Houston Aeros season preview

By Glen Jackson

Travis Roche has gone off to the Chicago Wolves after the defenseman<br />with a fairly successful AHL career just didn’t impress, as well as coming into<br />camp last season out of shape

Two seasons ago the Houston Aeros
became Calder Cup champions when they defeated the Hamilton Bulldogs in seven
games and goaltender Johan Holmqvist was named playoff MVP. But with a lack of
veteran leadership in 2003-04, the team struggled to only 28 wins and were
eliminated in the West Division qualifying series versus the Cincinnati Mighty
Ducks in two straight games.


Aeros General Manager Tom Lynn
recognized the shortcomings of the squad and added experienced veterans this
offseason to avoid a similar fate in 2004-05.
Another significant change this season is that the Dallas Stars signed
on for one year as a secondary affiliate, which means that they will add
between three and six players including one goalie to the Aeros lineup.
Combined with the NHL lockout, the Houston Aeros will have a wealth of quality
players to fill their roster for the coming season.




The affiliation with Dallas will
derail Wild goaltender Kyle Kettles
more than anyone. The two-year pro spent last season as the Aeros backup goalie
to Holmqvist, appearing in 22 games and putting up a 2.80 GAA and .894 save
percentage. Kettles was waiting for his chance to start in the AHL and now this
season he’s competing with a couple of rookies including the Wild’s top
goaltending prospect Josh Harding.


Harding has played well thus far in
training camp and looks to have an edge on Kettles based solely on performance.
In two appearances, Harding has allowed only one goal and posted a lofty .975
save percentage. Kettles has not played in the preseason. The other rookie is
Robert Gherson who was signed by the Aeros as a free agent when the Washington
Capitals let him walk in the offseason, but he has not done as well as Harding
with one preseason appearance in which he allowed 4 goals on 16 shots. Gherson
has also done poorly in training camp scrimmages and it’s expected that he will
land in the ECHL within a matter of days.


At this point it appears that
Harding will start the season with the Aeros while Kettles will head to ECHL affiliate
Louisiana IceGators to fill the spot that the departed Frederic Cloutier held
until last season. Gherson could be backing him up.


Mike Smith, Dallas’ 18th ranked
prospect, is the sole Stars keeper in camp and will stick with the Aeros
assuming his offseason rehabilitation from a knee injury continues smoothly. He
has yet to play in the preseason, but is guaranteed the other goaltending spot
and will probably not see significant action until the regular season begins.


Returning: Kyle Kettles

First time with Aeros: Josh Harding, Robert Gherson

From Dallas: Mike Smith




As expected for any AHL team with a new secondary
affiliate, the Aeros roster is experiencing more change than normal offseasons.
The Dallas Stars signed 11-year pro Patrick Traverse who, along with the Wild’s
own veteran defenseman signing of Ray Giroux, will likely anchor the defensive
corps. Traverse has played in 278 career NHL games including 65 appearances in
2002-03 for the Montreal Canadians as well as 309 AHL games, while Giroux has
six years of pro hockey experience including 38 NHL games played, 11 of which
came last season for the New Jersey Devils, and 319 AHL contests. Tough guy
John Erskine will also begin the season with the Aeros where he will continue
to develop and try to improve on all aspects of his game. Signed as a free
agent on September 22, Todd Reirden is another new face in Houston. He’s been a
pro for 10 years with games played in the NHL, IHL, AHL and ECHL. His best NHL
campaign came in 1999-00 when he appeared in 56 games for St. Louis and had 4
goals, 21 assists, and a +18 rating.


Brent Burns, who played just one game in
Houston as a winger on a conditioning stint in 2003-04, comes to camp assigned
to defense where Wild coach Jacques Lemaire has high hopes for the 19-year-old.
The rest of the defensemen vying for the one or two remaining spots on the
Aeros blue line are Erik Reitz, Chris Heid and Zbynek Michalek. Reitz is off to a strong start in training camp
with a goal and an assist in two games. Michalek was quite good last season in
51 games with the Aeros, and he also reportedly came to camp in better physical
condition, so Heid might be the odd man out.


Among those not returning is Maxime
Fortunus who appeared in 12 games for the Aeros last year, but has been assigned
to Louisiana IceGators of the ECHL to start the season.


Although Travis Roche led all Aeros
defensemen in points last season with 38 (8 goals, 30 assists), he failed to
impress in a five-game stint with the Wild who decided to cut their losses this
summer and part company with the three-year blueliner who always put up good
offensive numbers. Roche landed on his feet and was signed as a free agent by
the Atlanta Thrashers and was assigned to the Chicago Wolves. Another face
missing off the roster from 2003-04 season end is Michael Schutte who was
released by the Wild in July.


Jan Vodrazka and Kevin Mitchell
won’t be back either. The pair played 104 games combined for the Aeros last
season. Vodrazka will play for the ECHL’s Pee Dee Pride and Mitchell moves to
Germany to play for the Iserlohn Roosters.


Returning: Erik Reitz, Chris Heid, Zbynek Michalek, Brent Burns

First time with Aeros: Ray Giroux, Todd Reirden

From Dallas: John Erskine, Patrick Traverse




Gone are Jeff Hoggan, who played the
most games of any Aeros player in 2003-04 with 77, and Mika Hannula who
returned to Sweden to play with the MIF Redhawks, but forward will still
perhaps be the Aeros best asset this season. Almost all of the Aeros’ top
forwards from last season are back, and the infusion of some Dallas Stars
skaters will lead to an improved group up front. AHL veteran Jordan Krestanovich and rookie Mark Rooneem were a few of the early casualties of the stiff
competition and have both been assigned to the ECHL already.


Competing with the likes of Marc Cavosie, Christoph Brandner, Mark
Cullen, Rickard Wallin, Derek Boogaard, Kyle Wanvig, Stephane
, Dan Cavanaugh and Matt Foy
will be shoo-ins like newly signed free agent Kirby Law, Pierre Marc Bouchard,
and the Wild’s top prospect, Mikko Koivu.
The Stars have also assigned second-year pro left wing David Bararuk, rookie center Marius
, and 2003-04 Hobey Baker winner Junior
to the Aeros.


With the bounty of players of that
caliber, it’s clear that the main problem for the Aeros will be deciding who to
keep. As expected, skaters such as free agent rookie Bill Kinkel didn’t stand
much of a chance and he was reassigned to the Ice Pilots. David Morisset, who
was inked to a pro tryout, is also on the bubble and isn’t likely to survive
another round of cuts.


In the two preseason matches played
so far the unlikely goal scoring leader for the Aeros is giant Derek Boogaard
with two. Bararuk has chipped in with a goal and an assist, while Wanvig has added
two assists.


The bulk of cuts to come are with
the forwards, and veterans such as Cavosie and Cullen might end up on the
outside looking in at the center position where Bouchard, Koivu, Wallin and
Holtet are likely to hold spots come opening night, as long as Dallas elects to
keep all of their current skaters with the team. Jason Beckett played in 72
games for the Aeros last season and setting an AHL career best in goals with
four couldn’t save him from being assigned to the Ice Pilots.


On the left side it would be
expected the Veilleux, Brandner, Bararuk and Boogaard will make the final
roster, and on right wing it should be Wanvig, Law, Lessard and either Foy or


Returning: Marc Cavosie, Christoph Brandner, Mark Cullen,
Rickard Wallin, Derek Boogaard, Kyle Wanvig, Stephane Veilleux, Dan Cavanaugh,
Matt Foy

First time with Aeros: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mikko Koivu, Kirby Law,
David Morisset

From Dallas: David Bararuk, Marius Holtet, Junior Lessard




Overall, the Aeros look like a team
that can do better than 28 wins in the regular season and make it past the
first round of the playoffs, but that will be dependent on whether their
goaltending can be consistent throughout the year and how well the new players
mesh with the old. That said, even though they are without Holmqvist, the Wild
goaltending situation looks to be very secure with Harding and Smith likely to
share time.


Financially speaking, the team is
hoping to put more Texans in the seats by having Dallas Stars prospects on board,
and the Aeros’ switch to clear Minnesota Wild colors was no doubt a compromise
to keep everyone happy with the affiliation situation.


As with all AHL teams, the NHL
lockout has infused the lineup with a deeper group of quality players and the
Aeros will benefit from a number of key veteran signings on defense and up
front. The balance between development and winning shifts somewhat and several
strong prospects who would otherwise have begun the year in the AHL have lost
or will lose spots to experienced or higher rated prospects, forcing them to
begin the year in the ECHL while hoping for an end to the lockout.


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