Early July is one of my favorite times of the year. It's always nice to see who is going to end up where and which players the Wild sign that will eventually land in Houston come fall.
I have said this before, but the longest part of the summer is the time between the release of the AHL schedule and the start of training camp. Until then, though, there will be plenty of news.
Last week, the Wild signed Warren Peters and Drew Bagnall. In 09-10, the Aeros were quite weak in the area of winning faceoffs. Peters will help that, and when I asked Aeros GM Jim Mill if that was one area in which he was looking to fix, he just said "there are a lot of areas that we are looking to improve."
And that took me to leadership. Bagnall is a guy that is "tough, mean, physical and a natural leader." Those are the words that Mill used to talk about who I think will be the Aeros captain in '10-'11. Heather posted on here last week that the folks in Manchester say he is the best captain the Monarchs ever had. He's a true stand-up guy and great defensively at that. He won't put up the numbers that Jaime Sifers was supposed to last year, but he will be a great fit.
Now let's look at the announced signings from Monday. There were 3-4 guys that I hoped that Mill would bring back from last year. They took care of two of them right away when Chad Rau and JM Daoust were locked up earlier. The other two, Jon DiSalvatore and Jamie Fraser, were locked up for two and one more year, respectively.
DiSalvatore was a bit streaky in 09-10, but he stayed healthy and he gave you his usual 22 goals. He captained a team that had a major flaw in that it just never could play a good first period. Most Aeros fans don't realize that if the Aeros, even with all their offensive deficiencies, had been an average first period team, they would have made the playoffs. But they weren't average, they were horrible in the opening frame and when you are a team that plays a ton of close games, it's nice to get out in front every while and again.
And Fraser ... funny guy, great personality, just a fun guy to be around in the lockerroom. This is a guy that started out really slow and then slowly started putting it together around the New Year. By the end of the season, he notched his career-high in assists and was actually playing a solid game on the blueline.
I know Aeros fans were looking for something a bit more flashy when it came to the targeted offense. As of Tuesday, the team still does not have a sure-fire 30+ goal scorer. But there is a solid core in place for what I think will be another season of competitive hockey.
The Aeros do have FOUR guys (Peters, DiSalvatore, Daoust and Rau) perfectly capable of playing 75-80 games in Houston and popping in 20-25 goals. There are still a few big AHL names out there, but unless one of them just falls into their lap, the Wild is done this week with depth/Aeros related transactions.
Changing directions here ... there is one area where the Aeros appear to be set heading into the season ... and that is goaltending. Anton Khudobin and Matt Hackett are the No. 3 and No. 4 guys on the depth chart, and it looks like Darcy Kuemper is going back to juniors. (He's the guy that got some playing time last year and did quite well filling in when Anton was up with the Wild.)
We all know that Anton can be great (see last October to Thanksgiving). He was good in the NHL, but he went more that two months without a win in the AHL last year, and that cannot happen again. He will probably travel with the Wild to Europe to start the year, but when they get back, he is going to get the bulk of the starts in Houston. He needs to be consistent and be there for Hackett, who could make his pro debut for the Aeros when the open in the season in early October.
In a perfect world, Harding gets traded, Anton backs up Backstrom in Minny and the Wild sign a veteran to work with Hackett down here in Houston. But after many failed attempts at finding a new home for Harding, that scenario just does not appear likely to pan out.
The Aeros can win with Anton ... but he will have to be more consistent in 2010-11.
There is still more news to come. The Aeros will still sign a few players to AHL deals, and one of the items on the agenda is to find the next Daoust and even a guy to come up and play goalie when Backstrom and Harding get hurt.
We are also still waiting for news of a schedule grid (who the Aeros will play and how many times), the Aeros have yet to announce their guaranteed dates (and home opener) and a playoff format will be announced soon.
I would expect a similar schedule to last year, I think the team will open up on the road and as for the playoffs format, we're probably going back to 2008-09 when the fifth place team in the West could leap frog the fourth place team in the North. Remember, there are eight teams in the division again.
And as for the schedule ... it was really late last year. So after Lebron James announces that he is staying in Cleveland or moving to Miami on Thursday, the NBA can hand pick its schedule. After they settle theirs, the AHL teams that share NBA arenas can get their leftovers and help the process move along.
I would love to see something by the end of this month, but realistically, the first week of August is when we'll be able to start planning our lives for next winter.