The Albany River Rats, just like their NHL parent club New Jersey Devils, wiped out every team in their way last year and strolled off with the Calder Cup, emblematic of superiority in the American Hockey League.
The Rats lost just 17 of 80 regular-season games last season and appear just as solid this time around.
The AHL moves to 18 teams spread over four divisions (up from three) when it opens its 59th season tomorrow. The Baltimore Bandits and Carolina Monarchs are new this year, with Lowell, Mass., and Lexington, Ky., due to join up in a year or two. This season, the 18 teams are maintaining developmental relationships with 20 of the 26 NHL clubs.
And while Albany, Fredericton and Portland figure as favorites in the Central, Atlantic and Northern Divisions, respectively, there's just no telling what might transpire in the Southern Division.
* Southern Division: This is where the "expansion" Bandits and Monarchs come in, because they make up half the cast of the division with the always-tough Hershey Bears and Binghamton Rangers. Though new to the league -- in Baltimore's case it's a second return to the AHL -- the Bandits and Monarchs are hardly expansion franchises in the accepted definition of the term.
The Bandits' roster is made up of prospects in the organization of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Many of the assignees competed in laudable fashion with the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League last year. The team won half its games under coach Walt Kyle, who is now the coach here.
Carolina (home base: Greensboro) has had success in the East Coast Hockey League, admittedly not up to AHL standards. But the Monarchs are the top farm team of the Florida Panthers, who logged more wins (20) than a dozen of their NHL colleagues last season.
They're going to have a tough time keeping up with Hershey and Binghamton, however, because the parent Flyers and Rangers have organizations rich with talent.
* Atlantic Division (better known as Province Pack): Despite finishing third last year, the Fredericton Canadiens are expected to rebound mightily, just like the parent club in Montreal. The Prince Edward Island Senators were the best during the regular season last year and won't abdicate without a fight. St. John's (Maple Leafs), Cape Breton (Oilers) and St. John (Flames) all had losing records in 1994-95, but none were patsies.
* Northern Division: The Portland Pirates (Capitals) and Providence Bruins dominated this group last year, but the weak sister, the Worcester IceCaps, was functioning as an independent. Now the IceCaps have both the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders providing players, and The Hockey News is talking about a "worst to first" recovery here. The fourth team is the Springfield Falcons: They play strong defense but have trouble scoring goals.
* Central Division: While most are hailing Albany because of its balance and depth on the forward line, at defense and in goal (what else is there?), the Rochester Americans (Buffalo), Adirondack Red Wings, Syracuse Crunch (Vancouver) and Cornwall Aces (Colorado) averaged about 34 victories last season. Syracuse and Cornwall were young teams and are expected to improve. Rochester has shored up its goaltending, and Adirondack has added scoring punch.