The official end to the 2009-2010 season has come and gone, and the Hershey Bears, a team familiar to Springfield Falcons' fans, once again won the Calder Cup. As the 2010-2011 season approaches, Oklahoma City hockey fans can start to look to October and the debut of Triple A hockey in Oklahoma. A new season in the AHL will help fans overcome the bitter feelings surrounding the end of the Blazers, but will not wipe away the history of hockey in Oklahoma City. The turnover inherent to minor league hockey makes each season completely different, and everyone involved withr the Oklahoma City Barons can only hope that next season doesn't have much in common with 2009-2010, especially the strength of the West Division and the the success of the Texas Stars.
The AHL announced the conference and divisional alignments, and as anticipated, the Barons have been placed in the league's West Division, a division that has been the deepest and strongest in the AHL over the last five years. The West will play as an eight-team division, including the "The Texas Three". Texas and Oklahoma have long been part of college football's biggest rivalries and now the rivalry will cross from field to the ice.
"The Texas Three" consists of the Houston Aeros, the San Antonio Rampage and the Texas Stars; Barons' fans will get their fill of Texas teams this winter. The name Houston Aeros is a familiar one to Oilers' fans as it conjures up images of Gordie Howe, decked out in various shades of blue, skating defiantly around the rink. This version of the Aeros was named as an homage to the WHA Aeros, and the overall talent level suffers because of the weakness of the Minnesota Wild system. Houston finished last in the division in 09-10 and the Aeros will need to sign AHL veterans to be competitive.
Next up, is the San Antonio Rampage, the Phoenix Coyotes affiliate, a team loaded with the rejects and projects of the Coyotes. The Rampage finished second to last in the division last season and don't have much new talent on the way.
The strongest of the three Texas teams is clearly the Texas Stars, the farm team for the Dallas Stars. The Stars finished second in the division last season, but added Dallas forward Jamie Benn for the Calder Cup playoffs. Benn tallied 26 points in 24 games and carried the Stars to within a whisker of the Calder Cup.
The rest of the division is even tougher than the Texas teams and comes loaded with talent. Granted, the St. Louis Blues affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, just lost their best player, Lars Eller, to the Montreal Canadiens in the Jaroslav Halak trade, but the Rivermen still boasts Joe Fallon and the enormous 6'7" Ben Bishop in goal, and both are capable of carrying the team on any given night.
The Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks’ AHL counterpart, the Rockford Icehogs, had a good season last year, finishing third in the West, but may lose Jack Skille and Bryan Bickell to the parent club after the salary cap firesale in Chicago this summer. Super-prospect Kyle Beach will likely be promoted to the Blackhawks, leaving the Icehogs without three key players. Chicago GM Stan Bowman was able to add forwards Philippe Paradis, Christopher DiDomenico and defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy during the Hawks firesale, so expect Rockford to stay competitive.
The Milwaukee Admirals snuck into the playoffs by finishing fourth in the division, but the Nashville Predators affiliate didn't have a chance as they drew Chicago in the first round. The Admirals have Chet Pickard in goal and a strong group of AHL veterans and character players up and down the roster. There is also a strong chance that the team will experience a major upgrade in young talent as Blake Geoffrion, Taylor Beck and Ryan Ellis may all suit up for the Admirals. The Barons will not have it easy against Milwaukee but hopefully can steal some wins this season.
Finally, the class of the division, the Chicago Wolves. The Atlanta Thrashers' farm club, boasts a balanced team likely to win another division title this season. Last season they had a varied lineup with young (Angelo Esposito), old (Reid SImpson), really old (Chris Chelios) in addition to strong AHL veterans like Jason Krog and Noah Welch and a smattering of tough guys all over the roster. Chicago is an extremely tough team to play against.
With the home opener of October 9th on everyone’s mind, the question is which of these teams will Oklahoma City get to make their mark against first? Many in OKC are hoping for Austin’s Texas Stars to try their hand but perhaps an easier target may build the confidence of Edmonton’s new AHL team. The future will tell, but either way, this new division is going to be exciting!