PENSACOLA, Fla. – Preseason confusion, in-season ups and downs, and a season unexpectedly cut short. That is the succinct way of describing the Pensacola Ice Flyers’ 2019-20 season.
From not knowing if a huge signing — perhaps the biggest in the entire Southern Professional Hockey League this season — would pan out; to long streaks, both good and bad; to the season being cut short by the current global nightmare, this will undoubtedly be one of the more memorable seasons in franchise history, even for an organization with three President’s Cup championships under its belt.
Final Record: 23-11-12
Leading Scorer: Tommaso Bucci; 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists)
Best Netminder: Jake Kupsky; 14 GP, 8-3-3, 1.84 goals-against average, .933 save percentage
High Point: Winning seven straight games Nov. 27 through Dec. 14 had the Ice Flyers looking like juggernauts. The team was leading the league, averaging 3.12 goals per game while allowing 2.35 goals against through 17 games. The team was embracing the cliché and playing for each other. After a game against the Huntsville Havoc on Dec. 6, goalie Chase Perry told The Sin Bin, “we play together, play for each other, and it just makes it a lot more fun. Especially when you win.”
Low Point: If winning seven in a row is the high point, logic follows that losing seven straight would be the low point. During a two-week stretch in February (7-21), the Ice Flyers managed only four of a possible 14 points.
It’s not like the Ice Flyers were abysmal during this stretch, the ever-mysterious Puck Luck decided to not be in favor of the Ice Flyers. All seven of the games were one-goal contests, with four of them settled in overtime. Even the game that ended the slide was a one-goal game as the Ice Flyers downed Huntsville 5-4 on Feb. 22.
Highlight of Season: In what proved to be the final weekend of the season, the Ice Flyers hosted the Fayetteville Marksmen for a three-in-three. After early domination in night one turned into a 5-2 loss, the Ice Flyers, who were fighting to secure a playoff spot, used six different goal scorers to resoundingly even the weekend series with the league-leading Marksmen 7-2. In the rubber match of the weekend, the game went to overtime before a questionable call led to a 4-3 Fayetteville win.
Surprises/Disappointments: The biggest surprise of the season may have been the defensive chemistry of returner Jesse Kessler and newcomer/veteran/captain Craig Cescon. During Kessler’s rookie season in 2018-19, he posted two goals and 20 assists but a -5 rating. In 2019-20, Kessler was on pace for the same amount of points, but even the rosiest of projections could have predicted such a massive swing in plus/minus up to +17.
Arguably one of the top defensive pairings in the league, Cescon (+21) and Kessler, were by far the Ice Flyers’ leaders in plus/minus. They ate up a ton of minutes for the Ice Flyers as Ice Flyers head coach Rod Aldoff and assistant coach John McLean leaned on them to handle the key moments late in games.
The biggest disappointment may have been not seeing Angus Redmond in an Ice Flyers jersey. A weird/messy/confusing situation led to Redmond being barred from playing in the SPHL during the 2019-20 season. He was still under contract to the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, but the organization seemed to have no plans for him, so he tried to join the Ice Flyers. After not being allowed to play in the SPHL, Anaheim eventually found a place for Redmond, and he had his best pro season to date. He appeared in 20 games for the Newfoundland Growlers posting a 16-2-0 with a 2.55 GAA and a .907 SV%. If Redmond had brought that level of performance to the Pensacola crease, the Ice Flyers’ goaltending depth would have been ridiculous.
If the season continued…how would it have played out?
When the season ended, the Ice Flyers were on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. It is safe to assume that there was not going to be a collapse and that the team would make the playoffs, and likely lock up home ice in the first round. Now here’s the tricky part. When the season ended, the Ice Flyers had a goalie tandem of Perry and Stephen Klein, with Perry looking to be the team’s number one.
Kupsky was in the ECHL with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits at the time the two leagues paused then ultimately canceled the remainder of their seasons. Greenville was in third place and battling for a South Division playoff spot. Both Orlando and Atlanta held games in hand over Greenville, so the Swamp Rabbits clinching a spot was definitely in question. If Greenville missed out, the Ice Flyers could have returned to their season-opening tandem of Kupsky and Perry. Having two extremely capable goalies would be an enviable position, especially when one of those has just returned from a higher level.
Focus for Offseason
It seems the main thing the Ice Flyers will need to focus on is consistency. Seven-game winning streaks are great, but seven-game losing streaks aren’t. The biggest problem is that minor league hockey is inherently inconsistent. With call-ups rosters can change daily; off-season signings aren’t guaranteed to show up for camp; a team’s top scorer may retire; players accepting opportunities overseas or in higher leagues; the only constant is change. Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Ice Flyers need to take the chemistry they had this season and channel it into consistency.
Only time will tell if the SPHL and the Ice Flyers will be able to return to their normal timeline in the fall. If they can, perhaps Aldoff and McLean can keep most of the core together and supplement with the right pieces, this team could be a force to be reckoned with next season.
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Don’t forget to follow Geoff on Twitter @SinBinIceFlyers for updates and news throughout the off-season!