Written for ProHockeyNews.com and re-published with permission.
(Click the link to view the story on PHN.)
“More change than a Coinstar® kiosk!”
Perhaps that should be the unofficial slogan of the IceMen. For the third straight year, IceMen fans have been witness to a number of organizational and structural changes involving their favorite team.
In 2010, the IceMen moved up to the CHL after the franchise spent its first two seasons in the Single-A All American Hockey League. Fans said goodbye to the players who blazed a new trail in Evansville hockey and delivered an AAHL championship in the team’s second season, and said hello to Head Coach and General Manager Rich Kromm and a host of new players.
In 2011, the IceMen moved from tiny Swonder Ice Arena, a 1500-seat recreational rink that was never designed to host pro hockey, to the new $127 million Ford Center in Downtown Evansville, which seats over 9000 for hockey. The franchise also updated its logo and unveiled a new color scheme and a suite of new jerseys.
This year, the IceMen enter their fifth season overall and third at the Double-A level with another new home, the ECHL. Coincident with the league switch, the IceMen bid farewell to operating as an independent team and signed a pair of significant affiliation agreements. In June, Evansville inked a deal with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and their AHL affiliates, the Springfield Falcons. Then in August, the IceMen announced an additional agreement with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and their AHL affiliates, the Peoria Rivermen.
With the IceMen officially joining the ECHL as an expansion team, Kromm faces the daunting task of trying to build a winner while also juggling player assignments from the team’s affiliates. Making his job even more difficult is the NHL’s ongoing lockout, which has resulted in an unusually high number of players “trickling down” to the ECHL and has also affixed a giant question mark to the entire roster as the season progresses. What is built early in the season may be torn down and rebuilt mid-season, depending on when the NHL’s dispute is resolved and how many assigned players “trickle up” as a result.
But while the lockout casts doubt over the future, Kromm must first worry about the here and now. Evansville’s season-opening roster consists of 22 players – 6 returning players from last season’s CHL IceMen squad, 8 new Evansville-contracted players, 4 players assigned by St. Louis and Peoria, 3 players assigned by Columbus and Springfield, and 1 player assigned by the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.
With players coming from so many directions, Kromm must expertly play the role of mad scientist in an effort to find the proper chemistry that can ignite the IceMen early in the season. Lucky for him, he appears to have a number of quality ingredients with which to experiment.
Kromm has put together a deep and talented group of forwards, which should allow him to ice a pair of speedy and skilled scoring lines along with a surprisingly dangerous energy line.
Todd Robinson leads the charge offensively, as the veteran center makes his ECHL debut in his 14th pro season. Last season, the playmaking captain led the IceMen to a 40-22-4 regular-season record and claimed the CHL scoring championship with 92 points, including a league-high 69 assists. Robinson’s professional résumé includes six 100-point seasons and three other 90-point seasons, five scoring titles, nine All-Star nods, three League MVP awards, and three post-season championships.
Also returning for his second season in Evansville is sixth-year winger Josh Beaulieu, who racked up 24 goals and 48 points (both career highs) last season while spending considerable time as Robinson’s linemate. Popular checking-line winger Mark Cody, who begins the season on the 21-day Injured Reserve list, is the team’s third and final returning forward.
Dan Gendur is the most promising import among the new Evansville-contracted forwards. The Vancouver native has played exactly 200 pro games over four seasons, splitting time between the AHL, ECHL and CHL. Last season, Gendur scored 73 points in 62 games to lead the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, finishing 7th overall in CHL scoring.
The IceMen have signed four other potent forwards who will be making their Evansville debuts this season – Dale Mahovsky (54 points in 66 games with the CHL’s Missouri Mavericks last season), Jason Dale (91 points over the past two seasons with the CHL’s Bloomington Blaze and PrairieThunder), Tyler Shelast (41 points in 53 games for the CHL’s Quad City Mallards in 2010-11), and Patrick Kennedy (19 points in 40 games with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads during his rookie year last season). Kennedy will begin the 2012-13 season on the Reserve List.
Among the forwards who have been assigned to the IceMen, winger and potential enforcer Cody Beach could attract the most attention. The 6’5″ rookie was a fifth-round draft pick of the Blues in 2010, and enters the pro ranks on the heels of a ridiculously productive final year in Major Junior hockey. Beach wrapped up his WHL career last season by playing 58 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors, piling up 56 points and 229 penalty minutes.
The Blues and Rivermen have also sent the IceMen fourth-year center Brett Sonne and third-year winger Tyler Shattock, both of whom have played their entire pro careers in Peoria. Columbus and Springfield, meanwhile, have assigned Oliver Gabriel and Trent Vogelhuber, both rookies, to Evansville. Vogelhuber, who is actually under contract to Springfield and not the Blue Jackets, will start the 2012-13 season on the Reserve List.
ON THE BLUELINE
The IceMen will have a nice mix of experience and youth on defense. Kromm used three of his four “veteran” roster spots on the blueline, but has some young talent to work with as well.
Matt Gens returns to Evansville for his second season as the team’s hip-checking and beatboxing beast of the blueline, and his seventh pro season overall. The incredibly popular Gens was the CHL’s top-scoring defenseman last season, with 47 points in 64 games. The Minnesota native and amateur singer/guitarist joined Robinson in representing Evansville on the CHL All-Star Team, and was voted by his peers as the league’s Best Offensive Defenseman and Best Body-checker.
Matt won’t be the only Gens manning the IceMen blueline this season, as his brother Aaron has joined the team for his rookie season. Aaron Gens, who is nearly four years younger than Matt, just completed a four-year career at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. When asked to compare his style of play to his brother’s, Aaron quipped “I like to throw hip checks using my LEFT hip.”
The Gens boys are joined on defense by a pair of proverbial graybeards with All-Star credentials, 13-year veteran Philippe Plante and 12-year veteran Daniel Tetrault. Plante finished 12th among CHL defensemen with 36 points last season in his first year with the IceMen, his ninth career 30-point season. Tetrault registered 21 points in just 39 games with the CHL’s Wichita Thunder last season, and has amassed seven 30-point seasons in his pro career.
Rounding out the blueline brigade are a trio of young players from different backgrounds. Minnesotan Jake Obermeyer, who will begin the year on the Reserve List, returns for his third season in Evansville. Alberta native Jesse Perrin joins the IceMen after posting an impressive +4 rating last season with the CHL’s Arizona Sundogs, who were a league-worst 19-38-9 and otherwise compiled a stunningly-poor collective plus/minus of -324. And Anton Blomqvist, a 2009 sixth-round pick of the Blue Jackets, hails from Sweden.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
The biggest X-factor for the IceMen (and many other teams) this season will be goaltending. For the moment, Evansville appears to have a pair of solid prospects ready to protect the net. However, neither is under contract to the IceMen, so the situation could change at any moment during the season.
Paul Karpowich seems to be the early favorite to earn the bulk of the work in net. The rookie was a 2008 draft pick of the Blues, and he enters the professional ranks after completing a strong four-year career at Clarkson University. Karpowich posted a 2.46 Goals-Against Average and .921 Save Percentage during his senior year at Clarkson, and was a part of Peoria’s training camp this season before being assigned to the IceMen.
Rob Madore was assigned to the IceMen by the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers a few days after Evansville’s training camp ended. (Charlotte, which already had veteran Justin Peters under contract, needed to move Madore after signing NHL veteran Dan Ellis.) Madore will be playing his first full pro season after making his pro debut at the end of last season, following his senior year at the University of Vermont. He played 12 ECHL games for the now-defunct Chicago Express, with a 2.41 Goals-Against Average and a .926 Save Percentage.
With top Blues prospect Jake Allen and steady veteran Mike McKenna likely to stay put with the Rivermen all season, Karpowich should remain in Evansville for the duration unless injuries in St. Louis or Peoria dictate otherwise. Madore’s time with the IceMen is more likely to be brief, as Charlotte could lose Ellis whenever the NHL lockout ends. Evansville may also need to return Madore to the Checkers if the Blue Jackets organization wants to send one of its own netminders to the IceMen whenever Allen York returns from injury.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While a second consecutive 40-win season is by no means a lock, the IceMen certainly have the talent to be competitive in their first ECHL season. With solid goaltending and decent health, Evansville should contend for one of the eight playoff spots in the 14-team Eastern Conference.
That being said, the NHL’s work stoppage and its potential mid-season resolution make this season unlike any other in recent memory. The only other comparable situation was in 1994-95, when a 3-month lockout resulted in a truncated 48-game NHL season that started in January. However, it is unwise to draw conclusions about this season based on what happened when the Quebec Nordiques still existed and NHL games were aired by FOX and ESPN, because the minor-league landscape was also much different back then.
Perhaps the only thing that is guaranteed about the 2012-13 ECHL season is that it will be unpredictable – and that should make things very interesting for everyone, especially the fans.