EVANSVILLE, Indiana – When new Evansville IceMen Head Coach Jeff Pyle put together his ECHL roster during training camp and then sprinkled in a few AHL players on assignment, the result was a deep collection of skilled forwards, physical defensemen, and promising goaltenders.
That depth has been on full display for most of this season, as quality players have routinely been healthy scratches. Pyle was blessed with an embarrassment of riches – more power pieces than he could fit on the proverbial chess board.
The IceMen entered this past weekend with a 12-4-3 record and a four-game winning streak, leading the North Division and in possession of the third-best winning percentage in the entire ECHL.
But Evansville exited the weekend with a three-game losing streak and a severely depleted roster, thanks to a rash of injuries and AHL call-ups.
By the time the IceMen visited Fort Wayne on Sunday, the team’s inactive list was nearly as long as its game lineup against the Komets.
• Rookie forward Jeremy Langlois, on assignment from AHL Springfield and leading the IceMen in scoring despite playing just 14 of the team’s 22 games, sat out with a foot injury.
• Second-year pro Matt Lowry, who has been the team’s scoring leader for much of the season and is still tied for Evansville’s goal-scoring lead, was in the AHL with Bridgeport.
• Captain Josh Beaulieu, who tied for the team lead with 22 goals last season, was at home dealing with hip and shoulder ailments.
• Speedy forward Dylan Clarke, who was tied with Beaulieu for last season’s team goal-scoring title, was on the shelf after undergoing hip surgery.
• Third-year pro Patrick Kennedy, who began the season with a six-game point streak and is fifth on the team in points per game played, was held out due to a concussion.
• Rookie defenseman Thomas Larkin, previously on assignment from NHL Columbus and a mainstay on Evansville’s top defensive pairing, was reassigned by the Blue Jackets to AHL Springfield.
• Veteran defenseman Joe Lavin, on assignment from AHL Springfield and Larkin’s partner on the top IceMen blueline pairing, was recovering from surgery to repair a sports hernia.
• Goaltender Allen York, a third-year pro who has played 11 games in the NHL (with a 2.30 Goals-Against Average and a .919 Save Percentage) and was originally signed to an ECHL contract to be Evansville’s primary netminder, was with Rockford for his third AHL stint already this season.
• Fellow netminder Mike Clemente, previously on assignment from AHL Springfield and already a winner of ECHL Goaltender of the Week honors earlier this season, was recalled to Springfield due to Sergei Bobrovsky’s injury in Columbus.
The Evansville roster is now stretched so thin, that defenseman Matt Krug has been playing as a forward, just to give the IceMen three full forward lines.
Every pro hockey team deals with injuries, and every ECHL team also must adjust to players coming and going from the AHL. Still, there comes a point at which injuries and AHL moves cease being hollow excuses and become legitimate reasons for an ECHL team struggling.
No matter how deep your roster was at one point, it is not easy to win when you’re without five key forwards, both members of your top defensive pairing, and both of your opening-day goaltenders.
But empty excuses or valid reasons notwithstanding, reality is reality. Games still must be played, and the familiar “next man up” refrain must become more than just a catchphrase.
In Evansville’s favor in the short-term is the schedule, as the IceMen will play 16 of their next 22 games at home. But the team must overcome its roster woes and take advantage of spending so much time at the Ford Center over the next eight weeks, because the IceMen will then finish the season with 19 of their last 28 games on the road.
Anyone can captain a ship through friendly waters, but keeping the boat afloat through adverse conditions is a completely different challenge. That’s the challenge that now presents itself for Pyle and his IceMen.