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Star power and growing pains : The St. John’s IceCaps 2016-17 year in review

A look at the highs and lows of the 2016-17 St. John’s IceCaps

St. John’s IceCaps/Jeff Parsons

In the final season of AHL hockey in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, the IceCaps snapped a long-standing playoff drought for the Montreal Canadiens minor league affiliates. The road to their four-game playoff appearance was not an easy one. In fact, it came down to securing a spot in the last game of the year against the Toronto Marlies.

What went right and what went horribly awry in the last season on The Rock? Let’s take a look

The Struggle

The IceCaps shot themselves in the foot too many times to count this year. The lack of discipline is something that will have to be addressed going forward if the team in Laval hopes to have success. There’s difference between playing with emotion and playing sloppy, undisciplined hockey. Too often the IceCaps were caught playing the latter.

Their penalty kill came in at 24th in the league at 80.4%, meaning they’ve given up a goal against roughly once every five penalty kills. They racked up 1162 penalty minutes, good for top four in the entire AHL, and were shorthanded a total of 312 times, or roughly four times a game.

Despite the strong play in net from Charlie Lindgren and Yann Danis, giving up a myriad of high-danger chances will eventually result in goals against regardless of how good the netminder is.

The system the team played wasn’t conducive to spurring offensive opportunities, especially from the back end. In the modern world of hockey, playing a system that relies on soft dumps around the board to clear the zone isn’t one that’s likely to win. Too often would Joel Hanley or Josiah Didier be trapped in their own end under pressure, and their only answer was to meekly flip it on their backhand up the boards. As we saw in Montreal, eventually teams catch on to this and the puck stops leaving the zone and starts entering the net.

Finally, and perhaps the biggest issue, was the utter misuse of skilled players in the lineup on a consistent basis. Nikita Scherbak was a target for random benchings and demotions throughout the year, which would be fine if a skilled player like Jacob de la Rose or Daniel Audette moved up the lineup. But more often than not, it would be Bobby Farnham or Yannick Veilleux taking his place in the top six.

For a team that, for long stretches, failed to produce offence outside of Charles Hudon and Chris Terry, handicapping yourself like that is less than ideal. In fact, the lack of trust in players like Tom Parisi and Ryan Johnston, who can move the puck without blindly dumping it up the boards, often fell out of favour quickly.

The Good

On the flip side, there were a lot of bright spots in the IceCaps organization this season, one of which was a playoff berth.

Hudon and Terry were utterly ridiculous this season. Terry set a new IceCaps scoring record with 30 goals and 68 points overall, which was good enough for second overall in the AHL. Hudon finished in the top ten for goals with 27, and likely would have topped 30 if not for a few minor injuries during the year.

Terry was elected to the AHL All-Star Game, and was named Second Team AHL All-Star at the end of the year for his efforts, thanks in large part to his 19 power-play goals which lead the league. Their linemate, Nikita Scherbak, also took a big step forward in his second season, staying healthy all year and topping the 40 point plateau for the IceCaps.

Even more impressive is that it wasn’t just the top line who contributed points. Eight players scored at least ten goals, a huge gap that was missing in previous seasons.

Despite a quiet end to the year, Daniel Audette showed fans that he’s a legitimate prospect when he dominated the scoresheet in December. Collecting five goals and seven assists, on an injury depleted team at the time, Audette stepped up big time for someone who was in their first pro season.

De la Rose, who finally got a full season to establish his game, became the IceCaps most trusted forward by the midpoint of the season. Playing on a line with Max Friberg and Stefan Matteau, the trio was leaned on heavily to take tough minutes, playing on both the penalty kill and power play. The Swedish forward flourished with 14 goals and 17 assists, despite the heavy workload.

And finally, there’s Charlie Lindgren, who in his rookie year started the majority of the games for the IceCaps, and proved that he was well worth signing. In 48 games played, Lindgren posted a 24-18-6 record with a 2.56 GAA and .914 SV%. He ranked top ten in wins despite not possessing a higher save percentage, which could be due to the fact that he faced the 6th most shots against in the entire AHL.

To say that Lindgren’s strong play is what helped the IceCaps break into the playoffs this year would be understating his work. Without him holding the fort through injury issues and offensive woes, the IceCaps would likely have been nowhere close to a post-season berth.

The Future

While the final season of hockey in St. John’s didn’t have a storybook ending, it did bring a lot of positives as the team prepares to move to Laval next year. The future Rocket has a dominant goalie who can steal games and a defensive core that took steps forward after a rough previous season.

Not only did they improve, but they’ll be bolstered by the additions of Noah Juulsen and Simon Bourque who will finish their promising CHL careers shortly. The offence isn’t likely to slow down with Terry being signed for another season, and his linemates also set to hopefully return (expansion draft notwithstanding).

The coaching staff’s contracts ran out at the end of this season, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back. If they are, the system the team plays will likely change as Michel Therrien’s archaic style is no longer ruling the roost, and Claude Julien’s tight defensive style and puck possession play will soon be implemented in the AHL.

It was a roller coaster season, but there is a lot to be excited about in the future. As for now, we close the book on the time in St. John’s and look ahead to the first puck drop at Place Bell and, hopefully, more AHL success.