The South Carolina Stingrays won their third ECHL league championship last season by beating the Alaska Aces in seven games in the Kelly Cup finals.
The Stingrays open their 17th season Friday night against the Wheeling Nailers.
Here are the five questions facing the Stingrays as they begin their quest to win the franchise's fourth Kelly Cup title:
1. How much will the Stingrays miss former coach Jared Bednar?
Besides the 1997-98 season when Bednar played for Grand Rapid Griffins, this will be the first season since the 1995-96 campaign that Bednar will not be playing with or coaching the Stingrays.
That's an eternity at the minor league level.
Bednar, who left the Lowcountry to become an assistant coach with the Abbotsford Heat in the American Hockey League, was arguably the Stingrays' best head coach, winning a franchise-record 47 games in his rookie season at the helm and then following that up with 42 wins and a Kelly Cup title a year later.
In all, Bednar was 89-55-9 as the Rays head coach.
"Jared has been a huge part of this organization for more than a decade," said Stingrays head coach Cail MacLean. "I don't think you try and replace a guy like Jared, you just try to carry on the tradition and standards that he set here."
Few players in ECHL history were as respected as MacLean during his decade-long playing career. Despite having just one year of coaching
experience -- last season as Bednar's assistant -- few doubt MacLean's ability or drive to succeed.
"I don't think the organization could have found a better head coach," Bednar said. "The Stingrays are in very good hands."
2. Who will replace Travis Morin as the go-to guy?
The simple answer to this question: nobody.
You don't replace a guy like Travis Morin, because players of his ability don't come around too often. Morin recorded 172 points on 60 goals and 112 assists over the past two seasons, but dry statistics don't tell the entire story of Morin's value.
Morin was on the ice in every crucial situation over the last two seasons. Besides being among the league leaders in scoring, Morin was an outstanding penalty killer and an excellent defensive centerman.
"You're not going to replace a guy like Travis with one player," MacLean said. "Other guys are going to have to step up and help fill that void. I'm not counting on any one guy in our lineup to do all the things that Travis did for us."
3. Will the Stingrays be able to score enough goals?
Despite Bednar being considered a "defensive coach," the Stingrays were among the league's top scoring teams the last two seasons.
The Stingrays will be without their top three scorers from a year ago: Morin (26g, 62a), Maxime Lacroix (33g, 31a) and Pierre-Luc O'Brien (17g, 44 a).
Michael Dubuc, who led the Stingrays with 35 goals, returns along with Keith Johnson and Trent Campbell, both proven scorers at this level.
Still, the Stingrays will need other players to step up, including Nikita Kashirsky, who showed a good scoring touch in the playoffs.
4. Can Kashirsky be an elite center?
During last year's run through the Kelly Cup playoffs, the Stingrays' centers were Morin, O'Brien and Kashirsky.
Kashirsky was used mostly as the Stingrays' third-line center and proved to be a valuable asset in that role. Moving to the top line will be a big transition for Kashirsky, who will likely face the opponent's top defensive pair all game.
"I think people forget that Nikita is still a rookie," MacLean said. "He had a very big role in our playoff run last year, but he hasn't played an entire professional season yet.."
Rookies Rob Ricci and Jake Hauswirth will also be used at center throughout the season, and Matt Scherer can fill the role as needed.
5. Will the Stingrays have more stability in net?
The Stingrays used eight different goalies a year ago, including Carolina Ice Palace men's leaguer John Havrilack.
Bobby Geopfert and Josh Johnson started the season with the Stingrays. Michal Neuvirth, who led Hershey to the American Hockey League title, played 13 games in net, but the Stingrays ended the season with Jonathan Boutin and James Reimer.
The Stingrays can't afford that kind of turnover this season.
This year, veteran Todd Ford, who nearly single-handedly beat the Stingrays during the 2007-08 playoffs, and Braden Holtby, a fourth-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2008, are scheduled to compete for the starting spot to start the season.
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