeremy Stevenson and Greg Crozier, G Dieter Kochan and D Remi Royer and Keith McCambridge. The prolific offense is led by top scorer C Cory Larose and Curtis Murphy leads a defense that remains strong even with the departure of captain Mike Matteucci and Trent Cull. Kochan provides a nice complement to Derek Gustafson.
UTAH GRIZZLIES (Dallas Stars*, 40-34-6, third West, lost first round).
Coach: Don Hay (2nd year).
Top scorers C Jim Montgomery and D Greg Hawgood return, as well as Steve Gainey, who was tops in GWG for a Utah that battled for division honors all season despite a record-breaking road trip in February. Montgomery is a candidate to replace veteran leadership of John Purves, and the addition of G Corey Hirsch should solidify the position. F David Oliver returns off a stint in Europe, and first-round pick LW Steve Ott is expected to have an impact.
CHICAGO WOLVES (Atlanta Thrashers, 37-36-7, fourth West, won Calder Cup).
Coach: John Anderson (6th year).
It won’t be easy to repeat, though Rob Brown re-signed and captain Steve Maltais returns. G Norm Maracle is also back, a top-class AHL goalie who struggled down the stretch and played a total of 55 minutes in two playoff games. At his best, he can make this team into a contender. Brad Tapper, Ben Simon and Andreas Karlsson will be counted on offensively, and last year proved even a mediocre regular season can be overcome.
SAN ANTONIO RAMPAGE (Florida Panthers, expansion team)
Coach: John Torchetti (1st year).
Early and lengthy road trips await this first-year team, which must learn to win away from home right away or endure an uphill battle all season long. Florida’s last AHL team in Louisville was a disaster, but has been restocked with players like F Jeff Toms, Andy Lundbohm, Rocky Thompson and Jim Campbell, D Sven Butenschon, Filip Novak and Kyle Rossiter and G Chris Mason. Coach has had success with previous minor-league teams in the city.
MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS (Nashville Predators, 30-40-10, last West, missed playoffs).
Coach: Peter Horachek (1st year).
Missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 years didn’t sit well. With Chris Mason gone, Jan Lasak will get chance as Ads No. 1, with Chris Madden capable backup. Talented Peter Smrek leads the defense, while Cameron Mann was signed after a subpar season in Utah. Veteran Domenic Pittis and rookie Darren Haydar, second among U.S. college players with 76 points last season, is being counted on for some offense, but scoring again will be a major concern.