This year’s Kelly Cup victor may yet be crowned, but for 26 teams in the ECHL, the offseason has already begun. The Jacksonville Icemen are one of those teams. With a 44-23-3-2 record, the Jacksonville Icemen ended the regular season as the second highest-seeded team in the ECHL’s hyper-competitive South Division. Earning home ice advantage in rounds one and two of the playoffs, the Icemen would take down the Greenville Swamp Rabbits in the division semifinals round and square off against the Florida Everblades in the division finals. After losing a hard-fought-for game six against the Everblades, the Icemen’s season officially ended on May 15th. Now that the dust is settled on another Icemen season, it’s time to take a look back on the whole ride from start to finish. How did we get here, and where do we go next?
Dramatic… To Say The Least
If you were to look at the first month and a half of hockey for the Jacksonville Icemen, you may have been surprised to see that they finished the year with 44 wins. Through November, the team only had three victories come in regulation. The other handful of wins were collected in extra time or a shootout. It wasn’t until December that the Icemen found their groove. Picking up seven wins in a row from December 3rd to the 23rd, December bore the hallmark of a team turning the corner. Five of those wins in that seven-game stretch were against non-conference teams Utah and Tulsa. January was much of the same. Aside from three regulation losses, the Icemen were rolling on all fronts. Ending the month, closing out two games against another opponent outside of the division in the Indy Fuel, Jacksonville took a more positive stride into February. In a month dominated by in-division match-ups, the Icemen continued to put W’s in the win column. In the four losses the Icemen took in the month of February, only one game was decided by three or more goals.
Rising through the standings, things would veer off again in March. As the playoff race inside the division heated up, the Icemen were presumably cooling down. Struggling with injuries and games slipping just out of reach, the Icemen only picked up four wins out of the dozen played in March. With each new challenge, their position in the standings would slip. As hockey fate goes, however, sometimes things just work out. As players returned from injured reserve and as new trade deadline acquisitions grew comfortable in the line-up, things would begin making sense in Jacksonville again. Picking up steam at the right time, the Icemen battled back in the last month of the season. Winning six of the previous eight games on the schedule, and some divisional rivals suffering key losses, the Icemen battled their way back to the top of the standings. The last run of wins the team had in April fell just shy of earning them the number one seed in the postseason; not bad for a team that almost played themselves out of playoff contention a month earlier.
The dramatics didn’t stop in the Icemen’s playoff run, either. Jacksonville’s round-one series saw them take on the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Greenville being the lower-ranked team, would cede home ice advantage to the Icemen through round one, though the loss of home ice didn’t hinder a big, physical Greenville team. Splitting the first two games of the series at home to Greenville, Jacksonville would take a 3-2 series lead after a three-game road trip. With a 4-2 win in Jacksonville for game six, the Icemen would move on to a healthy dose of déjà vu for round two.
Like the season before, this postseason saw the Icemen duke it out with the Florida Everblades in the second round. The in-state foes were the ones to make it out of the division finals round last year, ending the Icemen’s season in a four-game sweep. Aiming for a different ending to the same story, the second-round series against the Blades got out of hand quickly for the Icemen. Dropping the first three games, two of which were at home, the Icemen seemed as if they were doomed to repeat history. Pushing back, the Icemen would force a game six after picking up vital game four and game five wins. Game six would be the end of the line for Jacksonville. With a 5-2 loss, the Icemen’s Kelly Cup run and season would come to an end. Although the Icemen proved they could not be put away quietly, as demonstrated, history doesn’t often repeat, but it certainly rhymes.
Run The Numbers
Being shutdown in the second round by the Florida Everblades is just one of the only bitter moments of the season for the Jacksonville Icemen. The team had a lot of returning players in the 2022-2023 season, making for some lethal chemistry throughout the line-up. Multiple players hit new season highs in numerous categories, and the goaltender mafia gave opposing players a run for their money in the crease. Even with the sometimes sputtering flow of the season, Jacksonville solidified their place as a team to be on the lookout for league-wide. In the ten games played versus out-of-division opponents, the Icemen went 9-1. In their second year under head coach Nick Luuko, the Icemen improved to be a 93-point team. That’s eight more points than they picked up in their 2021-2022 campaign and an 18-point improvement from just two seasons ago under head coach Jason Christie. It was also the second year in a row that the Icemen set a new club record for total wins in a season with 44, four more wins than last year’s 40-win season. Special teams ended the year with a 21% success rate on the powerplay and an 80% success rate on the penalty kill. The team also ended up as one of the league leaders in shorthanded goals, scoring 15 of them.
Captain Chris Brown set new career highs in all points categories and was the only Icemen player to dress for all 72 games this season. He ended the year with 64 points, including 24 goals and 40 assists. Brown finished 24th in scoring league-wide. Forward Ara Nazarian finished second amongst Icemen players with 50 points on the year. His 50 points come from 21 goals scored and a new career-high assists with 29. Three Icemen forwards cracked the 40-point mark this season, with Brendan Harris racking up 49 points in 56 games, Luke Lynch picking up 47 points in 71 games, and Derek Lodermeier collecting 47 points in 67 games. Harris’ 49 points marks a new career high for him, including a career-high 15 goals in his professional career thus far. Luke Lynch set new career highs in both goals and assists this season, earning 17 goals and 30 assists for his 47 points. Derek Lodermeier’s continued improvement in the Icemen’s system led him to a 47-point season, with 26 goals and 21 assists coming from the forward. His efforts also earned him the title of ECHL Player of The Week for November 28th – December 4th. Adding to his collection of accolades, Lodermeier also became the player who’s played the most games for the team in club history, dressing for 200 games in an Icemen uniform.
On defense, it was Tim Theocharidis that set the tone. Playing in the most games of any defenseman this season with 66 games played, Theocharidis also led in the points column. His seven goals and 25 assists earned him 32 points this season, notching new professional highs in both points columns. He is joined by Jacob Panetta and Brandon Fortunato as defensive points leaders. Brandon Fortunato lit the lamp five times in his 23-point season and contributed 18 assists. Jacob Panetta ended the year with 22 points, just three points shy of a new career high. He did end the year with a new high in goals, scoring nine this season, complimented by 13 assists.
Between the pipes, the trio known as the goaltender mafia kept things in line. Getting the most starts in net this season was goalie Parker Gahagen. Gahagen started in 33 games this season, ending the year with a 2.66 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. His stellar performance in net earned him the ECHL’s Goaltender of The Week award for March 6th – March 12th. New York Rangers prospect Olof Lindbom got the second most starts in net with 28 appearances in the crease. Lindbom went 17-10-1 in net, ending the year with a .890 save percentage. He finished the season with a 3.01 goals-against average. Rounding things out was veteran net presence Charles Williams making 15 starts in goal. Although Williams saw the least playing time of any of the Icemen goalies this season, he ended the year with the best stats amongst the goalie group. Going 9-5-1 in net, Williams finished the season with a 2.08 goals against average and a new career-best .926 save percentage. His commanding presence in the crease was rewarded with the league’s Goaltender Of The Week award for February 13th – 19th, making him one of the two Icemen goalies to receive the title this season.
The (Black and) Blueprint
The year may have ended sooner than the Icemen wanted, but the ingredients are there to cook up something worth serving next season. With an already tight core group and the new roster additions complimenting them nicely, the foundation has been laid for a hockey powerhouse to emerge. The team has been able to elevate their game in big ways in the previous two seasons with the leadership of head coach Nick Luuko. Even if they choose to go about it in a dramatic fashion, the Icemen are trending in a positive direction. There’s a lot to build on in Jacksonville, and even though the postseason came to a premature end once again, there’s room to battle back next season. If one thing is for certain, it’s that the Icemen will use this momentum to do just that.