CINCINNATI, OH – Now that we’ve all had some time to soak in the off-season and get our golf swings back into form, it’s time to look at some potential changes that could be coming to the Cincinnati Cyclones over the next five months as well as some names I’d like to see back in town as they slowly inch closer to the opening of the 2016-2017 ECHL regular season.

Without a doubt, the biggest question this off-season lies between the pipes. How exactly will the goaltending situation be next season? At the end of the season, the Cyclones were running with three goalies in the form of Brad Thiessen, Andy Iles, and Brandon Whitney. Out of those three men: Whitney is the only one I can, for the most part, assure you will be back. As long as the Cyclones are still affiliated with the NHL’s Nashville Predators and AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals (more on that later), and the Admirals don’t trade Whitney’s contract over the off-season as his contract is through the end of 2016-2017, he’ll be back in Cincinnati next fall.

In terms of Thiessen, I can straight up say, absolutely do not expect him back. In the ECHL. At all. He is simply too good to be in this league. With up and coming NHL star, Joonas Korpisalo more than likely going to start the season in Columbus with the Blue Jackets next season, that leaves the door wide open for Thiessen to get a full-time gig in Lake Erie with the AHL’s Monsters next season. His AHL deal with Lake Erie is up after this season, and the Monsters have absolutely zero reason to not re-sign him. If it comes to the point where he has to sign a contract ANYWHERE in the ECHL, there is seriously something wrong with the higher-ups of the AHL.

I would go as far and classify Iles as a “priority signing”. In February, when he went on a 8-3-0-1 run, claiming the ECHL’s title for “Goaltender of the Month” for February, we saw what a confident Andy Iles is capable of. The entire team kind of hit a funk and lost their touch heading into March and April, so his numbers to finish the season aren’t as good as what they could’ve been had they stayed hot. In only his 2nd season as a professional, a lot has been left to be unseen out of Iles, and if what we saw in February was just a sneak peak at the type of goaltender Iles could be, he could very well be a diamond in the rough find for coach Matt Macdonald. I’m sure having a man of Brad Thiessen’s caliber as a shoulder to lean on for the short time they were together could go a long ways as well.

Looking at the defensive side of things, this is where the Cyclones struggled the most during the season. Nevertheless, the three names that stood out to me for good reasons on the Cincinnati blue line: Brett Wysopal, Riley Weselowski, and Andrew Blazek. This was arguably Wysopal’s best season yet. 28 points in 40 games after battling an injury early on in the year, if he can stay healthy, he would be one of the best defensemen in the league. Weselowski wasn’t much for scoring, but he was one of the most respected men in that Cincinnati locker room. Coming into a new city after playing the previous six years in Rapid City, he was named one of the team captains really establishing that veteran presence that can help develop the younger minds. I would place Blazek in the same category I did Iles. I would really like to see what he could do with a full season in Cincinnati. Similar to Iles, he came to the Queen City and things just “clicked” after struggling tremendously earlier in the season splitting time between Wichita and Norfolk.

Offensively speaking, I’m far from a professional hockey coach, but watching that line consisting of Branden Gracel, Tommy Mele, and Colin Mulvey towards the end of the season was just unreal. The chemistry between those three just blossomed and if by any extent do all three of them come back, I would love to see them stay together for as long as possible. That line could be absolutely deadly given some more time together. The bigger names up front were Jack Downing, Zach Budish, Nick Huard, and Andrew Yogan. Downing and Yogan are guys that I think might be getting to the point in their careers where I wouldn’t be surprised if they made the jump overseas. But if either decides to come back, I certainly wouldn’t complain. Then again, Downing declined an offer overseas to come back to Cincinnati last off-season so how much do I really know?

Budish and Huard are a couple of uncertainties. Budish had a very successful season with 58 points in 69 games. He struggled quite a bit towards the end of the season while the entire team was going through a bit of a slump but still his most productive season through three years of professional hockey. I’d like to see him get another AHL shot because he certainly deserves it, but I’d also love to have him back in a Cyclones jersey as well. Huard is a very ambitious forward. Led the league in power play goals, and can really do some damage on the offensive side. Although, he left a lot to be desired on the defensive side with a very unfortunate plus/minus rating of a -22.

Lastly on the roster front, veterans. Each ECHL team is only permitted four vets on their roster. Downing and Weselowski were the only two veterans the Cyclones ended the season with. Suppose they both come back, taking up two of those four slots. Something to consider is both Mele and Christiaan Minella will be considered veterans next season. Suppose they come back, filling those last two slots. How would you feel about a veteran core of Weselowski-Downing-Mele-Minella? Would you leave off any to add another non-vet or go find outside veteran help?

Now, you may have noticed I have been blatantly ignoring a lot of names that were assigned to the Cyclones via either Milwaukee or Lake Erie throughout this entire thing.

Well, after about nine years of marriage, you meet someone new that’s a couple years younger than your spouse, and things begin to take a bit of an odd direction. That is the situation Cincinnati is currently in regarding their NHL/AHL affiliation for next season.

Last off-season, when the ECHL implemented a “one affiliation” rule, you may remember we had to do this exact same dance between Nashville and Florida over which NHL team the Cyclones should affiliate with. Well. We get to do it all over again. This time, between Nashville and Columbus.

The Cyclones have been a member of the Nashville Predators organization since the 2007-2008 season. Heading into last season, the Cyclones entered a “unofficial” affiliation-type deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets on the side in addition to the Nashville affiliation. What this basically means is from time-to-time Columbus was able to send a guy or two from Lake Erie to Cincinnati while still abiding by the ECHL’s “one affiliate” rule. Out of that entire deal, the Cyclones received two other players in addition to Thiessen from the Blue Jackets organization in the forms of Peter Quenneville and Seth Ambroz.

It looked like that relationship with the Predators would continue into next season until a few weeks ago when the Blue Jackets dropped an interesting bit of information. Per a Weekly Mailbag, the very last question in the mailbag a fan asked from Twitter was “Any chance #CBJ at some point look to affiliate with one of the #ECHL teams in #Ohio?” – The answer given was “the Blue Jackets are thrilled with the ‘one-off’ agreement they’ve had with the Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL)”. They would later go on to say “If it makes sense down the line, the Blue Jackets would definitely be interested in having their ECHL affiliate in the state of Ohio. The door is certainly not closed here – an Ohio-based affiliation is a possibility in the years ahead.”

As you all know, there are two ECHL teams in Ohio. In addition to Cincinnati, there is the Toledo Walleye. Toledo is probably never going to leave the Detroit Red Wings organization so if the Blue Jackets are going to affiliate with an Ohio-based ECHL team, it’s going to be Cincinnati.

Here’s a look at all the Nashville/Milwaukee contracted players the Cyclones could lose if they went to Columbus:

Player Contracted With Contract Length
F Joe Pendenza Milwaukee Through 2015/2016
F Jaynen Rissling Nashville Through 2016/2017
D Jonathan Diaby Nashville Through 2017/2018
D Garrett Noonan Nashville Through 2015/2016
G Brandon Whitney Milwaukee Through 2016/2017
F Eric Robinson Milwaukee Through 2015/2016

Pendenza, Noonan, and Robinson could potentially all sign ECHL deals in Cincinnati if they don’t receive extensions. However, the only one I could see that happening with is Robinson as he is still trying to bounce back from his season-ending leg injury he suffered back in November.

Click: http://bluejackets.nhl.com/club/roster.htm?type=prospect for a list of some potential names you could see in Cincinnati in the fall if they do decide to go with the Blue Jackets.

The million dollar question here is… Who do you think the Cyclones should affiliate with? Stick with Nashville? Or try something new and head to Columbus?

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