Column: Third time's a charm for IceCaps, right?

Brendan McCarthy
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Those who are slaves to the laws of probability may have had an easier time accepting the disappointing St. John’s IceCaps of 2012-13, when a team that began the season with so much promise never really found any traction and ended up looking at the American Hockey League playoffs from the wrong side of the glass.

Brendan McCarthy

After all, in a 30-member league that hands out 16 berths in the post-season, chances are — given the equality of all things — that a club will get to the playoffs just about once every two years.

But if that’s the case, and we left it all to the odds, it would also mean the IceCaps are due for a significant bounce-back in a 2013-14 campaign that begins tonight, when they host the Providence Bruins at Mile One Centre.

It’s not that simple, of course. Annual outcomes in the AHL are coloured largely by the vagaries that come with being a league that focuses mainly on development and support for parent teams. It means the siphon that is the NHL — whose suction is generated by trades, call-ups and injury replacement — can quickly alter fortunes of minor-league affiliates.

Some farm teams are better-equipped to deal with that sort of drain because some organizations put more stock in the value of winning at the minor-league level. Fortunately, for St. John’s fans, the Winnipeg Jets have a reputation for thinking that way.

Not that this is a constant. For example, this looks to be a younger St. John’s team, in part because of the arrival of Jets’ draft picks, in a trend that will likely continue in the coming years. But those who saw IceCaps’ GM Craig Heisinger — who wasn’t on boil, but was certainly set on something close to simmer — as he was interviewed after St. John’s final game last spring, knew that change was coming.

And it did.

The veteran core of the team was gutted, mostly by letting free agents go unsigned, and in the most notable case, by the retirement of Jason King, now a new assistant coach for Keith McCambridge. The youngsters — led by Adam Lowry — have arrived, as expected. Sophomores have been given more responsibility, or at least the chance to see what they can do with more responsibility, and veterans were carefully selected to be either keystones or mortar.

The result?

This is a team that begins the new season with conspicuous depth on the forward lines, starting with Jason Jaffray, who is joined by newcomers Andrew Gordon and Jerome Samson, all of whom have a good taste of the NHL and all of whom have had 30-goals seasons at the AHL level. And before the four-line rotation ends, the opposition will have to deal with Ryan Schnell, John Albert and Blair Riley, whose last initials would make them the SAR line, as in search and rescue. But that’s not quite right, since there duties fall more in the line of search and destroy.

There are also significant numbers on defence, but far more questions.

Zach Redmond is the linchpin here, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be here all season (see Robin Short’s story, page C1). Julian Melchiori, much-valued in the organization, Ben Chiarot, Will O’Neill and Cody Sol make up a large percentage of those sophomores talked about earlier and rookie Brenden Kichton arrives with many junior honours, but we’ve been around the AHL long enough to know juniors and minors may be synonyms as words, but nothing alike in the reality of the hockey world.

Kris Fredheim, Jordan Hill, Travis Ehrhardt and Cody Lampl are blueline newcomers, all with pro experience. It would be a welcome revelation if any of them comes to resemble Brett Festerling or Arturs Kulda, two dependable, but underappreciated, rearguards from the IceCaps’ first season who have never been adequately replaced.

And there is goalie Eddie Pasquale. He is coming off a strong training camp in Winnipeg as he enters what is, undoubtedly for him, a make-or-break season within the Jets’ organization.

There is no Peter Mannino, no David Aebischer, no Mark Dekanich. There isn’t even Michael Hutchinson; the former Providence goalie was sent to the ECHL this week. With rookie Jussi Olkinura as the backup, Pasquale is now the unquestioned No. 1 and as such, quite possibly the key to it all for the IceCaps.

If there is to be a rebound this season, the "Eddie, Eddie" call, needs to be a chant, not a prayer, from St. John’s fans who have every reason to expect — and not because of mathematical findings — something much better in Year No. 3.

 

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Organizations: IceCaps, NHL, Winnipeg Jets Providence Bruins

Geographic location: Jordan Hill, Winnipeg

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