The 2018–19 season for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits was not up to expectation. It was a year of rebuilding and discovery. What core pieces could move forward with the team with the acquisition of an NHL affiliate? Without the influx of top-level talent, the team relied on mainstays to carry the load. First-year head coach Kevin Kerr's club fought to 36 one-goal games, but only won 14 of them. A backbreaking penalty kill put games out of reach at inopportune times.
One look at Kerr's record in Macon will show you that the first year saw growing pains, but year two brought results. In fact, after a sub-.500 year in his first season, he led the team to 37 wins in the regular season, a playoff berth, and a President's Cup Championship.
"I think the structure of our team will stay mostly the same," Kerr said. "I think we're going to be a hard team to play against, an even harder one to play against than last year. A lot of coaches told me last year that we were hard to play against. The expectations are very high."
With the addition of an affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes, and the creation of the Carolina Hockey Alliance with two powerhouse teams, indeed, expectations are through the roof. As good as expectations are nice to have in September and October, it takes a concerted effort to get through the dogfight that is the South Division on a nightly basis and come away as one of the better teams.
This season preview will go through the team, position by position, as it stands today, without knowing the specific players that will be sent down from the American Hockey League.
Regardless of who comes down from the Charlotte Checkers, the Swamp Rabbits have a talented crop of forwards returning from last season, beginning with the team's leading scorer, Michael Pelech, as well as goal scoring dynamos Johno May and Kamerin Nault. Travis Howe comes back to the Upstate to add his brand of traditional fan-favorite sandpaper.
While some effective wingers departed for other teams in the ECHL, Greenville arguably improved in this department with the addition of significant veteran forwards.
First, all-situations center Mason Baptista, and essentially player/assistant coach, is the player Kerr wanted into his lineup right away. Not only can he post points on the regular (143 P in 231 GP), but has a strong understanding of the game and can help young players develop as a mentor figure. Baptista regularly holds development camps in the offseason near his home in North York, Ontario. He will make an immediate difference.
Swamp Rabbits fans will be happy to see forward Nathan Perkovich in blue and orange as opposed to green and white. As a member of the Florida Everblades, he was dynamite against Greenville, and the rest of the South Division. At 33 years of age, he will be the oldest member of the team, but he will provide 440 games' worth of pro experience. On a stacked 'Blades club, he ranked sixth in scoring and fifth in goals.
Ryan Horvat, who spent the last three seasons with the Springfield Thunderbirds, inked a contract with the Swamp Rabbits as the potential to be a huge impact player. Horvat was not especially offensively overwhelming at the AHL level, but his playmaking acumen and all-siutations play will be a boon for the Swamp Rabbits' lineup. He brings championship pedigree as well, as an OHL champion with the Guelph Storm, and a Calder Cup champion in his first season in the AHL with Manchester.
Shaquille Merasty joins the club from the Orlando Solar Bears. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Merasty brings an imposing presence to the forward group. He also posted a career-high 25 points last season, a quintupled improvement on his past output.
The wildcard of all of the incoming forwards is Cédric Lacroix, whose rough'n'tumble style of play will be a big hit with Greenville fans. Lacroix is currently on an AHL deal with the Checkers, so his availability off the bat is still in question. However, when he does play in Greenville, expect him to make a difference. He led the Wheeling Nailers in goals last season (22), and at the same time, was among the league leaders in penalty minutes (215). He is not afraid to take care of business by making the team pay on the scoresheet, or with the fists.
The forward group is rounded out by Roman Ammirato, a goal-scoring winger who played with the Tulsa Oilers, two-way forward Lincoln Griffin out of Northeastern University, power forward Daniel Perez, who showed big strides at the end of last season, and Zach Franko, a deft playmaking winger, acquired from Idaho in exchange for Will Merchant.
Competition for spots on the blue line will be fierce. Returners Adam Larkin, Chad Duchesne, J.C. Brassard, Jake Bolton and Luke Ripley will see new competition from the free agents signed in the offseason, as well as pressure from the cadre of Carolina prospects from Charlotte.
The five returners saw significant time on the blue line and each have their strengths that can be added to the defensive effort. Larkin and Duchesne combined to be the Swamp Rabbits' top defensive pair, and plus players in the process. In an injury-shortened season, Brassard showed glimpses of a consistently solid two-way defenseman. Bolton's offensive prowess was unmatched among other defensemen in the South Division, but defensively, he struggled in Greenville. Ripley proved to be a solid, steady defensive effort when he made it into the lineup.
The coaching staff brought in Brien Diffley, a 24-year-old defenseman who split time between the Wheeling Nailers and the now-defunct Manchester Monarchs. Diffley won't set the world on fire offensively, but defensively, he has proven strong. He finished his college career at Boston University a +23, and his first pro season a +7. He will immediately challenge for a spot.
Kerr also signed Ryan Polin from the college ranks. The young d-man just finished a four-year career at American International College. His senior season saw him help lead the way to an Atlantic Hockey Conference championship in an OT win over Niagara University, and a massive first-round upset over #1 St. Cloud State in the NCAA Tournament. Much like Diffley, Polin is not known as an offensive defenseman, but someone who can be relied on in the defensive zone.
The only returning goaltender from last season will be Kyle Hayton, who will battle potential AHL goalies Jeremy Helvig and Callum Booth from the Checkers and Ryan Bednard from the Thunderbirds. Hayton ended last season on a high note, and a bulk of the starts following a college career that saw him emerge as one of the top goalies in the NCAA. Parker Gahagen, an Army product, also joins the club on a PTO.
The more experienced Helvig and Booth have both seen time at the AHL level and have been in high-intensity games at the pro level. Booth, a 4th round pick by the 'Canes in 2015, split time between the Checkers, 'Blades and Reading Royals last season. Helvig, a 2016 5th round pick by Carolina, did not see playoff time behind starter apparent Alex Nedeljkovic in Charlotte, but was a huge reason why Florida got as far as they did last season. His 2.27 GAA and .918 save percentage was accentuated further by three shutouts.
Bednard, coming off of a stellar college career at Bowling Green State University where he earned All-WCHA Third Team honors, WCHA Goaltender of the Month once and WCHA Goaltender of the Week twice this past season, will look to replicate that level of success at the pro level. Last season's stats were his best—a 1.77 goals against average and a .927 save percentage.
Hayton ended last season on a high note after a rough go with the Allen Americans for the bulk of his starts. He ended the year with wins in two of his last three starts with Greenville and showed potential with his ability to make game changing saves. The Colorado native's pedigree speaks for itself—a Hobey Baker Award nominee, a Mike Richter Award nominee, ECAC Goaltender of the Year, ECAC Hockey Media Association's Goaltender of the Year, First Team All-ECAC and First Team All-ECACHMA selection.
Let the battle for the crease begin.
It's no secret that special teams will need to be better across the board for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits to be a playoff team. While the man advantage was one of the better aspects of the team's game early, it sagged as the year went on. The 39 goals on the power play were fourth-fewest in the league. The 14.3% success percentage was third-worst. The unit was especially anemic at home, where they were successful just 12.9% of the time, second-worst in the league.
The penalty kill was no better. At 78.2%, they eked out just the Orlando Solar Bears by two-tenths of a percent. The league-best penalty kills gave up close to 40 goals on the power play. Greenville gave up 63.
Lastly, just when the team wanted to gather some momentum, it was stifled immediately by mistakes on the power play. The 20 shorthanded goals against were far and away the most given up by an ECHL team last season. The Adirondack Thunder gave up only three all season, which was a league-best mark.
Additions like Baptista, Horvat and Diffley and an improvement in goaltending should shore up some of the defensive side on the penalty kill. One more year under the Kerr scheme should round out any structural issues on the power play, especially with an affiliate in place and no real need to be wheeling and dealing free agents throughout the entire season like last year.
It will be up to the personnel to carry out orders more efficiently this season and be much better on special teams.
The Swamp Rabbits will need to be better against the South Division this season. That observation is obvious, yet it is worth passing along. At 18-37-4, it simply was not good enough to have a sniff at the playoffs. Recall the Florida Everblades, who had 50 overall wins on the season. 45 of them came at the expense of the South Division. Only the South Carolina Stingrays had a sub-.500 record against the division and still made the playoffs.
The personnel heading into the 2019–20 campaign is objectively better than the one heading into the 2018–19 season. As Kerr said, in his own words, last season's team was a good team, not a great team. This team has the potential to ring in the 10th Anniversary season as a great team.
Shoring up special teams and the goaltending will go a long way towards turning the record around. Getting consistent reinforcements from the American Hockey League could add to the fear factor of the Swamp Rabbits' lineup. It all begins Saturday, October 12 in Jacksonville.