As the month of July comes to an end, and the hockey offseason stretches into its waning months, it’s time to begin examining the upcoming 2023-24 ECHL season. For the Jacksonville Icemen, July has been a month in transition, with quite literally new faces and new places coming into Jacksonville’s hockey framework. Despite there being nothing happening on the ice, the Icemen have had a busy month. There’s been no shortage of news around roster moves or organizational developments, and as the season approaches, that news continues to build. From retirees to returns and reorganization, we take a look at it all in the Jacksonville Icemen July Monthly Round-Up.
At the end of June, veteran goaltender Charles Williams announced his retirement from professional hockey. Williams spent the last three seasons in Jacksonville, joining the Icemen roster during the 2020-21 season. Playing 15 games last season, the goalie mafia godfather recorded a career best 2.08 goals against average and a .926 save percentage for the year. Williams’ retires as the current record holder of the most games played by any goalie in Jacksonville Icemen history, playing in 82 games for the Icemen over the course of three seasons.
On July 17th, the Icemen announced that the team had taken over as the ECHL affiliate of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the AHL’s Rochester Americans. The teams made the announcement at a press conference after hinting at the news on social media. Jacksonville had previously partnered with the New York Rangers and Hartford Wolfpack. The move should bode well for both teams, as the Sabres are in the midst of a rebuilding process that will require a revolution of young talent. As the Icemen have consistently remained a highly competitive, playoff contending team, the pipeline from Buffalo to Jacksonville should see a fair bit of action.
In fact, that new connection has already seen some movement. Defenseman Brandon Fortunato is heading up to Rochester. The Americans made the announcement on Tuesday, signing the blueliner to a one-year deal. Fortunato played in 88 games over the course of two seasons for the Icemen, registering five goals and 18 assists in 49 games during the most recent 2022-23 campaign.
The team will be without a handful of familiar faces, as several players have signed on to play the 2023-24 season with teams across the pond. Jacob Friend, Ara Nazarian, Ben Hawerchuk, and Luke Lynch have all agreed to contracts with teams from the Elite Ice Hockey League, or EIHL. The EIHL is the tier-one professional league in the United Kingdom. Defenseman Jacob Friend and Forward Ara Nazarian have both agreed to one-year deals with the Belfast Giants. Forward Ben Hawerchuk will be joining the Fife Flyers, and forward Luke Lynch has signed on with the Glasgow Clan. The EIHL preseason begins August 25th.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Retool
As some players venture away from the Icemen organization and out into the world (literally), others have announced their return. So far, the team has signed eight players to contracts for the upcoming season, a balanced four forwards and four defensemen. Forwards Matt Iacopelli, Chris Grando, Derek Lodermeier, and Brendan Harris will be back in an Icemen sweater, while Julian Kislin, Jacob Panetta, Connor Russell, and Victor Hadfield will return on defense. All eight players signed appeared on the team’s season-ending roster.
The Icemen did extend qualifying offers to eight players at the beginning of the July but have yet to sign any of the players who were issued an offer. Of the eight players given a qualifying offer, only four remain available for the team to sign, as three others have moved on to European play, and Fortunato has been signed to an AHL contract. Tim Theocharidis, Christopher Brown, Garret Cockerill, and Craig Martin are the four players who currently remain unsigned.
With the loss of some key offensive contributors, it will be interesting to see who the Icemen bring in – or bring back – to fill in the holes. The scoring depth throughout the Icemen line-up will certainly be impacted, with guys like Nazarian and Hawerchuk absent from the roster. The ability to have each line pose as a threat in the offensive end has been a vital part of the Icemen staying competitive in a closely touted South division and will require returning forwards, such as Brendan Harris, to step into promeient offensive roles. Additionally, the loss of big physical presences in players such as Jacob Friend and Luke Lynch will require an adjustment. Strength, speed, and grit has been the deadly combination that drives Icemen hockey, with Friend arguably being one of the most physically active players on the ice at any given time for Jacksonville. With players like Panetta and Iacopelli already appearing on the 2023-24 roster list, it appears that the team will pivot to icing a roster that sacrifices size and strength for speed and skill. However, that trend is not altogether uncommon in a sport that gets quicker and more skilled as it ages with time. No matter how the course may have shifted, one thing is for certain – Icemen hockey is back on October 21st.