It may seem cliché, but the St. John’s IceCaps could not have asked for much more in their inaugural season.
Three AHL All-Star selections? Check. Atlantic Division title? Done. Forty-six consecutive sellouts at Mile One Centre? Absolutely.
So, what do you do for an encore?
The IceCaps will start to answer that question Saturday night in Springfield when they open up the 2012-13 season against the Falcons.
With a stable of returning players and an infusion of new talent – both young and old in terms of AHL experience – the IceCaps are poised to take the next step and reach the Calder Cup Finals.
Some questions still remain, however:
Can captain Jason Jaffray return from neck surgery to lead this team once again?
Jaffray suffered a season-ending neck injury on March 28 in a game at Norfolk when he was hit hard into the boards by Admirals defenceman Radko Gudas and has not played a game since. He has been skating throughout training camp and the early season practices, although he did not participate in any exhibition games. The captain will likely sit out the first road trip and aim to make his season debut next Friday in the IceCaps’ home opener. A healthy Jaffray will go a long way in helping this team compete again for a Calder Cup.
What does All-Rookie goaltender Eddie Pasquale have in store after a solid rookie season?
After winning a three-way battle for the starting goaltending job midway through last season, Pasquale went on to post a solid 23-12-1 record with a 2.41 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage and upped his game even more in the postseason. In 15 playoff contests, Pasquale posted a .923 save percentage and was often serenaded with chants of “Eddie! Eddie!”, ringing throughout Mile One Centre. He won’t have to battle two goalies this season, but he does have competition in Mark Dekanich, who is one season removed from leading the AHL in save percentage (.931). Dekanich missed almost all of 2011-12 due to injury but will see his fair share of playing time with so many back-to-back games on the schedule.
How will the defence corps compare to last year’s squad?
Despite the return of last year’s top two blueliners in All-Stars Paul Postma and Zach Redmond, the IceCaps’ back end will have a different look this season. Gone are steady stay-at-home d-men Arturs Kulda and Brett Festerling. The durable Travis Ramsey returns, but after that it’s a mixture of rookies and veterans who spent 2011-12 with other clubs or did not see regular playing time while with St. John’s. Three-time captain Dean Arsene came over from the Portland Pirates in the offseason and should be another steadying presence, combining strong leadership skills with a physical nastiness, something missing at times for the IceCaps last season. Derek Meech, who played just three regular season games but suited up for all 15 playoff contests, should be around all season barring a return of the NHL. Rounding out the defence corps are rookies Ben Chiarot, Julian Melchiori and Will O’Neill. All three spent varying amounts of time with the IceCaps last season and will be counted on more this year to provide depth.
What can we expect from the new faces in town?
We’ve already mentioned Dekanich and Arsene, two free agent signings by general manager Craig Heisinger during the summer. Joining them will be forwards Hunter Tremblay, Derek Whitmore, Brian Sutherby, Ryan Schnell and Ray Kaunisto, all of whom spent time in the AHL last season. Tremblay played in 68 games for Oklahoma City in his rookie season, scoring 16 goals and finishing first in the league with seven shorthanded points and tied for first with five shorthanded goals. Whitmore completed his fourth full professional season, scoring a career-high and team-leading 28 goals for the Rochester Americans while serving as assistant captain. Sutherby, a veteran of 460 career NHL games, was brought in as a jack-of-all-trades forward, able to kill penalties, provide energy and even chip in on the power play. Schnell split last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) and Wheeling (ECHL), racking up 154 penalty minutes in just 30 total games. Finally, Kaunisto is coming off his sophomore season as a member of division rival Manchester and played in 74 games, good for third on the team. It will be tough to find playing time with such a glut of forwards, but the diverse group gives head coach Keith McCambridge plenty of options should injuries arise or the NHL return to action later in the season.
Will the Russian duo of Alex Burmistrov and Ivan Telegin provide some flash up front?
The easy answer to this is yes. Though Burmistrov was not featured in an offensive role with the Winnipeg Jets last season, he will surely be given plenty more opportunities to showcase his immense talent in St. John’s. The 20-year-old centre (he turns 21 just one week into the season) has already played in 150 NHL games. He will be used in all situations and should have no problem putting up points. Meanwhile, Telegin is yet another blue-chip prospect who comes to St. John’s after a terrific season with the Barrie Colts (OHL), where he teamed up with fellow Jets prospect Mark Scheifele. Just 19 years of age, Telegin is coming off a 35-goal season with Barrie and also put up 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 13 playoff games. The talented Russian has both size and speed and should be one to keep an eye on.
Can last year’s core group of forwards repeat or improve upon their performance from a year ago?
In addition to the aforementioned Jaffray, the IceCaps will bring back a group of forwards that helped the team finish fourth overall in goals for despite having just one 20-goal scorer: local boy Jason King, who finished with 22. Leading scorer Spencer Machacek (18 goals, 32 assists), Patrice Cormier (18 goals) and Carl Klingberg (15 goals as a rookie) all spent some time in Winnipeg last season and return to the IceCaps, as do Ben Maxwell, Aaron Gagnon, John Albert, Ray Sawada, Max Macenauer, Kevin Clark, Eric O’Dell and Jason Gregoire. Depth will not be an issue.
The answers to these questions – and more – will become clearer starting on Saturday night.