Lethbridge: Plenty of positives to take from IceCaps inaugural season

By: Stephen Lethbridge, Contributing Writer
@stephenleth

While the inaugural season of the St. John’s IceCaps, the AHL’s newest franchise and affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets, is officially over, in hindsight, there are plenty of positives to take from their season.

(M. Richter/Flickr)

Despite being swept out of the Calder Cup playoffs by the Norfolk Admirals, who won its last 28 games heading into the playoffs, setting a new record for pro ice hockey in North America, St. John’s arguably overachieved this season.

It is rare to see any sports team excel in their first season of existence. A level of comfort usually has to be established before a team can get to work. There’s a feeling out process, as players get used to their new surroundings. One would think this would be especially so in a place like Newfoundland, a place that has such a robust personality. But in their first season, the IceCaps were solid throughout and captured the Atlantic division title, the fifth team to win the division in as many years.

They finished the season with a 43-25-5 record, playing especially good away from Mile One at times, including a 5-1 road swing at the end of January.

The team’s success this season could mean great things are in store for the Jets in the coming seasons. The team has 7 unrestricted free agents to deal with this summer, including key players like Jim Slater, Kyle Wellwood and back up goaltender Chris Mason, so it’s likely that some roster spots will be filled by IceCaps, especially considering the solid play of many IceCaps this past season.

Forward Spencer Machacek was a stand out this year, leading the team with 50 points in 61 games this year. That marks two straight seasons with at least 50 points for Machacek. More impressive, is Machacek’s 9 points in 13 games in the NHL this season. The former third rounder turns 24 in October, so he still has upside potential and time to grow as a player, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Machacek get more time with the Jets next season, especially considering 30 year old winger Tim Stapleton is set to become a UFA on July 1.

Another bright spot for the IceCaps this year was starting goaltender Eddie Pasquale. Eddie put together a solid regular season, appearing in 38 games and taking over the starter role from David Aebischer down the stretch. He posted a 23-12-2-1 record this past season, just the second of his pro career, with a 2.41 goals against average and 0.911 save percentage, in addition to 4 shut outs. But it was in the post-season that Pasquale really shone.

His stats did take a hit in the Eastern conference final series vs. Norfolk, but he still posted a 0.923 save percentage in 15 playoff games. In fact, his save percentage was north of 0.930 heading into the Eastern Conference final series against the Admirals, exemplar of his solid play.

With Chris Mason’s contract expiring this summer and Peter Mannino and Chris Carrozzi appearing in some IceCaps games this past year, it seems like Pasquale may be backing up Ondrej Pavelec next season.

One area of the Jets line up that could use some consolidation is their production from their defensemen. While Dustin Byfuglien put up 53 points in 66 games this past year, the team could still use some offense from their blue line. Paul Postma would help to accomplish this. He was second on the team in scoring with 44 points, and possesses a wicked shot that could help to solidify the Jets’ powerplay, which was not necessarily bad last season, along with good vision on the ice. He’s also capable of joining the rush, although this sometimes results in chances going the other way.

Another d-man the Jets might call up for next season is hard-hitting Latvian Arturs Kulda. Kulda served a decent stint with the Jets this past season, playing in 9 games between November 14 and December 6. He was plus-3 during that time. Kulda lead the IceCaps this past season in plus/minus, at plus-18. This is an area of his game that Kulda has excelled at in the past, as well.

Formerly, he lead the AHL in plus/minus, in the 2009-10 season with the Chicago Wolves. At 6’2, he’s another big body that the Jets could use to solidify their defensive core. Kulda, along with Postma and Machacek, is set to become a restricted free agent this summer.
That’s not mentioning all the other players that made the IceCaps great this season. Swedish forward Carl Klingberg lead the offensive charge early in the season and also contributed with physical play, and players like John Albert, Kevin Clark, Jason Gregoire, Garth Murray and Aaron Gagnon played key roles for the team throughout the season in all kinds of situations.

The IceCaps were one of the deepest teams in the AHL this season. While Spencer Machacek was the only player on the team to break 50 points, there were a total of 11 players in the roster who had at least 30 points this past season. And when players weren’t contributing on the scoreboard, they were chipping in in other ways, sacrificing the body, playing hard, and killing penalties.

The unfortunate nature of the AHL is that it’s rare to see an unchanged group of players from one season to the next. Between free agency and being called up to the NHL, chances are that the IceCaps will look very different next year.

Besides the 12 free agents the Jets have to deal with, key players for the IceCaps such as captain Jason Jaffray, Ben Maxwell, Derek Meech, Brett Festerling, and the trio of Machacek, Kulda and Postma are all set to enter into free agency, unrestricted or not.

There are things to look forward to, though, for fans of both the Jets and the IceCaps. Mark Scheifele is likely to make the jump to pro hockey next year, after drawing into the IceCaps lineup for the playoffs. He tallied 63 points in 47 games with the OHL’s Barrie Colts this season, and had a point per game in the World Junior Championships this past January.

Scheifele has great playmaking abilities, exemplified in the chemistry he had with Tanner Pearson, his teammate in Barrie this season, who was third in the OHL with 91 points. Other young talent, like Klingberg and Patrice Cormier should be back with the team next year, as well.

The success of the IceCaps this season is encouraging for a number of reasons.

First, the AHL being back in St. John’s is good for both the city and the league. St. John’s has sorely missed pro hockey since the departure of the St. John’s Maple Leafs in 2005. The presence of the club has rejuvenated the city, giving its citizens a common bond. In turn, the residents of Newfoundland’s capital city rewarded the franchise and the AHL with a lengthy string of sell-outs, and approximately 80% of the stadium being booked in season ticket packages. As head coach Keith McCambridge told the Canadian Press, “I played a long time professionally, and a long time in the American League, and to see these sold-out crowds and the excitement and support we got this season really is the reason why this team was put in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The team is also proving to be a stable and fruitful training grounds for the Winnipeg Jets, a place for their future stars to hone their skills as they get ready to make the jump to the NHL. One needn’t look any further than players like Eddie Pasquale and Paul Postma to see this process in action.

More than a few changes can be expected for both squads this summer, but the future looks bright for both the Jets and the IceCaps.

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