ECHL: Jacksonville Icemen 2023-24 Season Preview

In just eight more days, the Jacksonville Icemen will once again take to the ice for regular season action. The October 21st puck drop will start the Icemen’s seventh season in the ECHL and the start of a new chapter of hockey history in the River City. In July, the team announced a new NHL affiliate team partnership with the Buffalo Sabres organization. The Icemen will now serve as the third stop in the Sabres’ North American development pipeline, the Rochester Americans of the AHL being the midpoint. The team spent the prior two seasons as the ECHL partner of the historic New York Rangers franchise. In August, the Icemen announced the addition of Charles Williams to the front office staff, with the now-former netminder becoming the team’s Director of Community Hockey Development. The addition of Williams to the front office comes after the beloved Icemen goalie announced his retirement earlier in the offseason.

Credit: Jacksonville Icemen

There were plenty of changes happening on the ice, too. On paper, the team is still a solid mix of veteran presence and fresh skill, but the names that make up that mix look a bit differently than they did back in May. With a different affiliate team supplying a different stream of talent, Icemen of years past have found new homes and new names will be crested on the back of Icemen sweaters. A combination of crushing toughness and slick skill, the forward group has been retooled for playing a fast, complete, end-to-end game. The defensive core has been supplied with fresh assets capable of clearing space and maintaining control of the game, aiding the more offense oriented veteran defensemen that have returned to the line-up. It’s a balanced roster that stands poised to be a potent contender despite what could otherwise be described as significant changes to its make-up.

Ara Nazarian, Ben Hawerchuk, Travis Howe, Luke Lynch, and Cristiano DiGiacinto are all key names from the Icemen’s forward group that won’t be returning to Jacksonville this season. Defensively, Jacob Friend and Tim Theocharidis join that list. Familiar face Brandon Fortunato only just recently returned to the Icemen’s defense corps after being released by the Rochester Americans. In net, the Icemen didn’t only lose Charles Williams to retirement; goalies Parker Gahagen and Olof Lindbom both signed with new teams in the Summer. As a result, a completely revamped goaltending unit reflects the mix of talent, new and old, that appears throughout Jacksonville’s roster.

Ones To Watch:

Credit: Gary Lloyd McCullough/Jacksonville Icemen

Forward Christopher Brown signed a one-year contract with the Rochester Americans in the summer, but the Icemen captain returned to the line-up this past week when the Americans reassigned him. Still under contract with Rochester through the season, Brown will surely be a player to watch while he’s with the club. Coming off of a career year in which he posted 64 points (24g, 40a), the Icemen veteran will be hungry to build upon last season’s success.

Dominick Mersch being directed off ice after a fight during the Sabres Prospects Challenge. Credit: twitter.com/buffalo sabres

Dominick Mersch is probably the Icemen’s most notable offseason signing and will be a player to keep tabs on all season. Mersch was an invite to the Sabres’ prospect challenge back in September and got the opportunity to make his mark with his on-ice performance. Appearing on the Americans’ preseason roster, Mersch hit the gamesheet with an assist on a goal scored by older brother Michael. It’s likely Mersch gets a call-up nod in the future, but will it provide the Icemen offense another weapon to utilize for now.

Hockey Swiss army knife Victor Hadfield should be on everyone’s radar this season. Hadfield was originally signed to the team as a defenseman but possesses the ability to fluently play both sides of the puck. Hadfield is currently listed on the Icemen roster as a forward, and his true strengths seem to shine on the offensive side of the puck. Now, Hadfield only registered 14 points in 44 games last season, but if he’s to be deployed in a primarily offensive position, that productivity should increase. Either way, Victor Hadfield is player to watch at all ends of the ice.

For as long as the Icemen get to keep him, Nicolas Savoie should have folks everywhere on notice. The 21-year-old defenseman is coming off of a championship season with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Quebec Remparts. Savoie posted a career-high 48 points with the Remparts last season and led the Remparts defense in scoring throughout their playoff run. His name is often kicked around in prospects conversations, and will be a very skilled addition to the Icemen blueline.

Nicolas Savoie at Buffalo Sabres development camp. Credit: twitter.com/buffalo sabres

Chris Jandric is another fresh face to keep an eye on in the Icemen defense group. Jandric is a recent reassignment from Rochester and comes off of a record-setting year at the University of North Dakota. The blueliner racked up four goals and 29 assists in 39 games last season with the Fighting Hawks and led all NCHC defensemen with 21 points in 24 league contests. Jandric is another name that could get the nod but will help provide the Icemen crucial secondary scoring in the meantime.

Big body Jack Van Boekel is the sandpaper that the Icemen roster is missing in spite of Travis Howe’s absence. The 27-year-old stands 6’7″ and has accumulated 227 penalty minutes in just 75 games over three seasons. Van Boekel’s role is rather clear and, pending his addition to the roster, will give Icemen fans some highlight reel worthy hits to look forward to in the upcoming year.

Matt Vernon at Wranglers training camp. Credit: AHL/Calgary Wranglers

Icemen fans may already be familiar with the work of Joe Murdaca in net after his time with divisional foe Atlanta Gladiators, but new addition Matt Vernon is the goaltender to look out for. Vernon only saw two games of action last year in Reading once, joining the team after leaving Colorado College. However, goaltending might as well be in his blood, as Vernon’s father, Mike Vernon, led the Calgary Flames to a Stanley Cup win in 1989. Vernon’s already seen championship success at the junior level with the NAHL’s Aberdeen Wings and should be exciting to watch in the next few months.

Season Outlook:

As it stands, the Icemen roster currently contains 28 players. ECHL rules state a team cannot carry no more than 21 players for the first 30 days of the season, not including players on injured reserve. Forward Craig Martin is the only Icemen name to appear on the IR list, which means the team will have to inevitably cut seven players between now and November. With the group the front office has put together, those seven players could almost be anybody. In addition to the deep prospect pool the Buffalo Sabres continue to build, there could be some interesting roster dynamics deeper in the season.

The initial group of reassigned players from Rochester already includes some top-end talent that will positively impact the Icemen’s performance. Names like Mersch, Brown, and Fortunato could also find themselves going the other way and earning a spot on the Americans’ roster. With the options available to them currently, the Icemen can ice a group of players capable of putting on quite a show. A line combination such as the likes of Iacopelli-Mersch-Cockerill has the potential to be a league-leading scoring line, while defensive combos like Julian Kislin and Chays Ruddy have the capacity to open up the ice and provide depth scoring. There are a lot of tools at the Icemen’s disposal this year, and utilizing them to their best capacity will ensure the Icemen roll out one of the most skilled teams in the ECHL South Division. With a schedule that is heavy on in-division games with tough opponents, that roster depth will be a critical piece of longevity for the team if they want to go on another playoff run. In fact, roster depth will be a vital component to a deep playoff push.

No matter who makes the final cut, it is a tough task for the Icemen to not put together a team that’s capable of making big waves in the league this year. That’s a pretty good spot to be in when preparing for another season. Withstanding any injury bugs or major roster mix-ups, Jacksonville has the weapons to be a lethal challenger during the upcoming season.

The Jacksonville Icemen’s regular season action kicks off on Saturday, October 21st, at home against the Florida Everblades. The team is collaborating with the Buddy Check cancer initiative to host a “pink out” for the season opener.

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is a freelance hockey reporter covering the ECHL's Jacksonville Icemen for Inside The Rink and the Vancouver Canucks for The Canuck Way. His work has been featured on Hockey of Tomorrow and The Daily Faceoff, and can be found on Twitter/X @FromTheDrewLine.

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