Remember back when the Wild had a bunch of Aeros players and the team still sucked, and the Aeros weren't doing much better?
I'm not sure what happened in the organization, apart from the renewed faith in management inspired by Marek Zidlicky earning his $4M in the press box, but we're in that same boat again. This time, however, it seems to be working!
I can tell you one kid who isn't happy about it and that's Casey Wellman. He's been back for 3 games and is already leading the team in goals scored.
He's got a point per game in the AHL after racking up 2 goals and 4 points in 3 games over the weekend, as well as scoring twice in (losing) shootout efforts.
We talked to him after Sunday's game in which he was clearly on another level and played a fantastic game in spite of the loss. I asked him if, even though he'd obviously rather be with the Wild, is he able to appreciate a bit of a break from a really tough environment?
"I don't know what I'd really call it. Obviously things weren't going great up there. To be pretty honest, that's where you want to be, so it's tough. It's a challenge up there; I'd like to be a part of it up there working through it and things like that. But being down here with these guys, I've got a lot of good friends here, and we're working hard. The guys played well tonight and, really, all weekend so, it's not the greatest but it's good being down here, too." - Wellman
Asked if he was given any instructions of things to work on while he's down here, "No. Not much. Not much this time."
Casey Wellman never doesn't look adorable via Chris Jerina/AHLinPhotos.com
More telling than his answer was the look on his face and his body language. He's disappointed, even a little pissed (though it's hard to tell because he's an incredibly nice guy), and knows it's more of a numbers game. They had to change something up there and it's going to be the guys who don't risk waivers who bear the pain of the ol' switcharoo.
But it says a ton about Casey's character that he comes down here, believing he's an NHL-caliber player, and still plays hard every shift (maybe harder than I remember him playing before, to be honest). It's making a HUGE difference on a team that's steadily bringing on more ECHLers.
Not that ECHLers are bad, mind you, but they also just don't know the system and won't play as many minutes, so we don't have the depth you really want this time of year as far as ice time.
That said, the guys they've brought in, like Mike McKenzie (TSN Bob's kid), Joey Martin, CJ Stretch, and Mike Radja have fit in fairly seamlessly.
Radja, in fact, scored twice Saturday night earning his first two goals with the Aeros before most of us even were quite sure how to pronounce his name.
The basic theme for the Aeros remains the same, however: Lose at home a lot, lose pretty much all the time if they go into OT or SO, and win on the road. If any team has ever worked their way into a playoff spot on the backbone of road wins and loser points, it'll be these Aeros. I've never seen anything like it.
Currently the team sits in second place in the division, 5 points behind the juggernaut OKC Barons (maybe the Oilers should call more guys up and they wouldn't be so crappy?). But the Abbotsford Heat are just a point behind in third.
It's clear that the guys understand how much these lost points matter and they're all saying the right things about it. And indeed, the last couple of games I've seen glimmers of "the system" that we got used to last season. I feel optimistic, anyway. But again, maybe that's still just "Benched Zids Euphoria" talking.
Up next are games Friday and Saturday in OKC and San Antonio, respectively. And with several guys back down due to the NHL All Star break, that will either be a gong show or 4 points. I'm not sure chemistry-wise. Except for Wellman, guys have been a bit "off" when they come down. Maybe leaving on a high note with hope of going back after the break will keep them in line.