For the defence: How the IceCaps’ blueline shapes up after a flurry of recent signings

Published on August 13, 2014
In this Jan 25, 2013 file photo, St. John’s IceCaps’ winger Carl Klingberg (48) and Hershey Bears’ defenceman Julien Brouillette chase the puck during American Hockey League action in Hershey, Pa. There’s a very good chance Brouillette and Klingberg will be teammates on the IceCaps this season now that Brouillette has signed a two-way free-agent contract with the Winnipeg Jets.
Associated Press file photo/Lebanon Daily News

From time to time this summer, we’ve updated and analyzed the roster of the St. John’s IceCaps as it’s expanded with signings and re-signings. Now, we’re getting to the point where we can concentrate on a specific position.
Given all the recent transactional activity involving defencemen, the bluleine is a good place to start.

Three weeks ago, the parent Winnipeg Jets had only five defenceman under contract who could be seen as candidates to play in St. John’s next season. That number has since risen to nine — six with two-way NHL deals and three under American Hockey League contracts. You could add in St. John’s native Chris Owens, who isn’t signed, but has been invited to the IceCaps’ training camp late next month, and there certainly will be others coming to the Jets’ and IceCaps’ camps — at least on a try-out basis, who will be in the mix.


The returnees

No fewer than six defencemen who played with St. John’s last season are back in the Jets/IceCaps fold, and for an AHL team, that’s a pretty good return ratio. Ben Chiarot, selected as the IceCaps’ top rearguard in 2013-13, Julian Melchiori, Will O’Neill and Brenden Kichton all have NHL deals, with O’Neill getting a bump-up from an AHL contract after a superb performance in the last half of the regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

Jordan Hill and Kris Fredheim will operate under AHL deals. Neither is expected to bring much in the way of offence — between them, they produced one goal and 16 assists in a total of 116 regular-season games in 2013-14 — but both proved steady in their own end.

Fredheim’s re-signing may be viewed as at least a mild surprise to some. He really struggled at times during the playoffs, and only played in 11 of St. John’s 21 post-season games. However, before going down with an injury in late January, one that sidelined him for two months, he was as dependable a defenceman as the IceCaps had and a big minutes-eater. What’s more, he’s a right-handed shot, joining Kichton as the only ones of our IceCaps candidates to fall under that category.

Speaking of Kichton, he and O’Neill will be looked upon to provide the offence lost when Zach Redmond left the Jets organization to sign as a free agent with the Colorado Avalanche. Not that either didn’t put up points last season — O’Neill registered 36 (9G, 27A) in 68 games and Kichton had 48 (10G, 38A) while playing a full 76-game schedule.

Kichton also appeared in the AHL All-Star Game and earned a spot on the league’s end-of-the-season all-rookie team, but his offensive production slowed down considerably in the last 12 weeks of the schedule — he had just one goal and eights assists over the final 32 regular-season games. Not that this is unusual for players — especially defencemen — adjusting to the grind of the pro schedule along with the jump-up from the junior ranks, but the IceCaps have to be counting on it being one-year anomaly.


The newcomers

Undrafted Ralfs Freibergs impressed as an invitee to the Jets’ summer prospects camp last month and is turning pro with an AHL contract after a couple of years at Bowling Green State University.

The 23-year-old has spent the last five seasons in the United States (including three in the junior A ranks), but has plenty of international experience with teams representing his native Latvia — two world junior championships, one world seniors and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Freibergs had three goals and 19 assists in 37 games with Bowling Green last season, and although those might be seen as fairly modest numbers, he was tabbed as the Falcons’ top offensive defenceman and has the reputation as an adept puck-mover. He’s not the same sort of player as fellow Latvian and former IceCap defenceman Arturs Kulda, but St. John’s fans have to be hoping for similar positive results.

The IceCaps also have to hope that the distraction of International Ice Hockey Federation sanctions imposed on Freibergs because of a positive doping test in Sochi will have ended by the time next season starts. Freibergs is challenging the result which showed the presence of a steroid in his system and a final IIHF hearing on the matter is scheduled for next month. Whatever comes out of that adjudication, it should not affect his professional status.

At 5-11, 190 pounds Freibergs has similar dimensions to the 5-11, 185-pound Julien Brouillette, who also possesses some skill with the puck.

But more than anything, Brouillette is known as a player with a tremendous work ethic, one that helped him rise from an undrafted junior out of  Chicoutimi of the QMJHL, through three-and-a-half years in the ECHL and four more in the AHL before earning his first NHL deal and a subsequent call-up to the Washington Capitals last season, making his big-league debut as a 27-year-old and appearing in 10 games for the Caps. It also helped him earn a one-year, two-way, free-agent deal with Winnipeg.


 The wild cards

As a 19-year-old, Josh Morrissey, who performed so well for the IceCaps during their Calder Cup playoff run, isn’t eligible to play in the AHL until his junior team’s 2014-15 season is finished, but he can play in the NHL this coming season. If he does crack the Jets’ lineup this fall, his presence could very well push a player to St. John’s.

If so, that player might be Keaton Ellerby.

Mind you, Ellerby hasn’t played in the AHL since 2010-11, and was useful, if not prolific, for the Jets in 51 games last season. There is also the matter of Ellerby, the 10th overall pick by Florida in 2007, having to clear waivers. However, he will also be operating on a two-way contract after re-signing with Winnipeg as an unrestricted free agent in July.



Putting aside Ellerby, four of the defencemen named above — Chiarot, Melchiori, Fredheim and Brouillette — have played in the NHL, but between them total only 15 games in The Show: Brouillette’s 10, three for Fredheim with the Minnesota Wild and one each for Chiarot and Melchiori with Winnipeg last season ... Defenceman Cody Lampl, who spent all last season with St. John’s and appeared in 38 —  or exactly half — of the IceCaps’ games in 2013-14, has signed a contract with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye. However, that doesn’t preclude a return to St. John’s or any other AHL team; he was signed with the Walleye when he made the IceCaps on a tryout last fall ... Still with defencemen who have played with St. John’s: Big six-foot-six Cody Sol, who suited up in 27 games for the IceCaps over the last two seasons (just one game in 2013-14), has been signed by the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets. Sol became an unrestricted free agent after the Jets didn’t make him a qualifying offer earlier this summer ...