I’ve been out of commission for the last little while, with too much idle time on my hands, so it was nice to get a visit the other day from Robin Short, who blessedly — outside the requisite “How are you doing?” and resulting answer — quickly moved the conversation to something other than medical matters.
“Now, I’m going to ask you what everyone is asking me about the IceCaps,” he began. “What’s wrong with them?”
Thinking about it now, I came up with a surprisingly quick answer, seeing as I haven’t been around the team recently, haven’t seen them play live in more than a month and have only managed to catch a couple periods on TV and a few more via radio. That’s it, other than following Robin’s and Kenn Oliver’s coverage in The Telegram, and the game summaries.
I believe it was actually one of the latter — the summary of Saturday’s home game against the Worcester Sharks — that led to my rapid reply.
“Power-play,” I replied. “They need a power-play quarterback.”
The telling point was the first period of that game at Mile One, when St. John’s got five straight man-advantage opportunities, generating one goal from those chances. Instead of putting away a Worcester team that doesn’t have much in the way of offence, the IceCaps had allowed the Sharks to hang around the harbour and eventually swim away with a shootout win.
Actually, I meant another QB for the PP, given that rookie Brenden Kichton has been a revelation in the role; he’s already a very good player at the American Hockey League level and perhaps will someday be so in the NHL.
But Kichton seems to be the only one who can adequately play the part right now. Will O’Neill has been tried — and O’Neill has indeed tried — but represents a last-ditch fallback. Maybe even more to the point about problems on the point: The ongoing use of forwards back there — including that of first-year pro JC Lipon — is an admission that there are limited options among the rearguards.
Some allowance here that some official stats don’t really back my contention, since the IceCaps’ power-play is ranked a creditable ninth in the AHL, clicking just below the 20 per cent success rate that’s considered a fair median in the category. However, while St. John’s has scored 18 man-advantage goals, it’s also given up six short-handed tallies, washing out a third of its PP markers and indicating — in some instances — the perils of forwards playing the point.
Also, the IceCaps are a team that can really benefit from a top-drawer power play since St. John’s has been so good at drawing penalties, earning the third-highest number of opportunities in the league so far.
That’s key against a club like Worcester, one of the IceCaps’ most frequent opponents this season. The Sharks have plenty of big bodies who play a stifling, punishing defensive style, but a style that also can lead them into penalty trouble. And for a St. John’s team that has seen so many close games — 12 of its 17 games have decided by a single goal or by a wider margin including an empty-net goal — a few more power-play successes here and there could make a huge difference in the points standings.
Now, a power-play boost could come from within the Winnipeg Jets’ organization since the big team’s defence — which has been missing Zach Bogosian, Jacob Trouba, Mark Stuart and Paul Postma — is getting healthier. The return of those players should bump some bodies back to St. John’s and if one of them turns out to be Zach Redmond, it will be a huge help to the IceCaps, and not just on the power play.
But maybe the Jets would still consider what took place at this point in the AHL season two years ago, when the Tampa Bay Lightning decided that their Norfolk Admirals affiliate, with a decent 13-9-2 record and a great power-play defenceman in Mark Barberio, could be even better and swung a deal that brought in offensive rearguard Mike Kostka, which most agree was a big part of the reason Norfolk was able to make a run all the way to a Calder Cup title.
The argument may be made by some that in the AHL, with its lean towards the development of players for the National Hockey League no matter a team’s record, winning should not be the paramount concern. But isn’t it also agreed that winning, and learning to win, is part of development, especially when it leads into the pressure and passion of what could be a long playoff run?
The IceCaps are deep at forward, have a defensive unit (we’re strictly talking the defensive side here) that’s somewhat better than expected (at least that’s the view from here) and Eddie Pasquale is a horse who is back to looking more like goalie he was in his first year in St. John’s.
The IceCaps may be a .500 team right now, but they’re not far away from being one that’s much, much better.
Maybe just one player away.
Defenceman Zach Bell, who signed an AHL contract with St. John’s out of the IceCaps training camp before being assigned to the ECHL, is back in the Ontario Hockey League after a trade this week that saw his rights dealt from the North Bay Battalion to the London Knights.
For the 20-year-old Bell, who had requested a trade, it’s a great opportunity since the Knights — with former St. John’s Maple Leafs head coach Mark Hunter behind the bench and as co-owner with brother Dale — are guaranteed a Memorial Cup berth as hosts.
Not that the Knights look like the type that can only enjoy the party because they’ll be throwing it; they’re already 15-5-2 and received another blueline reinforcement in the past week with the re-assignment of defenceman Nikita Zadarov from the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
Coming to London also brings Bell closer to his Brampton, Ont., home. The overage defenceman was born in St. John’s and grew up in Ontario, but he has a passel of relatives in Newfoundland (including Pam Druken) who will be following his progress all the way to the CHL championship tourney.
Unfortunately, I won’t get be able to drop in for a bit Saturday night to watch friends Glenn Stanford and John Browne officially enter the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Hall of Fame. All this year’s inductees are deserving, but you will understand my particular interest in Stanford, the chief operating officer of the IceCaps, and Browne, whose desk has been beside or across from mine at The Telegram for more than two decades.
For Glenn, who was part of Alan Ross’s national under-18 championship team in the mid 1970s (yes, I know you are all now doing the math when it comes to his age) and was later a standout for Memorial University and Holy Cross senior sides, this should be the first of a number of Hall calls. Basketball, you should be up next.
As for JB, we have wonderful sympatico when it comes to pop culture, have differing views and good banter about a great deal of other subjects, which has all contributed, in my opinion, to us being good work buddies. This in turn has allowed me, among other things, to bear witness to John Browne, the soccer enthusiast. As a journalist, he can’t really be a fan, but he is an unparalleled supporter of the sport. Even more so, he’s a tremendous supporter for Newfoundland soccer, which makes his induction all the more worthwhile.
Finally, a quick note to all of you who have been sending words, notes and phone messages of encouragement as I work my way through some health issues. I was already in the best of hands, but I can assure you all the goodwill will only expedite the process of my getting back into the swing of things.
I hope you will be able to feel a little of the heartfelt thanks that comes in return from this corner.