IceMen buried under “perfect storm” Injries, call-ups, NHL lockout all contribute to woesome season

EVANSVILLE, Ind – On March 30 in Cincinnati, the Evansville IceMen concluded their first ECHL season with a 4-0 blanking of the North Division champion Cyclones, much to the delight of more than 100 IceMen fans who made the drive to the Queen City for the season finale. It was a happy ending to an otherwise unpleasant season.

Evansville finished the season with a record of 25-40-7 and a last-place ranking in the Eastern Conference. Of the 23 ECHL teams, only Bakersfield (22-44-6) had a worse season.

Many thought that the IceMen began the season with enough talent to contend for a playoff berth. That goal became increasingly elusive as the bizarre season wore on, thanks to a “perfect storm” of issues that ultimately resulted in the team finishing in the cellar.

It began with the NHL lockout wreaking havoc on the minor leagues. It continued with a downright ridiculous number of injuries, including several long-term maladies. Evansville also dealt with dozens of player call-ups by affiliate clubs, and a handful of unexpected defections as well.

Put it all together, and you get a season that probably added some unwanted grey to the head of IceMen General Manager and Head Coach Rich Kromm.

STAGGERING INSTABILITY

Evansville had 59 different players dress for a game during its first ECHL season, compared to 51 different players during both of the team’s CHL seasons combined.

Not a single player played in all 72 games. Jason Dale, who sat out two early-season games as a healthy scratch when the team actually had too many able-bodied forwards, was the team’s games-played leader with 70. Only eight players played in more than half of the team’s games, while 16 players saw action in fewer than 10.Evansville

The IceMen used 60 different game-night lineups in 72 games this season, and no single lineup was employed for more than three consecutive games.

Evansville only went into battle with a full 18-man game-night lineup 40 times. The IceMen played one man short in 16 games, two men short in 12 games, and three men short in four games.

Between the pipes, no single goaltender made more than 25 appearances, and eight different goaltending tandems suited up throughout the season. The most common netminder pairing, Rob Madore and Paul Karpowich, spent just 20 games together.

Karpowich and Paul Dainton were the tandem for 18 games, making them the second-most common duo in net. Fittingly, their 18 games together featured 18 different lineups in front of them.

Five players played multiple games out of their normal position. Defensemen Matt and Aaron Gens both played a few games on the wing, and fellow blueliner Jake Obermeyer played both wing and center. Dale and Patrick Kennedy both played several games on defense, with Dale even serving in a hybrid role at times – lining up as a center to take face-offs and then immediately dropping back to play defense.

Even the locker room leadership group was always in flux, as eight different players wore a “C” or an “A” on their jersey during the season. Todd Robinson served as Captain for 57 games, while Matt Gens (eight games), Daniel Tetrault (four games) and Obermeyer (three games) also sported the “C” at times. The team’s list of Alternate Captains included Dale, Tetrault, Obermeyer, Matt Gens, Phil Plante, Josh Beaulieu and Dylan Clarke.

When the dust settled at season’s end, a decidedly young IceMen squad remained. According to ECHL classifications, Evansville’s 16-man lineup for the finale at Cincinnati featured 12 rookies and not a single veteran. Obermeyer (age 28) and Dale (age 24), who both began their professional careers “way back” in the 2009-10 season, were the team’s most experienced players. Dale was the only non-rookie who appeared in both the season opener and season finale.

SOMEBODY CALL 911

Coaches generally refuse to cite injuries as an excuse for poor performance, often repeating stock phrases like “every team deals with injuries.” And while that’s true, injuries for this season’s IceMen were not merely a hollow excuse for losing, but rather a legitimate reason for the team’s struggles.

Evansville lost an amazing 425 man-games to injury and illness, an average of nearly six players on the shelf per team game. Making matters worse, many of the injuries were to key players.

Robinson, a 14-year veteran center who was the 2011-12 CHL scoring champion and Evansville’s 2012-13 scoring leader with 68 points, missed eight early-season games with a strained MCL caused by poor ice conditions when a chiller valve malfunctioned at the Ford Center.

Beaulieu, who typically manned the left wing on Robinson’s line and the top power-play unit, missed the season’s final 16 games after sustaining a severe wrist laceration from an opponent’s skate blade in a February game at Florida. He had a career-best 52 points and was leading the team with 22 goals in 56 games prior to the career-threatening injury.

Matt Gens, a seven-year veteran who was the CHL’s top-scoring defenseman in 2011-12, missed the season’s final 37 games after suffering a torn labrum that required hip surgery in January. Fellow blueliner and season-opening Alternate Captain Plante, a multiple-time All-Star defenseman during his 14-year career, missed 45 games due to back problems that required mid-season surgery.

Rookie winger Oliver Gabriel, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect in Evansville on assignment, missed 49 games after sustaining a deep leg laceration from an opponent’s skate blade in just the second game of the season. Fellow Blue Jackets prospect Austin Madaisky, a rookie defenseman and budding power-play quarterback who was a 2010 fifth-round draft pick, missed 53 games after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist in early November.

Aaron Gens, Matt’s younger brother, was limited to just 28 games during his promising rookie campaign. He missed more than a month of action in November and December due to a broken hand, then sat out the season’s last 29 games after sustaining a broken nose and severe concussion on January 19, against Toledo.

Obermeyer and defenseman Jesse Perrin both spent time on the Injured Reserve list due to a broken foot. Food poisoning derailed winger Sebastian Wannstrom, a 2010 second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues. Concussions befell Kennedy, Blues prospect Stefan Della Rovere, and Blue Jackets prospect Anton Blomqvist (twice).

IceMen players could not even avoid the injury bug after leaving Evansville. While in the AHL after playing 24 games for the IceMen, rookie winger Cody Beach sustained an undisclosed injury that required season-ending surgery.

After playing five games for Evansville and notching the first-ever IceMen hat trick at the Ford Center, winger Wade MacLeod suffered a seizure and collapsed during an AHL game. An MRI and a CT scan revealed that the seizure was caused by a non-cancerous brain tumor, which MacLeod will soon have removed via a four-hour operation. He hopes to make a full recovery and has vowed to eventually return to the ice and continue his career.

Back in Evansville, the injuries were not just limited to games. Rookie winger Trent Vogelhuber missed several games due to a shoulder injury, and then later returned to the shelf after injuring his back by running into the goalpost in practice. Popular winger/enforcer Mark Cody missed extended time mid-season due to a separated shoulder sustained in practice, then returned for about a month only to then suffer a season-ending concussion on February 22, at Florida.

Suffice to say, the fine folks at Orthopaedic Associates (the team’s official medical partners) were kept plenty busy this season.

LIFE ON THE HIGHWAY

Of the 59 players who suited up for the IceMen this season, 39 were actually under ECHL contract with Evansville. The IceMen also featured 10 players on assignment from the Blues and AHL Peoria Rivermen, nine players sent down by the Blue Jackets and AHL Springfield Falcons, and one player (Madore) on loan from the AHL Charlotte Checkers.

The IceMen dealt with 34 separate player call-ups, involving 19 different players, not including Madore. (He started the season in Evansville and later reassigned by Charlotte to their ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades.) The Blues/Rivermen organization initiated 23 recalls, while the Columbus/Springfield affiliation produced 11 promotions.

The most well-traveled affiliate players all belonged to the Blues, who on four separate occasions recalled Karpowich, Beach and Anthony Nigro to Peoria. Columbus’ Gabriel, perhaps only due to missing so much time via injury, was the only affiliate player who never saw time in the AHL.

Tetrault was the only IceMen-contracted player who earned a promotion to the AHL this season. After vaulting into the Top five among the league’s top-scoring defensemen with six goals and four assists in a nine-game stretch in March, Tetrault – then serving as Captain in Evansville – was given a chance in Peoria as an injury replacement. His call up came with one week remaining in the ECHL regular season, and he is expected to stay with the Rivermen until the AHL regular season concludes.

Perhaps the most stress-inducing day of affiliate transactions was March 6, when the IceMen lost both of their goaltenders in a span of about 12 hours. Karpowich was recalled by Peoria after the Rivermen lost Jake Allen to the Blues, who were searching for an answer in net while Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were both struggling. Hours later, Dainton was recalled by Springfield after the Falcons’ Allen York (who also spent time in Evansville this season) sustained an injury in practice.

Not all of the player travel was of the two-way variety, however. The IceMen lost three players to CHL teams during the season, thanks to the lack of a reciprocal agreement between the ECHL and CHL with regard to respecting the other league’s player contracts.

Perrin was the first to depart, signing with the Missouri Mavericks in early January. Veteran winger Kevin Baker racked up 15 points in his last eight games for the IceMen, then left at the end of February to join the Arizona Sundogs.

In a move that generated much discussion among IceMen fans, Robinson left in March to sign with the Allen Americans in an effort to help them win a championship. Possibly considering retiring at the end of the season, Robinson waited until the IceMen were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before accepting Allen’s offer, which had reportedly been made weeks earlier. He left as Evansville’s all-time scoring leader.

Two others left the IceMen for Europe, both in January. Winger Matt Schepke signed with the Braehead Clan, an EIHL team in Glasgow, Scotland. About a week later, the Blues recalled Wannstrom and, per his request, reassigned him to his hometown team in the Swedish Elite League.

At the end of the ECHL regular season, 30 former members of the 2012-13 IceMen were plying their trade elsewhere in the hockey world. A whopping 17 players – including four goaltenders – were on AHL rosters. Also, six former IceMen were in the CHL, five were playing for other ECHL teams, and two were in Europe.

TURNING THE PAGE

Other than high-priced concessions and the Chicago Cubs failing to win the World Series each year, few things in sports are a guarantee.

That being said, it is a safe bet that the IceMen and their fans will never endure another season quite like the 2012-13 campaign.

It was an expansion year, the team’s first in the ECHL. The NHL lockout made it unpredictable and odd from the start. Injuries and call ups came early and often, and the occasional defection just added more fuel to the fire.

Despite all of the problems and the poor record that resulted, it was by no means a “lost season.” Kromm and the entire IceMen organization learned a lot and gained valuable experience that will help ensure that the 2013-14 season is far from a repeat performance.

The IceMen now know the ECHL, and people throughout the ECHL now know Evansville. A few players may return, but many new players will come to town. Perhaps the organization’s approach to affiliation will change, allowing for more roster control and greater stability.

Evansville’s first season in the CHL resulted in a 21-32-13 record, worst in the league. However, the IceMen finished that season on a 3-0-2 run, including a shutout victory in the home finale. With a revamped roster, that momentum carried over into the team’s second CHL season, in which the IceMen set a franchise record for victories with a 40-22-4 record.

Now, Evansville’s first season in the ECHL has finished much like its first in the CHL. Although the team’s 25-40-7 record might not inspire much confidence going forward, a glimmer of hope exists in the way the IceMen finished with a 2-0-1 week and a shutout victory in the season finale.

Will history repeat itself in the form of a major turnaround for the IceMen in their first post-expansion season in another new league? Stay tuned!

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