The old saying goes "The only thing harder than winning the championship, is to win the championship back-to-back". With this in mind, the Saint John Flames set out tonight on their quest to repeat as Calder Cup champions of the AHL.
It won't be an easy journey, as the Flames have just eight returning players from last year's active playoff roster. To make matters more complicated, the AHL has expanded to 27 teams after a merger with the IHL.
However, this Flames team is actually more experienced than last year's squad. Several of the new additions have NHL experience, including Rob Murray (107 games), Dwayne Hay (79 games), Jamie Wright (57 games), and Kay Whitmore (60 wins as a goaltender). 27 year-old Jukka Hentunen also has several years of experience in Finland.
There are also several key returnees including veterans Jason Botterill, Mike Martin, and Rick Mrozik as well as sophomores Levente Szuper, Blair Betts, Micki Dupont, and Steve Montador. Szuper, Betts, and Dupont will all be expected to play bigger roles this season as they continue their development.
Overall, this is a gritty, yet speedy team, which will be focused on defensive hockey. Coach Jim Playfair, the Hockey News' minor league coach of the year, preaches a smothering defensive system coupled with lots of shooting at the other goalie.
While the speed and experience of this year's squad should suit Playfair's style, the Flames are lacking playmaking centers. Marty Murray and Daniel Tkaczuk have been replaced by 'checking' centers Rob Murray and Jason Morgan, which will hurt the Flames' offensive production. Blair Betts will be expected to increase his point production, and rookies Shaun Sutter and Garrett Bembridge will also see time at the center ice position.
Here's a look at the team by position:
Centers: Blair Betts, Rob Murray, Jason Morgan.
Left-Wingers: Jamie Wright, Jason Botterill, Dwayne Hay, Ryan Christie, Blair Stayzer.
Right-Wingers: Jukka Hentunen, Garrett Bembridge, Shaun Sutter, Jeff Mitchell
Defensemen: Mike Martin, Micki Dupont, Alan Letang, Rick Mrozik, Steve Montador, Burke Henry, David Huntzicker, Phillipe Roy.
Goaltenders: Kay Whitmore, Levente Szuper.