Exciting News, plus Updated Roster Analysis

It has only been a few months since IceMenManiacs.com came into existence, but we’ve already managed to turn some heads in the hockey world. First, it was the incomparable Icethetics hockey blog (do yourself a favor and bookmark it if you haven’t already) giving us a shout-out for our IceMen jersey coverage. Then, The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette‘s Justin Cohn directed Komets fans to our humble little blog for details about the IceMen arena deal. And now, we have some truly exciting news to share!

We are incredibly proud to announce that IceMenManiacs.com will now be providing content for ProHockeyNews.com, one of the world’s leading websites for professional hockey coverage. The site logged over 1.64 million hits during the 2010-11 hockey season, and is on pace to record 2.75 million views during the 2011 calendar year. Instead of simply regurgitating team press releases, PHN strives to provide its readers with original content written by freelance writers, many located directly in each team’s city.

The folks at PHN approached us about “working the IceMen beat” for them, and we were thrilled to accept their offer. Dixie and I will both be submitting articles and features, at least one each month but probably a bit more than that. We will also be permitted to “simulcast” our complete stories right here on IceMenManiacs.com, with a link to the PHN version of the story included for each. So please, bookmark PHN and the PHN CHL page – and as always, keep checking back here on IceMenManiacs.com for lots of exclusive IceMen analysis and features!

So, without further ado, here is our first submission for PHN. With training camp now just over a week away, it’s a piece analyzing the current IceMen roster. It does repeat some small portions from our roster story last month, but there’s a lot of new and updated/expanded info as well, so please give it a read!

 

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Written for ProHockeyNews.com and re-published with permission.

What a difference a year makes.

As fans of the Broadway musical RENT are well aware, one calendar year consists of 525,600 minutes.

IceMen fans have about that many reasons to feel good about their team these days, as Evansville’s second CHL season rapidly approaches.

The team will debut a new home arena – the $127-million Ford Center, located in the heart of Downtown Evansville. With a seating capacity of over 9000 for hockey, the brand-new facility will seem like a completely different world compared to the team’s previous home, the 1500-seat Swonder Ice Arena. Swonder, a fine recreational rink that was never intended to host professional hockey, will continue to serve as the team’s primary practice facility.

There’s also an updated team logo, a new trio of jerseys that eschews black in favor of blues, an expanded front office staff, a relocated team office that is within walking distance of Ford Center, a redesigned team website, a new fan site and blog (that would be us here at IceMenManiacs.com), and a new radio network that will bring IceMen game broadcasts to thousands of additional listeners throughout the region.

But all of the off-ice improvements will mean little if the quality of the on-ice product fails to equate. Luckily for IceMen fans, the upgrades to the team roster may prove to be even greater than all of the off-ice advancements.

 

Just how different might things be this season?

Consider that on August 22, 2010, Rich Kromm was in just his third day on the job as IceMen General Manager and Head Coach. The organization had not yet announced a single player signing. The roster would not reach 19 players until September 25, just a week prior to training camp. The IceMen got off to a respectable 7-5-1 start when the season began, but ultimately struggled with injuries and inconsistent play, finishing 21-32-13 as the only Turner Conference team that failed to qualify for the CHL playoffs.

Fast-forward one year to August 22, 2011. With time and a host of new recruiting tools on his side, Kromm already had a complete roster (19 players) signed, a full 7 weeks before training camp. Now, with camp still more than a week away, there are 25 players under contract and the team expects to have 30 hit the ice for two-a-days starting October 10.

 

Barring any surprises in training camp, it appears as if Evansville’s 10 game-day forward slots are set.

Newcomer Todd Robinson (99 points for Odessa last season) joins returnees Nicklas Lindberg and Brian Bicek as the team’s most potent offensive threats. Robinson has topped the 100-point mark five times in his lengthy pro career, with an astounding 1134 total points in 805 games played. Lindberg topped Evansville with 69 points last season, while Bicek scored a team-high 27 goals (with 61 total points) and was the team’s lone representative in the CHL All-Star Game, in which he posted a natural hat trick.

Also offering some punch are a pair of transplants from Europe, each with more than 250 pro games to his credit. Both John Ronan (52 points in 34 games) and Brad Smulders (41 points in 40 games) lit up the scoresheet in Holland last season. Ronan has significant experience at the “Double-A” level, highlighted by a 64-point season (including 30 goals) with the IHL’s Flint Generals in 2009-10. Smulders, an Ontario native, has spent his entire 7-year pro career in Holland, having averaged at least a point per game each season.

The talent runs deep on the forward lines, with three young veterans looking to take their games to the next level. Matt Pierce joined the IceMen midway through the 2010-11 season (his fourth as a pro), then racked up 19 points in just 27 games. Sean O’Connor comes to Evansville after piling up 60 goals and 76 assists over three seasons with the Fort Wayne Komets. And Josh Beaulieu joins the IceMen by way of Rapid City, where he notched 26 points last season while making his CHL debut after spending three years in the AHL.

Rounding out the “front lines” are a pair of guys who bring plenty of toughness to the fray. Fan favorite Mark Cody is back for a second season in Evansville, after tying for the team lead in Fighting majors and showing his versatility by manning the blueline on several occasions when injuries decimated the IceMen defensive corps. Cody is joined by veteran newcomer Mike Sgroi, a legitimate “heavyweight” with 523 games of pro experience. Sgroi is known primarily for knocking knuckles, but should not be passed off as “just” an enforcer. During the 2007-08 season in the ECHL, Sgroi piled up 257 penalty minutes but also scored 25 goals and added 22 assists.

 

At the other end of the ice, the Top 6 defensemen are essentially locked in and the starting goaltender job is relatively secure as well.

On defense, the “greybeard” of the group is Quebec native Philippe Plante, who has played 783 pro games and is coming off of his fifth consecutive 30-point season. (Plante played with Robinson in Odessa last year.) Fellow new arrivals Steve Makway (43 points and 147 penalty minutes in 2007-08) and Matt Gens (53 points and 83 penalty minutes in 2008-09) also have “Double-A” experience and a history of strong offensive production.

The blueline will not be without familiar faces, however. Jordan Little (15 points and 142 penalty minutes last season) returns for the back half of the 2-year deal he signed last summer. Jake Obermeyer (24 points) and Nick Schneider (18 points and a team-best +/- rating) also return. Schneider was considered by many IceMen fans to be the MVP of the Evansville defense last season.

Between the pipes, Pier-Olivier Pelletier was acquired via trade from the Laredo Bucks and is in line to be the top goaltender in Evansville. His numbers last season (3.42 Goals-Against Average with an .890 Save Percentage) were nothing to write home about, but the woeful Bucks went just 24-34-8 and joined the IceMen as the only two CHL teams to miss the playoffs. A year earlier, Pelletier’s rookie season was much more impressive, as he sported a 2.88 GAA with a strong .915 SV% for a better Laredo team that finished 32-20-12.

 

So in all likelihood, only two active roster spots are up for grabs as training camp opens, and one of those is the backup goaltender gig.

A pair of rookies – and likely one more player to be signed before camp – will fight over the netminding job. The favorite so far may be 23-year old Bryan Gillis, who posted some solid stats in the Canadian Junior-A and College ranks. Gillis’ best junior season came in 2008-09 in the BCHL, where he went 22-13-1 with a 2.83 GAA and .906 SV%. His only known competition at this time is Jonathan Willumsen, a 22-year old with several years of experience on the Denmark junior hockey scene.

With only one other spot remaining, Kromm may elect to keep another defenseman for depth purposes. Adam Knopp could have the upper hand after proving himself to be a reliable contributor during his 16-game stint with the IceMen late last season. Matt Caranci hopes to move up from the “Single-A” Federal Hockey League, where he made his pro debut and notched 24 points in 29 games last season. And Finland’s Atte Rajajarvi aims to make the move to North America after spending several seasons in European junior leagues, totalling 45 points in 123 games.

Should Kromm decide to roster an 11th forward, he has some promising options from which to choose. Rookie Dustin Johnson scored 35 goals and added 32 assists in just 52 games during his last full season of Junior-A hockey in Canada. Matt Schermund recorded 53 points in 55 games over two seasons at Ryerson University (CIS) after spending three full seasons in the WHL (Major Junior-A). Also in the mix is Zach Tatrn, who tallied 34 points in 172 games over four seasons in the OHL (Major Junior-A).

 

Championships aren’t won during the off-season, but they can certainly be lost when the heat and humidity have not yet given way to “hockey weather.” And thanks to an incredibly productive summer, the Evansville IceMen should have a legitimate shot at claiming the 2011-12 CHL crown.

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