EVANSVILLE, IN. – In the summer of 2013 when Jeff Pyle was hired to be the new coach of the Evansville IceMen, the veteran bench boss needed just 35 more victories to move into sole possession of second place on the ECHL’s all-time coaching wins list.
Pyle had spent four seasons with the Mobile Mysticks, then stayed with the franchise and spent eight more seasons at the helm of the relocated and renamed Gwinnett Gladiators.
Over 12 seasons, Pyle racked up 446 regular-season victories, six 40-win seasons, nine playoff appearances, and a runner-up finish in the 2006 Kelly Cup Finals.
So when Owner Ron Geary brought Pyle in to replace Rich Kromm as coach of the IceMen, expectations were high – despite the fact that Evansville finished dead-last in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference in Kromm’s final season.
Pyle made the perhaps-risky decision to bring back several players from Kromm’s cellar-dwelling 2012-13 team, including the popular power forward who would become the 2013-14 squad’s captain – veteran Josh Beaulieu.
Initially, at least, Pyle’s risks reaped great reward.
With Beaulieu leading the charge, the IceMen got off to a hot start, blanking Kalamazoo 2-0 in the season opener en route to an 8-1-3 mark through the first month.
There were a few minor bumps in the road as the season settled in, but the IceMen never lost more than three straight games before January’s All-Star break.
Evansville was nearly unbeatable at home, starting the season 15-2-4 at the Ford Center. During one stretch in December, the IceMen scored five or more goals in six consecutive home games.
The IceMen machine was clicking on all cylinders. Pyle seemed to be pushing all of the right buttons, and Beaulieu repeatedly stated that this Evansville team was the type of hard-working and close-knit team he’d been waiting his whole career for.
On January 25, Evansville earned at least a point in its 12th straight home game, thanks to a 6-1 beating of Greenville. The victory moved the IceMen (21-9-8) atop the North Division and into second place in the Eastern Conference.
And then, the IceMen machine fell apart. Literally, and quickly.
THE TURNING POINT
On January 29, the red-hot IceMen hosted the Toledo Walleye, the worst team in the Eastern Conference. But in a disastrous turn of events, Evansville lost the game 3-2 and lost four key players to injury in the process.
Beaulieu (broken foot) and linemate Nathan Moon (broken wrist) would both miss the team’s next 19 games. Fellow forwards Tristan King (concussion) and Peter Sakaris (groin) would ultimately be on the shelf for 18 contests.
To make matters worse, Evansville then lost three more players within the next week, all to the AHL.
Veteran defenseman Guy Lepine, who was briefly the team’s acting captain in Beaulieu’s absence, was loaned to AHL Utica. Lepine remained with the Comets for six weeks, missing 20 IceMen games before returning to Evansville.
Defenseman Joe Lavin, a mainstay on the top IceMen blueline pairing, and forward Tim Miller were both recalled by AHL Springfield and subsequently traded by the Falcons. Neither would ever set foot in Evansville again.
As a result of all of the injuries and departures, Pyle had to cobble together a makeshift lineup via trades and free-agent signings. More than once, the IceMen iced a third line that featured defensemen on both wings.
By the time Pyle regained the services of Lepine and all four players who were injured against Toledo, the damage had been done. Evansville had plummeted to 10th in the Eastern Conference, mired in a 6-15-2 slump.
The relatively-intact IceMen improved a bit and went 4-6-1 down the stretch, though two of the four victories came in the season’s final three games – after the team had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
SEASON-LONG SPEED BUMPS
Clearly, Evansville’s second-half collapse was greatly influenced by the aforementioned roster woes. Virtually every major statistic shows a dramatic decline from January 29 onward. But some numbers indicate that Evansville’s problems weren’t just limited to the late-season meltdown. The team was plagued in some ways throughout the entire season.
• The IceMen struggled on the road all season. Even when Evansville was flying high and second in the conference, it was the only Eastern Conference team in a playoff spot that had a losing record on the road. Out of the 17 ECHL teams that finished over .500, the IceMen (11-18-7) were the only team with fewer than 14 road victories.
• Evansville left a bunch of points on the board against the Eastern Conference’s two worst teams. The IceMen went just 1-4-0 against Elmira and 4-4-0 against Toledo. Of the nine teams the last-place Walleye played more than twice, Evansville was the only opponent against whom Toledo managed a winning record (4-3-1).
• The IceMen penalty-kill was among the league’s worst all year, ultimately finishing last among the 21 teams that completed the season. The team’s penalty-killing issues essentially negated its power-play successes. Evansville ended up having the league’s best power-play conversion rate (20.6%), becoming the first team to lead the ECHL in power-play efficiency but miss the playoffs since Augusta did it in 2004-05.
• Although Evansville scored six or more goals on 11 different occasions, Pyle’s team was built to win with solid team defense – and the squad often struggled mightily in that realm. The IceMen were 28-8-5 when allowing three goals or fewer, but they gave up four goals or more a whopping 31 times and went just 3-22-6 in those games.
• Coaches always preach about starting and ending each period on a strong note, but the IceMen never seemed to fully grasp that sermon. Excluding overtime and empty-net goals, Evansville gave up 23 goals in the first two minutes of a period and surrendered another 19 in the final two minutes of a period.
• Another common coaching refrain is to play well right after a goal is scored by either team – don’t let the opposition regain momentum after you score, and limit the damage to a single tally whenever you give up a goal. The IceMen repeatedly had trouble with both of these concepts – allowing a goal within two minutes of scoring one on 14 occasions, and allowing back-to-back goals within a two-minute span on 21 occasions.
• If a two-goal lead is “the worst lead in hockey,” the IceMen proved it on multiple occasions. Eight times, Evansville built a two-goal lead and lost.
• The IceMen were often doomed by penalties that were the result of a lack of focus or communication. Evansville was whistled for 18 Delay-of-Game infractions and seven Too-Many-Men penalties.
• Evansville improved in shootouts as the season went on, but still finished with seven shootout losses – most in the entire ECHL.
THE END OF THE ROAD
The IceMen finished 31-30-11, 11 points shy of a playoff berth. Still, it was a considerable improvement over the team’s first ECHL season (25-40-7) and just the second winning season in six years of professional hockey in Evansville.
But despite tangible overall progress and a built-in excuse for falling apart after a hot start, Pyle will not have the chance to take another step forward in Evansville next season.
On April 18, Good Friday was not so good for Pyle, as the IceMen announced that the organization was parting ways with its coach after one season, effective immediately.
Geary implied that the decision was perhaps not entirely driven by on-ice performance, saying that Pyle “wasn’t the right fit for us.”
So now, Pyle needs just four more victories to take over second place on the ECHL’s wins list. But if he’s going to do so, he’ll have to do it elsewhere.
The Evansville IceMen, meanwhile, will yet again search for a new coach – their fifth in franchise history, and their third in as many years.
In the press release announcing Pyle’s departure, Geary reiterated his quest for success: “We are continually committed to building a winning tradition in the city of Evansville for the best fans in the league.”
Those IceMen fans must now hope that Geary can finally find “the right fit” – and that winning records and post-season appearances will soon follow.