Sticking with the theme of "starting anew", the Blue Jackets will have a new AHL affiliate for the first time since expansion. The Jackets cut ties with their incumbent farm team, the Syracuse Crunch, at the end of this past season.
Joining the organization as the team's top development club for the 2010/2011 season will be the Springfield Falcons. The Falcons have a long history in the AHL, and Springfield is the location of the American League's Head Office. The past decade or so hasn't seen much success however, but there is excitement surrounding this new affiliation, from both a Columbus and Springfield perspective.
The first order of business for the Falcons after the affiliation was announced was to unveil their new sweaters:
Thanks to media.masslive.com for the Artist's rendering!
Personally, I love 'em. I'm sure the whites will be identical in style, with the same logo.
Next up, was to sign a few players to two-way NHL/AHL contract and AHL-only deals to stock the roster. We'll take a look at those moves later.
The most recent move was to bring in a head coach to lead the Falcons. An AHL head coach wears two distinctive hats- he is responsible for developing the young talent that is destined for the NHL; and of course to get his team to the Calder Cup Playoffs. On August 3rd, the Jackets and Crunch announced that former Army head coach Rob Riley was their man. Riley is familiar with the organization, as he was a regional scout for the Jackets for the past four seasons. Riley sat down for a few questions with the Falcons website and I grabbed this video from the same article, courtesy of course of falconsahl.com:
Let's take a look at how the roster sits at this point:
We're going to assume for the purposes of this preview that the thirteen forwards that will start the season in Columbus are Nash, Huselius, Vermette, Brassard, Voracek, Filatov, Umberger, Pahlsson, Moreau, Clark, Dorsett, Murray and Boll.
Here first are the eight holdovers from the Crunch last season:
Maksim Mayorov: Mayorov is an intriguing player. As most of you know, he was highly touted as a first rounder in his draft year, but the "Russian Factor" led him to slip to the fourth round. Scott Howson traded three picks to grab him. He had a decent rookie season two years ago, but was only able to increase his point total by one goal this past year. He still has a ton of talent, and has the size to be a power forward. This year is critical for his development, as the Jackets have some depth on the wings and he would need to force his way on to the team. He'll play in the top six for the Falcons.
Derek MacKenzie: D-Mac is a gamer, plain and simple. He does everything well, and has a great work ethic. He is never out of place when called up to the big club, and served as captain of the Crunch last season. He will likely assume the same role with the Falcons this season. He puts up enough points at the AHL level to be a top six center, but he could anchor the checking line.
Mike Blunden: Blunden made the Jackets out of camp last season, a reported favourite of then-coach Ken Hitchcock. He barely made a dent offensively, but to be fair he was rarely off the fourth line. This season he has his work cut out for him, but could see action as the Falcons number one center. Then again, he is versatile enough to play anywhere in the lineup.
Tomas Kana: Kana is a favourite of mine. He came over in a trade along with the since-departed Brendan Bell, and really turned heads with his offensive ability. He was spinning his tires in the St. Louis organization, spending a majority of his time in North America toiling in the ECHL. He was given a real shot with the Crunch last season, earning a callup to the Jackets at the end of the season. I look for him to either lead the Falcons in scoring this season, or at very least be amongst their top scorers.
Tom Sestito: Sestito was an interesting pick back in his draft year, he was touted as nothing more than a heavyweight enforcer. He then however went on to have a surprisingly productive season offensively with the Plymouth Whalers (as a teammate of Jared Boll). That offense hasn't translated to the pros however, and equally as troubling is the fact that he isn't much of an enforcer either. It's up in the air as to his potential role in the organization, and his one year contract signed this year is an indicator that the Jackets aren't willing to wait much longer for him to make an impact, at either the NHL or AHL level. He'll likely be a third line staple with the Falcons, getting powerplay time.
Chad Kolarik: Kolarik is known to CBJ fans as the player who was traded for Alex Picard. Pic is easily our biggest first round bust, but I wish him all the best in the Phoenix organization. Kolarik performed well at the end of the season with the Falcons, and was one of the players who got a late-season look with the Jackets. It will be interesting to follow his progress from training camp, rather than as a mid-season pickup. He will be one of the go-to guys offensively for the Falcons.
Trevor Frischmon: Frischmon is fast. He proved that in his handful of games spent as a Blue Jacket last season. His offensive ability leaves much to be desired, but his speed and tenacity lends very well to the penalty kill. He can also hang in the faceoff circle, so fourth line center is a likely destination with plenty of PK time for him.
Mike Ratchuk: Ratchuk was part of a seemingly lop-sided trade with the Flyers organization. It was a trade that almost had to be done however, because Ratchuk was stagnating in his role, and Stefan Legein needed fresh scenery. While Legein went on to put up major points for the Adirondack Phantoms, Ratchuk was often in the pressbox with the Crunch last year. He was listed as a defenseman, but it's been speculated that he will be moved to forward. He will have to work hard to become a fixture in the lineup, but when he is in he's expected to be amongst the bottom six.
Joining those eight players are six new faces up front:
Matt Calvert: One of the organization's top prospects, Calvert is expected to challenge for a roster spot with the Jackets in camp. If he doesn't make the team in September, he will see a large role with the Falcons. He has a ton of offensive ability and his motor simply doesn't stop. His progress should be monitored closely, he's a keeper.
Tomas Kubalik: Kubalik just completed his first and only season with the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL. He performed very well, putting up 75 points in 58 games in the regular season. While he still qualifies as an overager with the Tigres, it's more likely that he joins the Falcons. If he struggles early, he can be sent down to Victoriaville. He has the talent to play in the top six with Springfield, but he will likely be brought along slowly.
Kyle Wilson: Wilson brings a few things to the Falcons this season- he is coming off a Calder Cup, and has the offensive talent to be a scoring line center. He was a free agent signing by the Jackets, with the purpose of having him be a go-to Falcon with the potential for callup mid-season. AHL-level free agent signing haven't exactly worked out in recent years, so here's hoping Wilson bucks that trend.
Kyle Neuber: Last season, the Crunch had one of the AHL's best enforcers in Jon Mirasty. He wasn't brought back this year though, as the Jackets have draftee Kyle Neuber ready to take over as the team's top pugilist. He's a goon, plain and simple. Fourth line and the pressbox is where you'll find him this season.
Tyler Murovich: I suppose technically Murovich counts as a Crunch holdover, as he did have a brief tryout with Syracuse at the end of last season, but this year the Falcons have him signed to an AHL-only contract. That means that the Jackets can't call him up unless they sign him- he's Springfield property. He has the ability to put up points, and will be given a chance to do so, especially if/when injuries hit the Jackets and the top Falcon forwards are called up.
Chris Francis: Like Murovich, Francis is on an AHL-only deal. He was a teammate with CBJ first rounder Ryan Johansen with the Portland Winterhawks last season, and will serve as a utility forward with the Falcons. He's got leadership skills and wouldn't look out of place on a checking line.
Those 14 forwards will surely change, but at this point that's how things are looking. It's a balanced group, and if given the chance to gel together they should lead the Falcons to success.
The situation on defense is an interesting one. There are currently ten blueliners who are potential Falcons this upcoming season. One or more could surprise in camp and make the Jackets, others could be sent to the ECHL- at any rate all ten won't start the season together. Seven is more likely. Here are the ten candidates:
Grant Clitsome: The guy with the best name in hockey looked great for the Jackets at times late last season, and will be given every chance to make the Jackets out of camp. If he doesn't succeed in doing so, he will be a leader on the Falcons blueline. He will see action on the point on the power play, and will see plenty of five on five action.
Jonathan Sigalet: A steady blueliner, he is one of the veteran holdovers from the Crunch. He's had injury issues in the past, but if he can stay healthy he will easily be a top four blueliner with the Falcons. He's pretty much established as a career minor-leaguer, but that will only benefit the Jackets.
Nick Holden: Holden is a player who need to make a big jump. He's got a lot of talented young defensemen creeping behind him looking to pass him on the depth chart. He is good in all three zones, and would work well as a partner to an offensive blueliner.
Brent Regner: Another former Crunch defenseman. He has serious offensive talent, and this may be his breakout season. Like Holden, he has a lot of guys in his rear view mirror looking to take his job. This is a big year for Regner.
John Moore: 2009 First round pick John Moore is an exciting prospect for Columbus. He has the ability to be an offensive force and is a real pro. He stands a very good chance at making the Jackets out of camp, but will be a young leader on the Falcons if not. Like forward Matt Calvert, keep your eyes on Moore.
Nate Guenin: A free agent signing, Guenin adds veteran leadership to a very young blueline corps. He has a rocket of a shot and could wear a letter for the Falcons.
Cody Goloubef: Goloubef left the University of Wisconsin and has signed a pro contract with the Jackets. Along with Moore, Goloubef is very highly touted. He will be brought along more slowly than Moore, so look for him to have a full year with the Falcons, and maybe even some time in the ECHL.
David Savard: A potential draft steal, Savard is coming off a season where he won top defensive honors in the Quebec league and the entire Canadian Hockey League. He is a major point producer and will be one of the more exciting players to watch this season in Springfield.
Theo Ruth: Teddy is leaving Notre Dame to join the Jackets organization. He is a defense-first blueliner who will likely see some time in the ECHL. He has size and grit and a good camp could force another guy out.
Steve Delisle: Delisle has great size and is a bit of a project player. He is eligible to return to the QMJHL as an overager, and that could very well happen given the logjam on defense in Springfield. He could also see some time in the ECHL.
There are two new faces between the pipes for the Falcons, as Dan LaCosta and Kevin Lalande weren't tendered qualifying offers:
Gustaf Wesslau: Wesslau is the latest European goaltender to make the trek over to North America. He's currently the third goaltender in the Jackets organization, and could see time in Columbus, if necessary. He's got good size and is solid athletically. He could be fun to watch.
David LeNeveu: LeNeveu is a veteran of the AHL, and Falcons fans will recognize him from his previous stint with the team. He is coming off a stellar season in Austria, and will push Wesslau for the starter's job in Springfield.
The team has the talent to win, but there are major question marks on the blueline. It is very talented, but at the same time very, very young. Time will tell how well the young players will adjust, but if they do, the Falcons will see the playoffs for the first time in a long while.