IceCaps hopeful a combination of familiar and fresh faces will improve team's fortunes
Three years ago, during the 2010-11 hockey season, Binghamton, N.Y. won its first Calder Cup championship. The next season, the Senators fell all the way to bottom of the American Hockey League standings, and out of the playoffs. Last season, Bingo finished fourth in the league’s Eastern Conference.
© — Telegram file photo
Jason Jaffray takes up position in front of the Toronto Marlies net during an AHL game last season at Mile One Centre in St. John’s. The IceCaps’ captain is back for his third season with the club and will likely be joined on a top line with newcomers Jerome Samson and Andrew Gordon, both of whom bring NHL experience.
The Providence Bruins — the team the St. John’s IceCaps will open their new season against tonight at Mile One Centre — were the class of the AHL during the 2012-13 regular season, with a league-high 105 points. The year before, Providence was on the outside looking in at the playoff dance, for the third straight year.
So IceCaps fans can some solace from the fact that in the American Hockey League, sometimes the only constant is change itself.
Gone from last year’s team are veterans Jason King (retired, now an assistant coach), Ben Maxwell (Finland), Aaron Gagnon (Sweden), Derek Meech (Russia), Jason Gregoire (Sweden), Travis Ramsey (Italy), Maxime Macenauer (in Hamilton’s AHL camp) and Ray Sawada.
The IceCaps suffered through a rough 2012-13 campaign (32-36-3-5), languishing near the bottom of the East before closing out the year 14th of 15 teams in the conference.
Why? Pick your choice of excuses, but the team’s plethora of injuries didn’t help, and neither did a lack of production from players who were supposed to score.
It’s a new season, and a relative new look for the IceCaps, who reached the Eastern Conference final in their inaugural season.
The biggest area of change on the IceCaps lies in the group of forwards.
McCambridge said St. John’s hoped to get quicker and more physical with additions over the summer, and he feels the IceCaps accomplished that with Andrew Gordon, a player destined to become a team captain some day, Jerome Samson and Blair Riley.
Since training camp opened, Gordon — who’s appeared in 55 NHL games, including six with Vancouver last season — has been skating with team captain Jason Jaffray and Samson, a six-year pro who toiled for the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers the past three years, and the Albany River Rats three years prior to that.
“Andrew Gordon is a proven depth player in the NHL, a proven guy who can play games in the National league and be a top-end player in the American league. His leadership and work ethic are outstanding,” McCambridge said.
“And Jason Jaffray, well, you know what you’re getting every single practice, every single game. Jerome Samson is a straight line player who possess the speed that we want to have ... a high skill guy who is going to look at that depth role between Winnipeg and here.”
The trio of Eric O’Dell, Kael Mouillierat and Josh Lunden should produce plenty of goals and assists for St. John’s this season. O’Dell led the team last year with 29 goals and 55 points, and Mouillierat had 11 goals and 42 points in only 55 games following a callup from the ECHL. Lunden finished the 2012-13 season with five goals and four assists in his last nine games. Lunden also split 2012-13 between St. John’s and the ECHL.
A wild card could be rookie Adam Lowry, a 6-5 centre who can skate and score (45 goals, 88 points last season in the Western Hockey League).
McCambridge is particularly high on his grinders, lunchpail lines that sometimes make the difference in close games, particularly come playoff time.
“We want to have a third or fourth line that we can put out on the ice which is going to seize momentum back to our side,” he said, “through the forecheck, being physical, playing with an edge.
“Blair Riley is good two-way solid player who can play the game both ways,” he said of the former Bridgeport Sound Tiger, “and John Albert has lots of speed and plays a two-way physical game. You can put Ryan Schnell and Patrice Cormier in and out of that mix.
“It would be nice to get a full season out of Johnny Albert. Last year a writeoff for the poor guy (he was limited to 24 games because of injury). He makes players around him better, and he does that by how hard he competes every shift.”
Barring some kind of shocker, chances are Zach Redmond will be the IceCaps’ leader in minutes played this season. Question is, how long will he be in St. John’s?
Redmond got the call from Winnipeg last season, and was settling in nicely with a goal and three assists in eight games. Then, during a practice on Feb. 21, Redmond was rushed to a hospital after lacerating the femoral artery and vein, just above the right knee, after getting cut by teammate Antti Miettinen’s skate.
Since turning pro two years ago out of Ferris State University, Redmond has 16 goals and 50 points in 113 AHL games.
There’s a belief among some insiders the Jets would like to see him get 20-25 games in St. John’s, and showing full recovery, before an NHL promotion.
If there’s a word to describe the IceCaps’ blueline corps, it would be youthful.
Ben Chiarot is a third-year pro, though he spent half of the 2011-12 season in the ECHL. Julian Melchiori, Will O’Neill and big Cody Sol are second-year players, with Sol splitting last season between the IceCaps and ECHL.
Brenden Kichton is a 21-year-old rookie who was the Western Hockey League’s top defenseman last season with 22 goals and 85 points.
St. John’s still has at least five other rearguards on the roster, and there’s a chance Bonavista native Adam Pardy could be reassigned to St. John’s when Grant Clitsome returns to the Jets from the DL. Pardy cleared waivers last week.
“I always believe that you learn a lot about a player in their second and third years,” McCambridge said. “Julian Melchiori is a second-year player, and we’ll learn where he is. All indications were positive last year. Ben Chiarot played the majority in the ECHL his first year, so he’s on the bubble as a second year guy.
“These are prospects on the back end that the organization is excited about, but they have to learn the pro game. There are going to be bumps along the way. But they have some real building blocks that can make them NHLers.”
One familiar face around the IceCaps’ locker room is Eddie Pasquale, who will assume the lion’s share of work between the pipes.
This will probably be Pasquale’s last season in St. John’s with Al Montoya, the backup to Andrej Pavelec in Winnipeg, slated to become a free agent next season.
“He knows his next step is to start with the Jets as a backup goaltender,” St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge said, “and as an organization, we would like to see him make that jump.”
Pasquale didn’t finish in the top 10 in any of the goalie stats last season, perhaps a reflection of the IceCaps’ 237 goals allowed, the third-highest total in the league. Pasquale, 22, finished 15-23 with a 2.79 goals against average and .907 save percentage.
“Two years ago,” McCambridge said, “he had an outstanding season, taking over No. 1 from the other two goalies (David Aebischer and Peter Mannino) down the stretch.
“Last year, there were real flashes of seeing that goaltender again. In the preseason, at Winnipeg’s camp and here, I like where his intensity is and where his competitiveness is. So yes, there is a comfort level of having Eddie Pasquale in the net.”
Backing up Pasquale will be Jussi Olkinuora. The Finnish puckstop played NCAA hockey with the University of Denver the past two seasons. The third goaltender at camp, Michael Hutchinson, who stopped pucks for Providence the past three seasons, going 13-13-3 with a 2.30 GAA last year, was optioned to the Ontario (Calif.) Reign of the ECHL on Thursday.
The IceCaps need to make Mile One Centre a much more difficult rink in which teams visit. Last year, St. John’s was 13-19-3-3 at home. Even in their first season, when the IceCaps finished third overall in the league, the team was 20-15-3-0 at Mile One.
And while the power play has been middle of the road, at best, the penalty kill is another matter. Last season, the IceCaps had the fourth-worst PK in the league, and were 29th of 30 teams on the kill on home ice.
“We have to make this building a harder building to play in,” McCambridge said. “That’s something we’ve talked about as a coaching staff, and something we’re addressed with the players.
“In order to have success, you have to win your games at home. We were fortunate the first year when we were lights out on the road, but our home record was still not at a level that we want.”
The IceCaps play host to the Bruins in the home opener 7:30 tonight, with Game 2 of the series going 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Next weekend, the IceCaps are on the road in Hamilton and Toronto, but are back to play host to the Hershey Bears Oct. 18-19.