BY JUSTIN SKELNIK
Chicago Wolves Play-By-Play Announcer Jason Shaver and Color Analyst Bill Gardner spent all summer researching the Wolves West Division opponents in preparation for their broadcasts this season. They recently sat down with Breakaway Magazine and shared their take on the seven West Division teams the Wolves will face this season as they try to claim a second consecutive division title.
Every year Rockford has been a very competitive team. The depth of the IceHogs' parent team, the Chicago Blackhawks, over the past three years has been very good and it has helped Rockford remain successful. However, this year I think it will be a little bit different for the IceHogs since the Blackhawks lost some players to trades and free agency and will have to replace them with guys who have spent the past few years in Rockford. Because of that, the IceHogs will be a younger team, and will have to rely on new talent to fill the voids. Goaltender Corey Crawford, who spent the last three seasons in Rockford, should be up in Chicago, so Hannu Toivonen will be between the pipes. How Rockford's new prospects perform this season will be something to watch. – BG
Houston will be interesting, especially with Josh Harding, the backup goaltender of their National Hockey League affiliate, the Minnesota Wild, out for the season with an injury. The Aeros have always had pretty good depth at goaltending and if Houston's scheduled number one goalie, Anton Khudobin, is up in the NHL, all of a sudden that depth has evaporated. Houston has a whole new coaching staff and they want to play an up-tempo style similar to the Wild, which is different than the defensive style they played the last three seasons. The Wild's cupboard of prospects is not as full as it was four or five years ago when they had a few tremendous drafts. They did sign a bunch of college and junior players it will be interesting to see if they turn out and develop. – JS
I think Texas surprised a lot of people last year. They certainly had a solid defense, as we expected, and kind of rode that and their goaltending to the Calder Cup Finals. They probably suffered more player losses this offseason than any other team. They lost their captain, Dan Jancevski, and one of their goaltenders, Matt Climie. That being said, they still have a veteran defensive core and I don't think anyone is going to take them lightly this year. – JS
I think the Stars have a very strong coaching staff. I think they did a marvelous job last year. Like Jason said, Texas' defense was very strong due to its veteran leadership. But the one thing that surprised me was the play of their goaltending. I think Brent Krahn played unbelievably at the start of the season and that got the Stars off on the right foot and gave their young guys confidence. Again, even though they didn't have the ability to score very much, they got a lot of production out of guys that no one really knew much about, like Greg Rallo, and some other individuals that were first year AHL players. I think for any team, if you can get off to a good start, which they did, the confidence just gives everybody a good push at the beginning of the season. They took that momentum from the start of the year and played solid all season long. I expect that to happen again with the Stars this season. – BG
Former Wolves assistant coach Todd Nelson will be the head coach of the expansion Barons. I am pleased to see that he got a job after spending two years as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers. I will say it is going to be a whole new look for Wolves fans because the Barons are the farm team of the Edmonton Oilers, which has played their prospects in the Eastern Conference with Springfield for a number of years. We are going to see some players that we have never talked about or seen play. Edmonton has always been a younger team and now they have signed some depth veterans this season. I have had a number of discussions with NHL general managers about veteran players and where they belong in the AHL and a lot of teams are now realizing it is important to sign them to help stabilize a franchise and the Oilers have done that. Todd Nelson will have a good nucleolus of young guys and veterans to work with who know how to play the game, and I think they will be a team to be reckoned with right out of the gates. – BG
I would hate to be a forward playing against Peoria and have to go up against some of those defensemen the Rivermen could have. If Nathan Oystrick and Brendan Evans are down with Peoria, you are not going to want to go to the dirty areas against them or you will pay the price. The Rivermen were very high on their defense last year but maybe didn't perform up to the level they had expected. This year, they put a lot of stock in their defense once again and on paper they should be pretty good. They have a new coaching staff as well, so it will be interesting to see how they come out of the gates. – JS
They are probably the team, at least on paper, we always wonder about at the beginning of the season, but Admirals Head Coach Lane Lambert has done a tremendous job the past few years. It looks like this year's team is going to have a lot of European players, as their NHL affiliate, the Nashville Predators, went out and signed a bunch of players who haven't played much in North America. That could result in Milwaukee becoming a dynamic, fast skating, puck-possession team. The Admirals did lose some mainstays that Wolves fans have been familiar with, like center Mike Santorelli and defenseman Nolan Yonkman. But the few people I have talked to within the Admirals organization are excited about the young, fresh bodies that should fill their lineup. – JS
The Rampage will have a little bit more stability this season and that is a good thing. The whole Phoenix Coyotes organization, San Antonio's NHL affiliate, has gone through a ton of transition over the past year. Ray Edwards, who was the interim head coach of the Rampage for most of the season last year, now has had the interim tag removed and he is fully in charge down there. I think he did a great job last year, even though he was probably in limbo, wondering what was going to happen to him at the end of the year. But now he knows he is the coach so I think that stability is going to help. Jason and I picked them to be pretty good last year but they failed to make the playoffs after a terrific start. The Coyotes have gone out of their way to sign some very good players to play in San Antonio. I am not sure if there is a more talented team, at least in the Western Conference, than the Rampage. – BG
Jason and Bill also each picked one team from the AHL's North Division to highlight.
The Manitoba Moose are my team to watch in the North Division. I think Claude Noel, who is taking over for Scott Arniel as head coach of the Moose, is really a fantastic coach. Manitoba's parent team, the Vancouver Canucks, has signed some pretty good players for the Moose and there are some decent young players returning. An interesting thing to watch with the Moose will be to see how they handle losing goaltender Cory Schneider to the NHL. I thought he was the best goalie in the AHL last season, and a great goalie is never easy to replace. Goaltending will be a question mark at the start of the season, but I am excited to see how Manitoba rebounds from a disappointing 2009-10 campaign. – JS
The Hamilton Bulldogs were a very good team last season and I expect them to be solid again his year. New Head Coach Randy Cunneyworth returns to the AHL after a two-year stint as an assistant coach in the NHL with Atlanta. He should have a very fast-skating team that likes to control the puck this year in Hamilton. The Bulldogs were one of the best offensive and defensive teams last year and that usually is a recipe for success in any league. I don't know if they can sustain their high rankings from last year, but Hamilton is a team that you can kind of rely on to be up high in the standings at the end of the season. – BG