Five gone, three coming back and, even then, one of the latter may be ticketed for a job in Winnipeg.
When it comes to the ins and outs of the St. John’s IceCaps, it’s been a busy week.
Then again, it’s been busy throughout pro hockey, what with last weekend’s National Hockey League Entry Draft and the start of NHL free agency on Tuesday, all contributing to the irony that one of the most hectic times for a sport played on ice in winter comes in the heat of early July.
For the American Hockey League’s IceCaps, that activity — at least in terms of public announcements — began Saturday when the parent Winnipeg Jets traded goaltender Eddie Pasquale to the Washington Capitals in a deal that netted the Jets a couple of seventh-round draft picks. Pasquale had been set to become a restricted free agent and Winnipeg had the option of retaining his services with a qualifying offer, but his place on the organizational depth chart had been taken by Michael Hutchinson and his standing in the organization hadn’t been helped by his February decision to undergo season-ending hip surgery, one which never seemed to have the blessing of the Jets.
Next to go was defenceman Zach Redmond, who immediately took advantage of his unrestricted free-agent status on July 1 and accepted a two-year, one-way deal with the Colorado Avalanche. He was followed by two of St. John’s four leading scorers last season — forwards Kael Mouillierat, who received an NHL deal from the New York Islanders and Andrew Gordon, who’s joining the Philadelphia Flyers’ organization.
Also leaving was rough-and-tumble winger Ryan Schnell, the product of suburban Chicago who will play in his native Illinois under an AHL contract for the Rockford Icehogs, the Blackhawks farm team, in 2014-15.
Providing some balance to those departures were three retentions.
Hutchinson, who will get an opportunity at the backup job with the Jets, got a two-year deal with Winnipeg just after becoming a free agent; forward Blair Riley, who excelled as an energy forward in St. John’s last season, tweeted he’s coming back to the IceCaps, although the deal hasn’t been formally announced; and defenceman Will O’Neill’s career comeback continued with word he had agreed on an NHL contract with Winnipeg.
It’s actually O’Neill’s second NHL deal with the Jets. He had one as a pro rookie in 2012-13, but ended up taking an AHL contract after Winnipeg declined to make him a qualifying offer a year ago. By November, his situation was looking bleak, as he was a full-time healthy scratch, left to contemplate his team-worst plus-minus rating from his press-box perch.
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Then a return to action and a remarkable turnaround. By the end of the season, O’Neill was the team’s second-leading scorer among defenceman (9-26-35) and was plus-six (it had been as low as minus-11) before rolling into the Calder Cup playoffs, where he had 16 points in 18 games to lead all AHL defencemen in the post-season.
There will be many more signings and re-signings for St. John’s in the weeks ahead. For one thing, the Jets have given qualifying offers to five other restricted free agents: forwards Eric O’Dell, Carl Klingberg, Patrice Cormier and John Albert, as well as defenceman Ben Chiarot, meaning they’re likely to stay in the organization.
Still, there’s no doubt the IceCaps took a hit in the last few days. It’s no stretch to say Gordon, Mouillierat and Redmond were three of the team’s top six skill players last season, although it was also reasonable to assume none would be coming back.
Redmond was looking for a change of scenery and a more secure NHL position after floating between the Jets and IceCaps for a year-and-a-half; Mouillierat was valued within the Jets’ organization, but not to the tune of $175,000, which is what he’ll be paid to by the Islanders play for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers; and while Gordon had been signed by the Jets a year ago with a stated view that he would provide NHL depth, he didn’t get a single call-up to Winnipeg.
The Flyers, by the way, gave Gordon a similar two-way contract ($550,000 at the NHL end, $300,000 in the minors) to the one he had last season, when his $350,000 minor-league salary was the highest of anyone playing in the AHL on a two-way deal.
The Jets need to make room for arriving recent draft choices like forwards Scott Kosmachuk and Ryan Olsen and netminder Connor Hellebuyck, while sophomore winger Austen Brassard could be in line for a bigger role next season. But there are still notable holes and veteran slots that will need filling.
Some of the that will come the signing of new faces, but there will particular interest in what transpires with all those RFAs and with captain and leading scorer Jason Jaffray, two-way forward Kyle McKinnon and defensive defenceman Jordan Hill, three players whose AHL contracts have expired.