ECHL: Iowa Heartlanders 2023-24 Season in Review

Hector Urica/InsideTheRink

As the Florida Everblades clinch their third consecutive Kelly Cup, it is time to review the Iowa Heartlanders 2023-24 Season.

I suggested in November that this may be the season where Iowa made their first playoffs. This was not what was written in the stars for Derek Damon’s crew.

Iowa finished the season with 27 wins, 37 losses, and eight overtime losses, a total of 62 points, up from 58 points in 2022-23. Despite remaining in last place in the highly competitive Central Division, most fans agree that this season was a step in the right direction.

In the 2023 off-season, many changes were made. A late-offseason ownership change meant that President Matt Getz was not able to make changes before the new season began, leaving it up to Head Coach and General Manager Derek Damon to control the direction of the team. Captain Riese Zmolek was traded to the Florida Everblades, and Will Calverley came in. Davis Koch, Casey Dornbach, Louis Boudon, Maxim Cajkovic, and Brett Budgell came in to lead the offense. Robbie Stucker, Chris Lipe, Iowa-Native Hunter Lellig, and Ben Brinkman joined to shore up the defense, and Peyton Jones and Drew DeRidder joined Hunter Jones to complete the goaltending trio. Defenseman Kevin McKernan was named the Heartlander captain.

Through five games, it wasn’t looking good for Damon’s Squad, and changes were quickly made to deal with just one point in the standings. Nolan Orzeck was traded to the Allen Americans and Adam Goodsir was brought in from the Worcester Railers, lines were shuffled up, and Peyton Jones was given the nod as first-choice goalkeeper.

Then, the unforeseeable happened. It started with a gritty victory, holding the Kalamazoo Wings to just one goal. Then Iowa did that twice more, clinching their first-ever three-game home sweep. Then, they swept the Utah Grizzlies at home. A win at the K-Wings gave the team a seven-game win streak. A Thanksgiving overtime loss kept the point streak going and a win at Wheeling saw that streak reach nine games, the longest in franchise history. 17 points from nine games was all that was in store for this record-breaking streak, but it left the Heartlanders in second in the Central 20% of the way into the season. In this Stretch, Peyton Jones won the team’s first Goalie Of The Week for the week of November 6-12, allowing just three goals in three games and providing Iowa with three wins.

Reality then set in quickly, as Iowa took just six of the available 30 points in December, capped off by getting devastatingly swept by Rapid City ahead of New Year’s, and Iowa found themselves looking up at the rest of the Central.

More changes were made after this December to forget, as Landon Kosior returned to Canada to go back to college. Jesse Jacques was shipped off to Orlando for Louka Henault when defenders ran short. Michael Knaub was suspended for leaving the bench to start a fight, Anthony Firriolo was added in a trade with the Indy Fuel, and Odeen Tufto left to pursue hockey in Europe. Ty Enns and Vincent De Mey were added going into the new year as well.

The Heartlanders started January 2-2-0, climbing back into competition in the division, setting up a big game on MLK day vs. the Cincinnati Cyclones for 6th place.  

Long story short, this is how that dramatic game ended:

Later that evening, Peyton Jones became the first Iowa Heartlander to play in the ECHL All-Star Game and shone as the best Goalie in the game, making 10 saves in his 20 minutes of play.

While it was always going to be a long shot, a 2-3-0 finish to January was enough to keep Iowa in the hunt. Unfortunately, a shortage of players bit Iowa hard. 2022-23 Showstopper Steven Leonard came back to the team but soon returned to the SPHL, and the Long Island, New York Native eventually retired to pursue his dreams of being a firefighter and hockey broadcaster. Boudon, Brinkman, and Peyton Jones were called up to the Iowa Wild, Nick Campoli suffered a season-ending injury, Vincent De May departed, and Maxim Cajkovic was called up to the Iowa Wild and Traded to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and found himself on the other side of the Iowa/Wheeling rivalry by being sent back to the ECHL. It was at this point scoring leader Davis Koch also began exploring his options. He would go abroad on January 27th. Lastly, Stucker was swapped with the Utah for Dakota Raabe.

This began a stretch of road wins and home losses for the Heartlanders, going 5-1-0 on the road and 0-6-1 at home in February, which was capped off with a game-winning snipe off a faceoff by Cincinnati with just four seconds left in regulation, a truly heartbreaking moment that shocked the fans and the team alike.

As the college season wound down, the locker room became a revolving door. Firriolo left for Tulsa, while Evan Boucher, Ty Enns, Sullivan Sparkes, and Max Johnson all finished short stints with the Landers. Jack Perbix, Jonny Sorenson, Riley Hughes, and Ethan Burroughs were brought in as young players to finish this season strong and look towards next season. Nico Blachman came in as an enforcer and instantly became a fan favorite while living up to his nickname of the “Scariest man in the ECHL,” which was proven when Nailers enforcer Peter Laviolette III picked up his stick and skated back to the bench instead of fighting Blachman. Nico was brought in to stand up for the Heartlanders after a terrifying moment saw Will Calverley’s season end after a brutal hit in Cincinnati.

Here is more on the Calverley incident, told wonderfully by Iowa Broadcaster David Fine:

In February, Drew DeRidder also became the second player to win Goalie of the Week for the week of Jan 29-Feb 4, averaging 1.5 goals against and making a key save in overtime to help Iowa win all their games that week. The U12 Junior Heartlanders were also celebrated for a league championship, and the University of Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band Drum Line was welcomed to provide some games with a new type of atmosphere.

February and March blended in the eyes of fans as tough losses and player shortages continued. Kyle Masters was brought in from the Iowa Wild and made an instant impact shoring up the defense, but this was not enough to put points on the board, as 10 wins (including a weekend sweep of Wichita) from 25 games just wasn’t enough to pull into contention. An injury to Hunter Jones and DeRidder’s AHL tryout in Rochester saw a revolving door of Emergency Backup Goalies, none of whom saw ice time.

Five close losses and some off-the-ice drama had the Heartlanders playing for pride in Game 72 against Kansas City, the league leader in wins and points. A pregame tailgate had fans coming out hours before the game and players, executives, and fans alike looking to achieve something yet to happen in Heartlanders history: a sellout.

The story of the quest to sell out will be told exclusively at Inside the Rink at a later date.

A rollover 7-4 win for the team that went on to the Kelly Cup Finals was just part of a proud moment to end the season. While playoffs weren’t meant to be, Heartlanders coaching has been recognized, as Derek Damon received an extension to his contract, and associate Joe Exter got himself a head coaching job in junior hockey. Former Iowa Heartlanders captain Riese Zmolek became the first former Heartlander to lift the Kelly Cup in June.

Here were Iowa’s stat leaders this season:

Games PlayedYuki Miura72*
GoalsLouis Boudon18
Goals in one gameLouis Boudon, Nick Campoli3
AssistsCasey Dornbach29
Assists in one gameBen Brinkman5*
Total PointsLouis Boudon46
WinsPeyton Jones10
SavesPeyton Jones889
Save PercentageDrew DeRidder.905
Goals Allowed (fewest)Hunter Jones61
*Indicates single season (or game) record for Iowa

Thank you so much for following the Iowa Heartlanders with Inside the Rink this season. ITR’s coverage will not stop for the summer if you are already looking forward to the 2024-25 season. If you want to look back on the 2023-24 season, you can relive the Heartlander season in video form below:

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