The Gwinnett Gladiators have the first piece of the puzzle for the 2011-12 season and it's a big one.
The signing of versatile, 6-foot-6 defenseman Paul Flache was announced by the team Tuesday.
Flache spent all of last season and parts of three others with Gwinnett. Now a year-round resident of the area with his new wife, it didn't take Flache long to negotiate a deal with Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle.
"It's not always about the money and it was really very quick," Flache said. "I'm happy and hopefully we'll be happy this year."
Pyle had no doubt about re-signing the veteran and one-time Atlanta Thrashers' draft pick.
"He's one of the toughest guys in the league," Pyle said. "It would be foolish not to have him playing for us.
"He wanted to stay and we were both on the same page right away."
It's been three months since the Gladiators' season ended in disappointment, missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
"It seems like a long time," Flache said. "And I've been pretty busy, too.
"I got married on June 10 so that was an exciting time for me and my new wife (Tara). Both our families were down here and we had it at Lake Lanier. Things went slowly coming up to that, but that last month has flown by."
Flache has been focused on training all summer. He works out daily with Derek Nesbitt, who started last season with the Gladiators before being called up to the AHL, and will add on-ice training to that regimen in August.
He's already starting to feel the itch to play again.
"Bottom line, we play for playoff hockey," Flache said. "I haven't had a lot of players in my career talk about how they're excited to go home.
"It's a hard time to watch friends of yours, and even the Stanley Cup playoffs, and know you aren't going to be a part of it."
The Gladiators' season ended April 3 after callups and injuries ravaged the roster. Many of the players that made Gwinnett so formidable in November never returned to the roster down the stretch.
"It was tough," said Flache, who has played in 110 AHL games during his career. "But I still thought we had a good team at the end of the season. We were outshooting teams 45-24 and losing. Late in the season, I think it was against Reading, was a perfect example. We're outshooting them 16-2 and down 1-0.
"But that's part of the game. We didn't bury our chances."
Flache, who had 23 points in 69 games with the Gladiators last season, is looking forward to returning Gwinnett to the playoffs.
Flache began his pro career with the Greenville Grrrowl and then joined the Gladiators in their inaugural 2003-04 season. He played briefly for Gwinnett the following year, spending most of his time with AHL Chicago, and half of the 2006-07 campaign before deciding to head overseas.
Flache played three years in Germany with Hern EV, Regensburg EV and the Augsburg Panthers. He racked up 41 points in 37 games during his last season with Hern in 2009-10.
"He's an older guy and he's been through it all," Pyle said. "He's fun to coach and he knows how I'm going to treat him. You don't have to say a whole lot.
"If I don't sign him, I think I'm stupid. The positives of what he does and what he brings, you need that. He'll be there every night for you."