The quality of the Alaska Aces' nearly decade-long portfolio can be quantified by this simple measurement: The club made it to the ECHL's conference finals, just one step removed from vying for the Kelly Cup it seized last season, and somehow that ranked as disappointment.
Figure that: Down to the last four teams on the 20-team circuit -- for the sixth time in just nine seasons, mind you -- and that five-game conference finals loss to the deserving Las Vegas Wranglers seemed like a season-ending thud.
Two Kelly Cups, three Finals appearances, a record three Brabham Cups as regular season champions and a record back-to-back Brabhams the past two seasons does set a bit of a high bar -- stratospherically high.
With all that, you can make a fairly impenetrable argument the Aces, who have a culture from the ownership group on down that only raising the Cup makes a completely satisfying season, have been the ECHL's strongest franchise since they arrived for the 2003-04 season.
Yet, as now-retired Aces captain Brian Swanson pointed out, only one team in the league ends the season happy.
A year ago, that club was the Aces, who tore through the playoffs with a 12-1 record. This go-round, it will be either the Wranglers or the Florida Everblades, who Saturday night finished the Kalamazoo K-Wings, the team the Aces beat in the Finals in 2011. Both the Wranglers and Everblades have rolled through three rounds at 11-2.
Still, the Aces delivered more than just a solid season in 2011-12.
They stamped the league's best regular-season record (43-18-11) and its best home-ice record (29-5-2). They enjoyed a stretch in which they earned points in 26 of 27 games. They earned banners -- they won the Mountain Division, Western Conference and Brabham Cup in the regular season. They earned a first-round playoff bye for the second straight season. And attendance bumped up slightly in the regular season -- 2.3 percent.
There's no denying the ending was grim -- three straight home losses.
Yet there's a reason no team has repeated as ECHL champions in nearly 20 years -- it's really hard.
And for the complainers out there, here's a reminder we like to use when listening to the droning: You do realize those guys on the other team get paid too, correct?
Moving on, this stacks up like a busy offseason for the Aces.
Bench boss Rob Murray faces a difficult task -- he will have to recruit a team for the first time in his coaching career. The team was pretty much decided by the time he got the job last summer, and it says here he did strong work with what he was handed.
Of course, this summer gives him opportunity to recruit precisely the kind of players he wants and what kind of team he wants the sum of those parts to be.
It figures there will be some significant turnover on the roster, not least because veterans Brian Swanson and Wes Goldie confirmed their retirements this week, instantly wiping out two-thirds of the club's first line, 40 percent of its first-unit power play and no small amount of its leadership. With Swanson cleaning out his stall for good, Murray will also have to settle on a new captain.
Basically half the team from the Kelly Cup season returned to the Aces for this past season, an unusually high number of holdovers in a league that identifies itself as a developmental circuit.
Between retirements, guys who may get a shot at the American Hockey League, guys who possibly head to Europe and whatever personnel decisions Murray makes, this seems like an offseason of change for the club.
The last overhaul did the trick. No doubt puckheads recall the Aces' 2010 playoff flameout in Brent Thompson's first season -- that's the only time in nine seasons the club was whacked in the first round -- and his subsequent recruitment of an almost entirely new team. Ahem -- a team that then won the Cup.
And, well, that does keep that bar remarkably high for Murray and company.
The Aces wouldn't have it any other way.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.