Coach: Jarrod Skalde, 2nd season
Last season: 29-40-7, fifth place
5 key players: F Jon Booras, RW Jan Jas, RW Brett Holmberg, G Paulo Colaiacovo, D Brian Boulay
Arena: U.S. Cellular Coliseum
Web site: www.prairiethunderhockey.com
Outlook: Bloomington, beginning its fourth season, is still looking for its first playoff berth. Bloomington will again be led on offense by forwards Booras, Jas and newcomer Craig MacDonald. The PrairieThunder won’t score a ton but will be physical with the additions of forward Robin Gomez and defenseman Justin Sawyer. And the goaltending is improved with the addition of Colaiacovo, who has won championships in the Central League and in Europe.
Prediction: Seventh place
Coach: John Marks, 1st season
Last season: Expansion team
5 key players: D Greg Labenski, C Danny Lapointe, G Ryan Mior, D John Snowden, F Mark Versteeg-Lytwyn
Arena: Hara Arena
Web site: www.daytongems.com
Outlook: Marks has won two ECHL championships and one in the Southern League. Labenski, the captain imported from the now-defunct Dayton Bombers of the ECHL, is a terrific two-way defenseman who eclipsed 35 points in each of the last four seasons and has extensive experience at higher levels. Phil Youngclaus is a competent stay-at-home defenseman with potential. Lapointe and Snowden are potential 20-goal scorers. Versteeg-Lytwyn played last season for the Komets, tallying 32 points in 40 games, and he could be a top-line player with the Gems. Mior will be one of the league’s best goalies.
Prediction: Fourth place
Coach: Jason Muzzatti, 1st season
Last season: 22-47-7, sixth place
5 key players: C Pascal Rheaume, C Greg Bullock, G Jean-Francois Labbe, D Jake Pence, C Tony Tuzzolino
Arena: Perani Arena
Web site: www.flintgenerals.com
Outlook: It was a tumultuous offseason for the Generals, who restructured their ownership group twice. Despite his late start, Muzzatti, a former NHL goaltender, used his connections to bring in a good core group. There isn’t much depth, though, especially at forward. Rheaume has played 318 NHL games and should tear it up at this level. Same goes for Tuzzolino, a veteran of nine NHL games. Bullock is one of the finer scorers in the IHL, with 85 points in 68 games last season. Former Komet Pence will help anchor the defense. But the goaltender could be the Generals’ true star – Labbe played in the NHL, too – if he’s still got legs at 37.
Prediction: Fifth place
Coach: Al Sims, seventh season (1989-93, 2007-present)
Last season: 46-18-12, first place
5 key players: C Colin Chaulk, D Guy Dupuis, LW P.C. Drouin, G Nick Boucher, F David Hukalo
Arena: Memorial Coliseum
Web site: www.komets.com
Outlook: The Komets have won back-to-back playoff titles since Sims returned to the team. The Komets are strong in every department, especially defensively, because forwards Chaulk, Hukalo and Leo Thomas know their assignments and stick to them. The Komets need to find replacements for departed forwards Mathieu Curadeau and Justin Hodgman, and they need to find more scoring at the blue line to assist Dupuis. There will be toughness with Brad MacMillan and Blair Stayzer, and the goaltending is solid, led by Boucher.
Prediction: Second place
Coach: Rich Kromm, fourth season (1998-2001)
Last season: 43-26-7, third place
5 key players: C Todd Robinson, RW Robin Bouchard, LW John DiPace, G Sebastien Centomo, LW Robin Big Snake
Arena: L.C. Walker Arena.
Web site: www.muskegonlumberjacks.com
Outlook: The Lumberjacks, who were ousted by the Komets in the Turner Cup Finals last season, will score goals in bunches. That’s nothing new with Robinson, the reigning IHL MVP, Bouchard and Co. Newcomer Travis Banga will score a lot of goals, too. But Kromm, who returned to the team after an eight-year absence, has improved the defense. Centomo spent one game in the NHL with Toronto in 2001-02 and has had respectable numbers in the Central Hockey League the last three years. Defenseman Rumun Ndur is a former NHL player, too, and Jason Lawmaster will be a big help in his return to the lineup.
Prediction: Third place
Port Huron Icehawks
Coach: Stan Drulia, fourth season
Last season: 44-21-11, second place
5 key players: LW Tab Lardner, F Mike Kinnie, F Cory Stillman, G Larry Sterling, D Jamie Lovell
Arena: McMorran Arena
Web site: www.porthuronicehawks.com
Outlook: Despite being ousted in the first round of the playoffs, the Icehawks didn’t mess too much with the team dynamic. The Icehawks return a solid group of scorers, including Lardner, center Kris Vernarsky and center Nick Lindberg. But the Icehawks added Kinnie and Stillman, who should net 25 goals apiece. Defensively, the Icehawks were the best team in the IHL last season, and they should be solid again with Lovell and former Komet Kevin Hansen. Don’t be surprised if Adam Russo pushes Sterling for playing time in net.
Prediction: First place
Quad City Mallards
Coach: Frank Anzalone, first season
Last season: Expansion team
5 key players: C Jean Desrochers, RW Chris Lipsett, RW Juris Stals, C Mike Zbriger, G Sebastien Laplante
Arena: i wireless Center
Web site: www.myqcmallards.com
Outlook: The Mallards, in their first season after their American Hockey League franchise folded, should have plenty of scoring. Desrochers and Lipsett could be magnificent in this league, and the Mallards’ top two lines will be fun to watch. But defensively, they are a big question mark. They have some physical players, such as Jason Goulet, and some potential stars, such as former Komet Jay Holladay, but the defense has much to prove. Laplante, who played last season for the Komets, can be excellent if he stays healthy. Anzalone is known for being a good coach, at both the collegiate and pro levels, but he got a late start and it shows.
Prediction: Sixth place