Heisinger says it will be a younger team next season as Jets look to develop bluechips
Craig Heisinger, general manager of the St. John's IceCaps, speaks with members of the media during a press conference at Mile One Centre Wednesday morning. Heisinger, also the assistant GM of the Winnipeg Jets, suggested the IceCaps could be a younger team next year as more Jets prospects will be sent to St. John’s, not only to help the IceCaps win, but to season them for a move to the NHL one day.
— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Considering it’s been less than a week since the 2012-13 season came to an unceremonious end, Craig Heisinger says it’s still a bit too early to determine what changes will be made to the St. John’s IceCaps’ roster during the off-season.
But make no mistake, there will be changes, and the IceCaps will probably be getting younger.
“At the end of the day, ultimately what it’s all about is the Winnipeg Jets getting better,” said Heisinger, the Jets assistant general manager and IceCaps’ GM, at a season-ending news gathering at Mile One Centre Wednesday morning. “But I will preface that by saying it’s important to win at the American league level because that’s how your young players get better.
“We do need to develop some young players who are going to play in Winnipeg, and they do need to get that opportunity by playing in St. John’s, and taking their lumps while doing it. We will do our best by providing a core group of veteran guys who can provide leadership and get us back over the No. 8 (playoff spot) line, but we are going to try to play a number of younger players and develop some guys to play in Winnipeg.”
What that means is graduating junior forwards Adam Lowry, who looked good in a late-season, nine-game stint in St. John’s, Lukas Sutter and Austen Brassard, and defenceman Zach Yuen could see plenty of playing time in St. John’s next season, along with Ivan Telegin, whose rookie year with the IceCaps was cut short to 34 games because of a concussion, and the IceCaps’ top rookie this season, defenceman Julian Melchiori.
And that’s not even mentioning highly-touted Jacub Trouba, the ninth overall pick last year currently in Winnipeg after spending one season at the University of Michigan, and Mark Scheifele, the seventh pick in the 2011 draft, whose availability depends on what happens at the Jets’ training camp.
The sting of finishing out of the playoffs was still resonating with Heisinger Wednesday. This year marks the first time in the 15-year history of the IceCaps/Manitoba Moose franchise — dating back to the old International Hockey League — the organization has been on the outside looking in at the post season.
The IceCaps finished 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference this year, going 32-36-3-5. Last season, their first in St. John’s following the transfer of the Moose to Newfoundland, the IceCaps reached the Conference final.
Much was expected of the IceCaps this year who, on paper at least, appeared to have a team as good as last year’s club, or better.
But lackluster play by key personnel early on, the loss of defencemen Paul Postma, Zach Redmond and, later, Derek Meech to the Jets following the lockout, and mounting injuries contributed to the IceCaps’ undoing.
That St. John’s had the fewest wins and most losses on home ice than any other American league team didn’t help matters, either.
“Back-to-back games at home are always a challenge,” Heisinger said. “It was a challenge in Manitoba, and it continues to be a challenge here. Probably a bit more of a challenge. But it’s something we have do a better job at, that’s for sure.”
Most of the regulars on the IceCaps’ roster will be free agents come July 1. Some, like captain Jason Jaffray, goaltender Mark Dekanich and forward Aaron Gagnon (currently with the Jets), are unrestricted free agents, free to sign anywhere (although Heisinger did give the impression the door is open to Jaffray if he wishes to return).
But most are restricted free agents, meaning Winnipeg can retain negotiating rights with a qualifying offer, which also comes with a 10 per cent pay hike.
Among the RFAs are Eddie Pasquale, Jason Gregoire, Patrice Cormier, Will O’Neill, Tomas Kubalik, Eric O’Dell, Ben Maxwell and Maxime Macenauer. Others, like Dean Arsene, Ray Sawada, Travis Ramsey, Hunter Tremblay and Kael Mouillierat played on AHL contracts this year which expire.
“When you have seasons like this, some guys take advantage of opportunity and give you something to think about,” Heisinger said. “There were guys who obviously had good years, but not on a great team, so you take that into consideration. You can’t take away what Eric O’Dell did, or Kael Mouillierat.”
O’Dell blossomed in his second year, leading the IceCaps in scoring with 29 goals and 55 points. Mouillierat was a pleasant surprise, registering 42 points in the 50 games he appeared in following a December recall from the ECHL.
Heisinger admitted he’s in a unique and different situation as GM of the IceCaps and assistant GM of the NHL club, wrestling with thoughts and ideas on how to make both teams better without hurting either club.
“In the Manitoba days, when I was GM of the Moose, we were an independent team with Vancouver’s (AHL) franchise. It’s interesting here because we own the (IceCaps) franchise and we need to develop some young players for things to get better in Winnipeg. So, I’m sort of fighting with myself instead of fighting with the Canucks ... you fight with yourself about what might be best vs fighting with your affiliate.
“The last two years have been a learning curve of having your own American league franchise, and finding that line in the sand between winning and developing. In our history, we have never missed the playoffs, ever. We’ll do our best to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
The IceCaps’ training camp, by the way, opens five months from now in mid-September, probably around the 22nd or the 23rd.