ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The St. John's IceCaps will have to rely on their defence as they try and make a return trip to the Calder Cup final.
Head coach Keith McCambridge said St. John's will be hoping to establish a defence-first team that capitalizes on its chances after losing a lot of firepower after last season.
"We will have to be good defensively, limiting opportunities against, and hope our special teams are strong and we are able to capitalize while leaning on those younger players to score goals," he said. "We are missing a lot of offence."
Three of the top-four scorers from last year have left the Winnipeg Jets' American Hockey Lague affiliate in the off-season: Andrew Gordon, Jerome Samson and Kael Mouillierat. Only captain Jason Jaffray remains from that group.
"There is 75 goals that you take out of our line-up, so we're going to have to find people to score goals this year," Jaffray said. "We will need to find guys (to step up) and score some goals and provide offence for this team."
Jaffray, now a 32-year-old veteran, will again be counted on for his leadership and consistent scoring. He will get offensive support from Eric O'Dell, who was sent back to the AHL from the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. O'Dell has 199 points in 143 games for St. John's.
Carl Klingberg, entering a contract year, will be looking to build on a career season in which he scored 22 goals en route to a 42-point campaign.
"Klingberg really took a step forward last year and provided some offence," Jaffray said. "He provided a jump for us last year and scored some big goals in big moments."
McCambridge said the team is also expecting second-year professionals JC Lipon and Austen Brassard, newly-acquired Patrick Holland, and rookies Scott Kosmachuk and Ryan Olsen to help fill the offensive void left by key departing players.
"The nature of the beast in the AHL is that there is a lot of turnover, a lot of new faces. Younger players come in, and prospects is what this league is about," McCambridge said. "The goal is to try and get the younger players to be good professional hockey players, making sure the skill set continues to grow and the players get better every day. We need to continue to push forward with the identity of being a hard-working team."
Defenceman Ben Chiarot, entering his fourth year, is among those younger players who will be looking to build on his game.
"I want to keep that same foundation of being strong and physical, but maybe add a little more offence, and get more shots through from the point," said Chiarot, who was among the last cuts on defence at Jets training camp. "I want to expand my game and work on all areas of it. If you only focus on one thing, that's when you start to regress."
The IceCaps defence looks better on paper than last season despite losing offensive powerhouse Zach Redmond.
"It's going to be a really strong defence-core, obviously," Chiarot added. "We have a lot of experience now with a core group of guys who have been here the last couple of years."
Keaton Ellerby, a veteran of 211 NHL games, was cut from Winnipeg at the same time as Chiarot and could bring some stability to the young team. Will O'Neill looks primed to take another step in his development, if he can follow up his 16-point playoff performance from last season. The IceCaps hope sophomore Brenden Kichton can build on his 48-point standout rookie campaign.
"We have eight solid defencemen right now. The coach has tough decisions going into the weekend," Jaffray said.
The hardest IceCaps player to replace will likely be Gordon, who finished the season with 56 points while consistently paired on a line with Jaffray. Having spent "90 per cent" of his playing time with Gordon, Jaffray said a player like that is nearly impossible to replace.
"It's not just his offence," Jaffray said. "It's also the leadership that he brought in the dressing room. He made my life much easier, having a guy like that around that has won some championships and been around and put up a good chunk of points for many seasons."
Despite losing some veteran scorers, Chiarot said some of the younger IceCaps are ready to contribute.
"A lot of our forwards are young but they were high scorers in juniors, so it's only a matter of time until those guys get confidence and bring out their offensive game here too," he said.
Rookie Connor Hellebuyck and NHL veteran Peter Budaj should form a solid goaltending tandem for the IceCaps.
Hellebuyck, 21 is coming off two standout seasons with UMass-Lowell in the NCAA. Budaj is a veteran of 296 NHL games and backed up Carey Price with the Montreal Canadiens last season.
Second-year pro Jussi Olkinuora could also factor into the equation.
The IceCaps kick off their season Friday in Providence against the Bruins. Their home-opener is,Oct. 17, against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.