I am in the midst of breaking down the rosters of the International Hockey League's seven teams and thought I'd give you my preseason rankings.
I have Fort Wayne atop the list, but know that it was close. And this is a preseason list, so let's see how they all look in a couple of weeks.
1) Fort Wayne Komets: They're the most complete team. The most impressive part of them is their team defense. The forwards, like Colin Chaulk and David Hukalo, know their assignments and stick to them. I'm not sure yet that they've adequately replaced Mathieu Curadeau.
2) Muskegon Lumberjacks: I almost picked them first. They're going to score in bunches with Todd Robinson, Robin Bouchard and newcomer Travis Banga. But the impressive thing is that coach Rich Kromm has improved the defense with the pickups of defenseman Rumun Ndur and goaltender Sebastien Centomo. But I still feel the Lumberjacks are a piece or two short.
3) Port Huron Icehawks: This is a well-coached team with a lot of talent, including Tab Lardner, Kris Vernarsky, Jamie Lovell and goaltender Larry Sterling. But I'm not convinved they made any bold moves to set them apart from what they've been in recent seasons.
4) Dayton Gems: I make this pick mostly because I like the coach, John Marks. This is a crucial year for the expansion team, going into a market that has failed before, and I think Marks will pull out all the stops. This won't be the prettiest team out there, but I like the character of captain Greg Labenski, the feistiness of players like Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn and the potential scoring of a guy like Mike Richard. But there are a lot of faces we're going to have to learn.
5) Flint Generals: The nucleus, with goalie Jean-Francois Labbe, center Pascal Rheaume, center Greg Bullock, defenseman Jake Pence and forward Tyler Willis, is awesome. A bit old, yes, but really solid. However, I don't see enough depth to get this team down the home stretch. You can blame two ownership shakeups in the offseason, and the late start for coach Jason Muzzatti, for that. But the Generals could finally be heading in the right direction.
6) Bloomington PrairieThunder: The PrairieThunder should have better goaltending, thanks to Paulo Colaiacovo, and they have added lots of toughness with Robin Gomez and Justin Sawyer. But the offense looks about the same, and it's led by Jan Jas, Jon Booras and Brett Holmberg. This will remain a team no one wants to play, but also a team that doesn't have the firepower to advance.
7) Quad City Mallards: Too bad, since it's a pivotal year for hockey to survive in Moline, Ill., but I don't see enough talent here yet. The Mallards have a good coach in Frank Anzalone, but he got off to a late start and has decent, not great, players. Sebastien LaPlante will be good in net. There are good physical players, such as Jonathan Tremblay and Jason Goulet and decent scorers, such as Juris Stals, Mike Zbriger and Jean Desrochers, but nothing I'm going to drool over.
The good news of all this is this league is deep and competitive. I could see any of these seven teams making the playoffs. The only teams I can't see missing the postseason are Fort Wayne and Muskegon. So, for those of us wanting the playing field evened over the past two seasons, I think we've got our wish granted.