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New American Hockey League season opens up Wednesday with two games

The Chicago Wolves open the American Hockey League's 73rd season as the defending Calder Cup champions, and holding on to the title will be no simple task.

No team has repeated in minor-league hockey's top developmental loop since the Springfield Indians won it all back in 1990 and '91.

Roster turnover is often high in leagues like the AHL, with lots of players moving up, down and out on an annual basis. The off-season wasn't kind to the Wolves and they'll try to repeat in 2008-09 with a much different group.

Most notably, John Anderson was promoted to head coach of the parent Atlanta Thrashers while centre Jason Krog, winner of the Les Cunningham Award as league MVP, joined the Vancouver Canucks organization and forward Darren Haydar, second on the team in playoff scoring with 27 points, is now in the Detroit Red Wings system.

"I can't remember a season with so much changeover," said veteran Wolves centre Steve Martins of Gatineau, Que. "It's a short pre-season and we have a lot of new faces.

"But I'm pretty confident that regardless of who we have, we're going to be OK."

The additions of centre Grant Stevenson, winger Jeff Hamilton and defenceman Jamie Rivers are expected to fill the void, while new head coach Don Granato hasn't lowered expectations one bit.

"He's got some different drills and the practices are different, but it hasn't been a very big transition," Martins said of the change behind the bench. "He's not a yeller or a screamer, he treats guys with respect. We're going after another championship."

The Wolves open their season Saturday on the road against the Houston Aeros.

The AHL's three Canadian teams get going Friday, when the North Division champion Toronto Marlies host the Binghamton Senators and the Hamilton Bulldogs visit the Manitoba Moose.

That latter contest will begin with a tribute to Luc Bourdon, the former Vancouver Canucks prospect and Moose defenceman who was killed in a motorcycle accident in May.

The Moose will also wear a " 4 LB" patch on the upper left chest of their jerseys all season in Bourdon's honour.

The puck officially drops on the new AHL campaign with two games Wednesday. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, beaten by the Wolves in the Calder Cup final, host the Hershey Bears while the Providence Bruins, owners of the best regular-season record last year at 55-18-3-4, entertain the Lowell Devils.

The off-season was also harsh on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, as defenceman Alex Goligoski and winger Paul Bissonnette graduated to the NHL while Tim Brent, Kurtis McLean and Nathan Smith are also gone.

Head coach Todd Richards joined the San Jose Sharks as an assistant, with former assistant Dan Bylsma taking over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

As well, legendary tough guy Dennis Bonvie, one of the franchise's most popular players, retired after 963 professional games and 4,804 penalty minutes.

The Moose, meanwhile, will be looking for bigger things this season after getting eliminated in the first round of last year's playoffs by the Syracuse Crunch, falling in six games, with all four losses coming in overtime.

The Bulldogs are hoping for some improvement after not making the playoffs at all, while the Marlies may take a step back after losing the Western Conference final in five games to Chicago.

The parent Toronto Maple Leafs thinned out their roster by going young in a big way, while an organizational shift away from winning in the AHL toward a focus on developing young players could make a repeat performance more difficult.

The Dallas Stars open the season as the only NHL team without an AHL affiliate due to their plans to bring a squad to a suburb of Austin, Texas.

Those plans prompted Iowa, which had been Dallas' affiliate, to end their agreement and hook up with the Anaheim Ducks, leaving the Stars to sprinkle their prospects around the AHL.

The new Texas team is expected to begin play next season but the Stars first need to find a franchise to buy. Logic suggests they end up purchasing the dormant team owned by the Edmonton Oilers, but if no deal is struck they'd be forced to try buying and moving another club, since the AHL isn't interested in expanding.

The AHL will also be experimenting with one rule change at the NHL's request, implementing one-minute minor penalties in overtime during the regular season. Additionally, the time left on penalties carrying over into OT will be cut in half.

"My initial reaction is it's a good thing," said Martins. "Not only will they be calling more penalties, it will be a cleaner game maybe in the overtime. And if it isn't, there'll be power plays, which 4-on-3 gives you a much higher chance of winning games."

The 29 AHL teams will each play an 80-game schedule for a total of 1,160 contests, with the Worcester Sharks hosting the all-star festivities Jan. 25-26.

The top four teams in each division make the playoffs, with one possible exception. Should the fifth-place team in the West Division finish with more points than the fourth-place team in the North Division, it would cross-over and claim the berth.



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