In the limited ice time he received as a rookie last season, St. John’s IceCaps centre Eric O’Dell showed plenty of promise, rising a peg or two on the Winnipeg Jets’ depth chart with 12 goals and 22 points in only 39 games.
More will be expected of the 22-year-old from Ottawa this season, but first there is this little matter of making the team.
Barring a horrific training camp, O’Dell figures to have a spot on the American Hockey League team’s roster. But securing more ice time, well, that will be the real challenge.
While St. John’s did lose Marco Rosa (Europe) and Garth Murray (retirement) during the off-season, two forwards who were with the club all year, the IceCaps have a bevy of new forwards at training camp, namely Alex Burmistrov from Winnipeg, Brian Sutherby, Derek Whitmore, Ray Kaunisto, Hunter Tremblay and graduating junior prospect Ivan Telegin.
“I noticed a few times Winnipeg signing guys, but it’s not a big deal to me,” O’Dell said. “I just come to camp and work my hardest. It’s what I can control.
“There are no jobs given to anyone. When you get on the ice, you have to show what you got and work your hardest.”
O’Dell appeared in only one of the IceCaps’ first 11 games last year, and then went through lengthy periods of suiting up when St. John’s had players injured or on recall, and others when he was banished to the press box.
He finished the season strong, with six goals and a pair of assists in seven games. Included was a weekend series against the Springfield Falcons when he netted a hat trick, and followed up with a two-goal effort.
“I thought as the season wore on and when he got his opportunities, he made the most of those chances,” coach Keith McCambridge said. “I thought he really made some strides offensively and defensively for a first-year player.
“We know what he can do, and we have expectations so there is more of a focus now on what can he do as a second-year pro.”
A highly-touted junior with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario junior league, O’Dell was drafted 39th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2008.
He was dealt the following year to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for Erik Christensen, and became Winnipeg property with the franchise transfer.
O’Dell was counting on a big year in 2010-11, his third major junior campaign.
That was until he began having heart palpitations and doctors discovered a hole in his heart, which he had since birth.
Surgery was scheduled and he was shut down for six months. He returned to play the final 39 games for the Wolves, scoring 20 goals and 44 points.
“There have been no issues since,” he said.
O’Dell enjoyed his rookie season in St. John’s, enjoyed the city and playing in a sold-out Mile One Centre.
But playing sporadically had to take getting used-to, especially when you’ve been seen as a go-to player in junior.
“It’s a team game and you have to think about it that way,” he said. “Whatever it takes to help the team win.
“But when I did get into the lineup, I thought I played real well.”
McCambridge said it’s up to O’Dell to build on his game from last year, and build on his performance at Winnipeg’s July development camp.
On Tuesday, the IceCaps’ first day of scrimmaging, the coach liked what he saw in O’Dell.
“I think he’s made some strides through the summer,” McCambridge said.
If there is something for O’Dell to take comfort in, it’s the fact McCambridge promises ice time will go to the player who deserves it, regardless if another player has NHL experience, or is a veteran of the American league or a former 20-plus goal scorer in the minors.
“We’ve always been a team,” he said, “where ice time is earned, not given based on if you’re drafted in the first round or the fifth round.
“It’s based on how you perform. If you’re out-performing a guy with more experience, you’re going to play. That message has been established from the start of last year. It doesn’t matter what your contract status is. If you’re performing at the level at which we want you to play, ahead of player B, you’re going to be in the lineup.”