By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Last June the Knoxville Ice Bears introduced Jeff Carr as the franchise’s newest head coach. Carr, a first-time head coach, made one thing clear during his introductory press conference; the goal was to win and to win now.
The season ended a week earlier than he wanted, but Carr has Knoxville trending in the right direction.
The Ice Bears shook off a rough start to the year to finish in the top half of the SPHL standings, boasted the top penalty kill in the league and saw forward Berkley Scott become the first player in franchise history not named Kevin Swider to lead the league in scoring and win the MVP award.
Knoxville also won a playoff series for the first time in three years and in doing so became the first lower-seeded team to knock off a higher seed in the new Challenge Round format.
Despite being the fifth seed, the Ice Bears were selected by Pensacola with the third pick of the Challenge Round. Seventh-seeded Mississippi was still on the board. The Ice Bears responded by beating the Ice Flyers 6-2 in Florida and winning a 4-3 triple overtime thriller in Knoxville to advance to the semifinals for the first time since winning the President’s Cup in 2015.
Knoxville was bounced by regular season champ Peoria in the second round, but Jeff Carr has a lot to be proud of accomplishing so much with a roster that was largely made up of rookies for the entirety of the season.
Of those rookies, college teammates Eliot Grauer and Lawrence Cornellier were second and third on the team in points. Grauer was a point-per-game player with 42 points in as many games. Cornellier tallied 37 points in 55 games. The pair won a division 3 national championship together at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Both were among the top five rookie scoring leaders this season.
Michael Chen missed a portion of the season on call-up, but still led all rookie defensemen with 29 points. Grauer and Chen were both selected to the SPHL All-Rookie team.
In a league with so much roster turnover mid-season acquisitions are vital. The Ice Bears lost returners Evan Neugold and captain Jake Flegel to the ECHL for the majority of the season, as well as newcomers Chen, Josh Erickson and Tommy Kelley. Neugold, Chen and Erickson all returned late in the year. Flegel and Kelley did not.
To make up for the losses Carr signed forwards Marcus Ortiz and Stefan Brucato, who both put up 30-point campaigns in 36 and 42 games played, respectively. However, Carr’s biggest mid-season signing might have come in December when goaltender Troy Davenport was acquired to backup Hetenyi.
Signed shortly after Christmas Davenport went 13-3-3 for Knoxville and finished third in the SPHL in goals against average and fourth in save percentage. Hetenyi was also in the top ten in save percentage and finished tied for fourth in the league in wins. The pair combined to be one of the more stable goaltending pairs in the league.
Combine Carr’s success as a first-year head coach with the winning culture in Knoxville and the Ice Bears’ fan base that so often attracts players to east Tennessee and the 2018-19 campaign looks to bring excitement, hype and, most importantly to Carr, winning.