The last time the Augusta Lynx skated together, their storybook playoff ride came crashing to an end with a loss to the Greenville Grrrowl in the East Coast Hockey League's Southern Conference semifinals.
That was more than five months ago, and a lot has changed since.
As the Lynx skate into the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center this morning to open training camp, they'll do so with a new coach in Scott MacPherson and only three of the players who were here last season -- Louis Dumont, Lars Pettersen and John Whitwell.
Changes were expected after the Lynx started miserably last season under coach Dan Wiebe before coming on strong late, including an upset of the Brabham Cup champion Florida Everblades in the ECHL Southern Conference quarterfinals.
But two up-and-down seasons and early playoff exits triggered an off-season upheaval, beginning with the hiring of MacPherson in June.
In preparation for his head coaching debut, MacPherson spent the summer rebuilding around a core group that has carried them in past years.
MacPherson begins camp with a returning nucleus that includes only Whitwell, Pettersen and Dumont for now, while newcomers such as veteran forward and former NHL players Scott Morrow and Denis Chervyakov, and former Mobile Mysticks star Russ Guzior headline the list of impact-type players added over the summer.
There currently are seven players under contract with the Lynx attending camps with teams in the American and International Hockey leagues. That list includes goaltender Judd Lambert, who is with Providence of the AHL, forwards Dean Tiltgen, Andrei Chouroupov and Sandy Lamarre and defensemen Wes Swinson and Likit Andersson -- all with Cincinnati of the IHL -- and goalie Reg Bourcier and defenseman Cal Benazic, who are with Manitoba of the IHL.
While around 16 skaters and two goaltenders will hit the ice for this morning's first workout, MacPherson and Lynx general manager Paul Gamsby will be monitoring the developments in Providence, Cincinnati and Manitoba very closely.
And from all three locales, the news could be better.
Lambert is the frontrunner in the battle for one of Providence's goaltending spots, aided in part by a fluke injury to goalie John Grahame with the NHL parent Boston Bruins.
Tiltgen and Lamarre are having excellent camps with Cincinnati and Gamsby said both have legitimate chances of making the club, while Benazic also has made it through several rounds of cuts in Manitoba.
So, at least from the outset, the optimism surrounding MacPherson's first camp is tempered with uncertainty.
With that, here are five key questions that must be answered before the Lynx open their third season Oct. 13 at home against the rival Grrrowl:
1. How will he Lynx survive without Lambert?
Simply put, Lambert is irreplaceable. He is widely regarded by ECHL coaches as one of the top three goalies in the league. But if he doesn't return, the onus likely will be on rookie Reg Bourcier and David Weninger, acquired in a trade with Dayton this offseason. Weninger is not yet signed and will not be in camp to start, but will join the club if Lambert sticks with the Bruins.
2. Can Scott Morrow rediscover the magic?
After missing last season following shoulder surgery, the 31-year-old Morrow will be counted on to lead by example and emerge as a consistent producer on offense. No doubt, Morrow is a huge pickup for the Lynx in terms of his presence in the dressing room. If the veteran mucker brings toughness and scoring punch as advertised, he will enhance the team's chances of contending.
3. Will the Lynx really be better defensively?
MacPherson brought back the team's top blueliners from a year ago -- Wes Swinson, John Whitwell and Likit Andersson -- while adding several accomplished defensemen who should make a world of difference. Denis Chervyakov is proven at the AHL and IHL levels, while Martin LaPointe and Cal Benazic bring skill that has been missing in past seasons. The only concern now is the potential loss of Tom O'Connor, an ECHL all-star for Wheeling last season, who now is contemplating retirement.
4. What kind of coach will MacPherson be?
The 32-year-old is an accomplished college assistant coach and talent evaluator/recruiter, but is unproven as a head coach. MacPherson promises a wide-open style, which could make for a more exciting product on the ice. So far, his upbeat personality has been a breath of fresh air for some players, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to his style.
5. Will the Alberta Connection do it again?
Center Lars Pettersen emerged as an MVP candidate, finishing tied for third in the ECHL in scoring last year. Winger Louis Dumont proved he is one of the top snipers in the ECHL, and winger Dean Tiltgen came on strong late last year and showed he is a potential 40-50 goal scorer, as well. There's no reason to doubt the trio will duplicate that success. The question, though, is whether they will reunite as linemates, or even as teammates. There's talk of Tiltgen and perhaps Pettersen signing two-way contracts with higher-level clubs.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.
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