St. John’s IceCaps 2011-12 season preview

By Kyle West
Photo: After an impressive training camp Mark Scheifele was signed to an entry-level contract and will begin the 2011-12 season in the NHL. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

While it’s been a summer of hockey love in Winnipeg since the rebirth of the Jets, another hockey mad town in Canada has also been in a state of feverish anticipation of the puck drop. Residents of St. John’s, Newfoundland are preparing to welcome AHL hockey back to their hometown after the transfer in AHL affiliation from the Chicago Wolves and the relocation of the Manitoba Moose, displaced from the MTS Center by the Jets, resulted in the creation of the St. John’s Ice Caps.

Fronted by former Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, the IceCaps marketing campaign has been in full swing all summer and has brought aboard seemingly every major enterprise in the province as sponsors. With locals clamoring for a team since the Maple Leafs moved their affiliate closer to home in 2005, a sellout of the Mile One Center was always going to be an easy projection regardless of who was paying to have their logo prominently displayed.

Forwards

The Atlanta Thrashers prospects in Chicago last season found playing time limited for the most part, as Wolves’ owners stocked the club with AHL journeyman in a bid to be more competitive. While that policy resulted in a Calder Cup triumph as recently as 2008, the Ice Caps will be comprised primarily of prospects. Several former members of the Moose have stayed with the club to provide veteran stability for the youngsters while Newfoundlander Jason King, a former star winger with the Moose, has been imported from Europe on an AHL contract.

Jason Jaffray and Marco Rosa are the veteran leaders of what will be a very young group of forwards on the IceCaps. Jaffray joined the Manitoba Moose for the playoffs last season after scoring 25 goals in 75 games for the Abbotsford Heat. Rosa has 71 career AHL goals to his credit, although his campaign was shortened by injury last season, and will be counted on for goal production by the IceCaps.

Amongst the prospects that will likely form the IceCaps top lines are two AHL rookies who play very different games. Swedish power forward Carl Klingberg is a wrecking ball of a winger who uses his speed to get in hard on the forecheck and his 6’3 frame to wreak havoc in front of the net. Manitoba native Jason Gregoire meanwhile plays a more subtle game; the free agent signing from the University of North Dakota brings quick hands and superior playmaking skills to the IceCaps top six.

Another player making his AHL debut will be Sudbury Wolves playmaker Eric O’Dell, now fully recovered from the heart surgery that sidelined him one year ago. O’Dell has deft hands and an ability to fight through traffic and should be able to impose himself on one of the top lines in St. John’s. O’Dell may find himself in direct competition for a spot with free agent signing Aaron Gagnon, a proven AHL scorer who played a handful of games in the NHL with the Dallas Stars last year before being signed by the Jets.

Spencer Machachek has been a consistent performer at the AHL level, and while his status as a prospect has diminished, the IceCaps can count on the former Vancouver Giants captain for a strong two-way effort. Sparkplug Kevin Clark, another player who made the move with the Moose, is sure to be a fan favorite with his effort and tenacity while former Ohio State captain John Albert is looking to center the checking line and prove his worth on the penalty kill.

Still with the Jets at the end of training camp are forwards Ben Maxwell, a smooth skating center with quick hands and big winger Kenndall McArdle, a former first-rounder obtained from Florida. Both are on the fringe of the Jets roster and could see ice time in St. John’s this season. Likewise center Tim Stapleton is likely to be a frequent flyer between St. John’s and Winnipeg this year.

Center Patrice Cormier, a combative forward who won over the coaching staff with his dedication to defensive duties and high compete level, will start the season in the AHL but should see time with Winnipeg before the season is over.

Further down the depth chart are center Riley Holzapfel, a former second rounder reinvented as a checking center in recent years and winger Michael Forney, who has spent more time in the ECHL than the AHL. Big winger Akim Aliu is also a candidate for the Jet’s new affiliation with the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL after underwhelming in preseason games.

Brett MacLean, a goal-scoring winger claimed off waivers from Phoenix on October sixth, will start the season in the NHL in a top-nine role.

Defensemen

For the third year in a row Arturs Kulda will start the season in the AHL after being edged out of an NHL spot by a free agent signed over the summer. The stocky Latvian remains a solid prospect for the six or seven spot, but a lack of any offensive upside allowed free agents Randy Jones and Derek Meech to take his spot with the Jets. Brett Festerling is another stay-at-home type who had a strong camp but will have to work towards a call up and a chance to prove his NHL credentials.

Paul Postma was one of the last cuts from the Jets camp and the power play specialist with the big shot will be watched closely by Jets brass all season long. A seventh round pick of the Thrashers, Postma has evolved his game to become a top prospect for the Jets, provided he can play well enough in St. John’s to erase doubts over his defensive zone play.

While Postma needs to continue to prove he can play both ends of the rink, former NCAA standout Zach Redmond joins the IceCaps with his two-way game already established. Redmond was captain of the Ferris State Bulldogs last season and earned All-American consideration for his dominating play at both ends of the ice. The 23-year-old has a solid frame and good mobility and while his shot is not as lethal as Postma’s, he will certainly provide some offence from the blue line.

Veteran Mark Flood, another of the former Moose brigade, will steady the blue line along with Travis Ramsey, while incoming Ben Chiarot will provide a physical presence. The 6’3 Chiarot ranked as one of the better fighters in the OHL last season but was also one of his team’s leaders in plus minus ratings.

Goaltending

The strong play of Ed Pasquale has created a bit of goaltending controversy in the IceCaps camp. Pasquale is a second year pro who had an up and down season as a rookie pro, splitting the season between the AHL and ECHL affiliates of the Thrashers. Pasquale is a big-framed goalie who battles hard for every shot and has proven success as a starter in the OHL. His stellar play in camp has ramped up the pressure on incumbent Peter Mannino, a veteran AHL goalie who played 42 games with the Chicago Wolves last year but has been found wanting in his brief NHL cameos.

Chris Carrozzi is also entering his second year in the pro ranks after spending his rookie season in the ECHL. Carrozzi was shelled for six goals in his only AHL start and his pre season action with the Jets did little to solidify his position as a starter with the IceCaps. A former goalie of the year in the OHL, the big netminder needs to prove that his OHL success was not entirely the result of playing behind a solid defense.

The goaltending situation was further complicated by the signing of veteran David Aebischer to an AHL contract after preseason.

Coaching

Keith McCambridge was named as the IceCaps’ inaugural coach after the move from Manitoba to "The Rock" was completed. The former assistant to Claude Noel, now head coach of the Jets after two strong years with the Moose, McCambridge will be under scrutiny as a rookie AHL coach. Once a journeyman enforcer in the minor pro circuit, McCambridge was head coach of the Alaska Aces of the ECHL for two successful seasons prior to being hired by the Moose. The Manitoba native represents the value of continuity within the Jets organization and will be given every chance to prove his no-nonsense style can yield results with the IceCaps.

Prospects

Mark Scheifele has been a standout at Jets preseason camp, impressing management enough to earn an entry level deal heavily weighted with bonus money and presumably a chance to stick in the NHL. The selection of Scheifele at seventh overall was something of a surprise at the time, but the big center displayed an impressive all around game and was a top scorer in preseason action. Following the Thrashers three previous first rounders Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane ,and Alex Burmistrov in making the jump directly to the NHL, Scheifele may have a greater impact in his rookie season than any of the other members of this young nucleus of talent was able to manage, mainly due to a stronger supporting cast around him.

Other standouts in preseason games include Julian Melchiori, a third rounder in 2010 who signed with the Jets after just one season in the OHL. The smooth skating Melchiori has untapped offensive upside but took a defense-first approach as rookie in the OHL last year. Melchiori played well in preseason and the Jets might be inclined to fast track his development. Assigned to St. John’s at the end of camp for pre season AHL action, Melchiori is still eligible to play in the OHL and a return to Kitchener might serve his development better over the long term.

Also returning to the OHL with a pro contract in hand is big Russian winger Ivan Telegin. Recently traded to the Barrie Colts, Telegin may have been anticipating playing alongside Scheifele this year, but will have to wait till he makes the Jets before trying out that partnership.

Hulking defenseman Cody Sol played a solid game in pre season and showed he is more than just an occasional pugilist. Also with a pro contract in hand, Sol may bide his time in the OHL as an overager rather than ride the pine in St. John’s