From: Ryan Stanzel
Director of Communications
Monday, September 27, 2004
713.361.7930 (Direct Line)
Aeros Organization Optimistic About Opening Of Training Camp In Sugar Land
Minnesota and Dallas NHL Teams Unite To Form Nucleus
SUGAR LAND, Texas
The Wild and Aeros staff were quick to point out to the players and media that the AHL is the place to be in 2004-05. Theres no better professional league in North America, with the NHL lockout.
"One of the exciting things to come out of the labor disagreement is the number of players being assigned to AHL teams," said Aeros head coach Todd McLellan. "Its going to create competitive environments not only during camp, but post-camp during the year. If youve earned a job, its going to be very competitive just to keep it. Theres always going to be someone there capable of coming in and filling that role."
Many times, the first few days of an AHL training camp can see players less than enthused that they didnt make the NHL roster. Not now.
"They have to concentrate on this team," said McLellan. "Were it. Theres nobody here that can be disappointed about not being in the NHL. Well likely have a group of players working hard to maintain their position here, and not be assigned to a lower-level."
The Mikko Koivu era is upon Houston
Aeros general manager Tom Lynn said the number of high-quality players in the league and in the locker room will help make his staffs job easier at the beginning.
"Right now we have an extremely competitive camp," he said. "All coaches and general managers say that at the beginning of camp. We dont have to say that to the players this week, all we have to say is look around in the locker room. There are between five and eight players who should play in the NHL (when the labor disagreement is settled). I dont know who theyll be."
Those in Aeros camp know that, if the labor situation works itself out and the NHL must field teams in a short amount of time, those already in game shape and playing within the organization will be given the first shot.
"Just trying out for the team is a lot different with all the great players here," said rookie goalie Josh Harding, who joined the Aeros for the post-season in each of the last two years. "Now that Im of age to play in this league, I want to show I can compete with all the talented athletes." Goaltending young, but strong
No one in the Aeros locker room is worried about the teams young goaltending. The quartet (Harding, Robert Gherson, Kyle Kettles and Mike Smith) have a combined 54 games of AHL experience. Gherson and Harding are both rookies Harding is the Wilds No. 3 rated prospect.
"Its not (a worry) for us as coaches or management," said McLellan. "Maybe more so for the fans who havent had the chance to see Mike Smith, Josh Harding or Kyle Kettles play on a consistent basis. But were well aware of what each of those players can do, and were anticipating a good start and a lot of growth out of all three of those players."
"The first thing about Joshs game is hes poised," said Wild assistant general manager Tom Thompson, who drafted Harding. "He has the necessary body build, athleticism and good skills, but its his poise that sets him apart from other goalies his age. He has a good track record. We like to deal with him the same way he deals with hockey. We like to be calm about it. I think were looking at a pretty good goalie down the road."
"He played very well on some poor teams in junior," said Thompson. " I think he really sold us when he went overseas with the Under 18 team three years ago, right before we drafted him. The tournament was in Slovakia, and they beat them at home only because he played so well in goal. His rebound control is good."
"Hes a professional guy. He has no idiosyncrasies. You know how goalies are. He comes out, goes into the net, stops pucks and leaves. He doesnt do anything to draw attention to himself by his manners on the ice."
Kettles knows that being the returnee of the group offers no guarantees.
"I try not to look at it the same way," he said. "I still have to come in here and work hard to make the team, and itll be a tough team to make. Well see what happens at the end."
Lynn said the fourth member of the goaltending corps Gherson is anything but a throw-in. Many AHL teams round out their goalies in camp with tryout players, but the Aeros have three players signed to NHL deals, plus Gherson to an AHL pact.
"Smith we had to get because he always killed us," joked Lynn. "Gherson is someone our amateur scouts have always liked. They were excited when we signed him last week."
Gherson was Washingtons fifth-round pick in the 2002 Draft, but became a free agent when he was still unsigned this summer. He played for a struggling Owen Sound team in 2003-04, but Lynn points to the netminders 26-12-7, 2.80 gaa season in Sarnia in 2002-03. Goalies adjusting
Not only are two of the four goalies adjusting to the pro game, all four must try to learn the AHLs new restrictions on goaltenders playing the puck. Goalies can now play the puck anywhere in front of the goal line, but only in a restricted portion behind the net that doesnt extend into the corners. If a goalie plays the puck outside of that area (its where the puck is, not the goalie), its a minor penalty.
Of the four, Smith will likely have to adapt the most. Hes widely considered one of the top stick-handing goalies in North America. The No. 10-ranked prospect in the Stars organization scored a goal for ECHL Lexington in his rookie season of 2002-03, becoming the youngest goalie to put the puck into the net in North American professional hockey history. He also clanged one off the post at Toyota Center last October against the Aeros, a game which saw him finish with a career-best 48 saves.
"You just have to think out there," said Smith. "I dont play the puck too much, but I like to help out the defensemen. Its going to play a little factor in the game plan. I just have to use my head out there and not go into the corners."
"Its going to take some time," said Kettles. "I might take a few penalties, but I hope not. You just have to remember. You get caught up in the game, you might not remember to stay out of the corners. Its going to be tough.
"I know some play the puck more than others, but a guy like Smith might play it seven or eight times, and Josh once or twice," said Thompson. Still, if hes not thinking, hell draw a penalty. Every goalie has to adjust the same. The one time hes thinking like the old rules, itll cost him in the game. Two organizations, one team
With six members of the Dallas Stars organization in camp, McLellan doesnt see that fact having anything but a positive influence on the Aeros.
"I think its really exciting for a couple of reasons," said McLellan. "One, to integrate the two organizations. There are probably some ideas and thoughts that have come through the Dallas organization, some themes that will now transfer over to our locker room, and vice versa. I think thats healthy for all the players involved. The other thing, itll be a good challenge for us as coaches and the 22 or 23 players, to integrate everybody and create one strong, team environment."
Its key to start the blending of the players early. That can be seen in the Aeros locker room, which has Dallas players right alongside the Minnesota prospects so no "cliques" are formed.
"Based on the labor situation, that potential goes away quickly," said McLellan, noting his team wont immediately face the possibility of a recall which would see the players playing against a teammate in the NHL. "We should have a much easier time creating an Aeros team, versus a Wild prospects and Dallas prospects type of team."
Todd McLellan, always teaching
---HOUSTON AEROS HOCKEY, BE A FAN---