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It’s been another summer of change for the Evansville IceMen.
In the summer of 2010, the franchise upgraded from the now-defunct All-American Hockey League to the Central Hockey League after winning the AAHL’s Davidson Cup championship.
In the summer of 2011, the Evansville squad moved from tiny 1500-seat Swonder Ice Arena to the sparkling new $127 million 9437-seat Ford Center.
In the summer of 2012, the IceMen changed leagues again, joining their in-state rival Fort Wayne Komets in moving from the shrinking CHL to the more stable ECHL.
This summer, Head Coach and General Manager Rich Kromm was replaced after 3 seasons (and 2 last-place finishes) by Jeff Pyle, who now carries the modified job title of Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations. Pyle previously spent 12 seasons with the ECHL’s Mobile/Gwinnett franchise, making the playoffs 9 times – including a runner-up finish in the 2006 Kelly Cup Finals.
Pyle’s hiring was certainly the most visible, but it was just one of several front office changes. Ross Hoerman supplanted Jeff Adams as Equipment Manager, Derick Benigni took over radio broadcasting duties from Terry Ficorelli, a few other personnel changes were made within the game operations and ticket sales staffs, a new marketing and advertising agency was hired, and a revamped team website will soon launch with a new webmaster and a host of interactive features.
The team’s affiliation situation changed as well, scaling back from two NHL/AHL agreements to just one. The IceMen will continue to work with the Columbus Blue Jackets and AHL Springfield Falcons, while ending their working relationship with the St. Louis Blues organization.
Somewhat surprisingly given Evansville’s putrid record in 2012-13, perhaps the most stable part of the organization this off-season has been the team’s roster. Pyle has repeatedly stated that he liked a lot of the pieces the IceMen had in place last season, and that he felt like a few key changes in the team’s leadership would have yielded much-improved results on the ice.
True to his word, Pyle has built his 2013-14 team around returning young players while cutting ties with all of the 2012-13 team’s veterans. Of the 18 players who have been announced, 10 played at least a dozen games for the 2012-13 IceMen, and pair of others joined the team for the season’s final weekend after completing their college careers.
Evansville’s youth movement is most clearly illustrated by the fact that no player signed for 2013-14 is older than 28, while the 2012-13 IceMen roster featured 8 players who were north of 28 – including 4 who spent time as captain and/or alternate captain.
Leading the charge up front will be a quintet of players who spent all or a significant part of the 2012-13 campaign in Evansville – Josh Beaulieu, Dylan Clarke, Jason Dale, Patrick Kennedy and Matt Schepke.
Beaulieu may be in line to take over the captaincy during his third season in Evansville, which will be his first as a veteran by ECHL standards. (He is currently the team’s only signed veteran, at the ripe old age of 26.) Beaulieu racked up a career-high 52 points in 56 games last season before his year came to an abrupt and early conclusion when an opponent’s skate blade caused a severe wrist laceration. He is nearly fully recovered though, and is expected to be close to 100% by the start of the new season.
Clarke got off to a slow start in South Carolina last season and was waived by the Stingrays after just 16 games, but quickly found a new home and flourished in Evansville. A year after racking up 64 points with CHL Tulsa as a rookie, Clarke finished his second pro season with 49 points (including a team-leading 22 goals) in 50 games as a member of the IceMen. The dynamic and speedy Ontario native will undoubtedly enjoy a top-line role and significant power-play time during his first full season in Evansville.
Dale proved himself to be the ultimate “utility player” during his first season with the IceMen, leading the team with 70 games played and filling a variety of roles in the process. Dale primarily played center and was excellent on face-offs, but he also spent time on the wing and even played a few games on defense when injuries dismantled the team’s depth on the blueline. He killed penalties, stayed out of the box himself, played with energy (earning the team’s “Mr. Hustle Award”), and contributed offensively with 39 points – 4th on the team. Dale’s versatility will make Pyle’s job much easier.
Kennedy looks to up his game in his third pro season and second with the IceMen. The Cornell graduate had a respectable 33 points in 61 games last season, despite generally playing a checking-line role and also spending a handful of games on defense when the aforementioned injury bug hit hardest. Kennedy was at his best when on a line with Dale and Springfield send-down Trent Vogelhuber, who is still under contract with the Falcons and could possibly end up in Evansville again.
Schepke only played 15 games with the 2012-13 IceMen, primarily as a checking-line winger. When he was briefly used in a scoring-line role during a 4-game homestand in December, however, he quickly racked up 6 points and became a fan favorite. Schepke finished the season in Europe, but now returns to Evansville in the hopes of rediscovering the scoring touch that helped him produce 109 points in 166 ECHL games prior to last season. He is the oldest player currently on the 2013-14 roster.
Rounding out the forward lines (for now at least) are four young players who will aim to make an impression on Pyle and earn a shot at playing critical roles for the 2013-14 IceMen – Matthew Bissonnette, Chris Forfar, Daultan Leveille and Peter Sakaris.
Bissonnette might have the highest ceiling of the four, having just completed a stellar junior career in Canada. The rookie winger had 239 points in 266 career games in the QMJHL, including 140 points in 112 games over the past two seasons. If the Quebecois can bring that kind of offensive production to the pro game, he will enjoy a lengthy career in the ECHL – and perhaps beyond.
Forfar turned pro at the end of the 2012-13 season, joining the IceMen on the road for the season’s final 3 games and tallying 3 assists with a +2 rating. A self-described defensive forward with “a strong two-way game,” the Illinois native compiled 39 points in 156 games during his college career at Michigan State.
Leveille also spent his college days at Michigan State, posting 69 points in 131 games for the Spartans. As a rookie last season, he split time between the AHL (2 points in 19 games) and ECHL (10 points in 31 games). Leveille was originally a first-round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2008 NHL Draft.
Sakaris, like Forfar, turned pro at the end of last season and spent the final 3 games on the road with the IceMen, chipping in a goal and an assist. He had an impressive junior career in the QMJHL, with 137 points in 159 total games. Sakaris received an invite to the Columbus Blue Jackets squad in this year’s Traverse City Prospects Tournament, and took full advantage of the opportunity by notching 3 points in 2 games played. The Blue Jackets prospects went 2-0 with Sakaris in the lineup and 0-2 without him.
MANNING THE POINT
The IceMen will have a nice mix of returnees and fresh faces on defense, a year after surrendering 272 goals (3.78 per game) – the most in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference.
Aaron Gens returns after his promising rookie season was cut short by a serious concussion during his 28th game. Gens had 9 points in his last 8 games before the injury, and was becoming a fixture on the point during power plays. He has been symptom-free since early summer.
Donnie Harris is back for his third pro season after earning a mid-season promotion from the SPHL and playing 34 games for the IceMen last year. He was unspectacular offensively with just 5 points, but generally a sound and responsible defensive presence. Harris will simply need to forget about a tough final month of the season, in which he had no points and a -13 rating.
Matt Krug hopes to lay down some roots after bouncing around with 9 different teams since turning pro in the spring of 2009. He came to Evansville in late January after Gens was lost for the season, finishing with 6 points and 86 penalty minutes in 25 games with the IceMen. Krug’s best pro season was his rookie year with IHL Muskegon, for whom he had 50 points in 81 regular season and playoff games.
Jake Obermeyer will become the longest-tenured player in IceMen history when he suits up for his fourth season in Evansville. A return to health will be critical for the Minnesota native, who has played just 80 of 138 possible games over the past 2 seasons due to a variety of injuries. Obermeyer finished last season as the team’s captain, after Todd Robinson bolted for the CHL, Matt Gens hit the shelf with a hip injury, and Daniel Tetrault earned a call-up to the AHL.
Rookie Loren Barron is one of three new defensemen on the roster. The 24-year old Californian amassed 58 points and a +38 rating in 121 games during his final 3 seasons at Quinnipiac University, where he was a part of the team that claimed a runner-up finish in the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four tournament. Previously, Barron played one season of junior hockey with the USHL Indiana Ice, with whom he won the 2009 Clark Cup championship.
Calgary native Dallas Ehrhardt is another rookie who hopes to make an impact for the IceMen. The 6’4″ defenseman piled up 65 points and 230 penalty minutes in 184 games during his last 3 seasons of junior hockey in the WHL. Pyle believes Ehrhardt has AHL talent, and plans to use him in every situation.
Fellow 6’4″ blueliner Guillaume “Guy” Lepine comes to Evansville for his 6th pro season after spending the past 3 seasons in Europe. In 302 pro games, Lepine has just 71 points but has been quite a physical presence with 80 fights and 851 penalty minutes.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Pyle has signed a pair of goalies for training camp, likely to compete for a single roster spot.
James Reid is the incumbent, after coming to Evansville at the trade deadline last season. A former ECHL Goaltender of the Week as a rookie for the Alaska Aces in 2011-12, Reid’s 2012-13 season was largely derailed by a high-ankle sprain. He made his IceMen debut on March 8 and initially struggled while shaking off rust, with a 4.62 Goals-Against Average and an .873 Save Percentage in his first 6 starts. However, he was greatly improved in his final 6 appearances, with a 2.99 Goals-Against Average and a .909 Save Percentage – including a shared shutout with backup Kevin Moore in the season finale at Cincinnati.
Garrett Bartus is the challenger, turning pro after completing his college career at the University of Connecticut. Bartus went 40-58-9 with a 3.02 Goals-Against Average and a .911 Save Percentage with the Huskies. Previously, he went 53-27-6 (including 6 shutouts) with a 2.74 Goals-Against Average and a .911 Save Percentage during his junior career in the NAHL.
Reid and Bartus will probably be fighting over just one available job because Pyle expects to receive a goaltender from Springfield, likely second-year pro Mike Clemente. Clemente was also Springfield property last season, assigned to CHL Missouri. As a rookie with the Mavericks, he went 25-15-4 with a 3.25 Goals-Against Average and an .894 Save Percentage.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Evansville’s roster is still a work in progress. More signings are still expected to be announced leading up to the start of training camp, and the IceMen should also get an infusion of a few affiliate players after things shake out in Columbus and Springfield.
Pyle has insisted to IceMen fans that no player’s job is safe. He preaches accountability, maintaining a team-first mentality, and playing hard at both ends of the ice. Any player who fails to stay on message can quickly find himself looking for work, no matter how experienced or talented he may be.
It remains to be seen if Pyle’s decision to bring back so many players from a last-place team is the right course of action. It is certainly a calculated risk, and IceMen fans have to hope that Pyle’s risk will soon come with great reward.