Florida Everblades get direction from Coach Brad Ralph

Florida Everblades get direction from Coach Brad Ralph

By Craig HandelPhotos by Brad Young

 

The Florida Everblades rarely have a problem luring and retaining talent. Esteros professional ice hockey franchise almost always makes it to the postseason, offers shorts-wearing weather throughout the winter, and has loyal booster club members who treat players like their own children or grandchildren.

So when the Everblades have trouble recruiting, you know its tough out there for everyone.

We still have a lot of work to do,Blades coach Brad Ralph said in early September. Its a really competitive market this season.

Forward John McCarron put it succinctly: We need more guys.

Everblades forward John McCarron competing against Jacksonville

Everblades forward John McCarron competing against Jacksonville

The Everblades do have a strong core of veterans returning with McCarron and forwards Kyle Neuber, Mike Neville, Joe Pendenza, Blake Winiecki and Levko Koper, and defensemen Stefan LeBlanc and Ben Masella.

A couple of familiar faces also return in forward Alex Aleardi, who played in 16 regular-season games for the Blades in 2014-15; and defenseman Jordan Sambrook, who played in 13 games before being a late-season cut.

Florida will open its regular season on Oct. 23 with a home game against Jacksonville. Last season, the Everblades won the regular-season title but ran out of gas in the postseason, losing their first-round playoff series in five games.

Ralph, McCarron and Aleardi said there are basically three reasons why recruiting has been difficultall related to the global pandemic.

1. Fewer collegiate players going pro

Because COVID cost Canadian and American college players a postseason in 2020 and a full season for some last year, institutions have offered them a fifth year of eligibility. Many are using it to not only get four-year degrees but masters degrees.

The pool is around 250 players who normally go pro,Ralph said. This year, there were about 50. Its a shortage for us, and its that much more of a challenge.

2. More retiring players

With many pro teams choosing not to play last season, players of all ages assessed their situations. Many chose to retire.

I expected that,Aleardi said. Taking a year off, its not an easy thing to come back at certain ages. I only played 22 games last year, and they canceled playoffs. Normally, theres 44 regular-season games and three rounds of playoffs.

Ralph added, They had to move on, whether its buying a house or marrying or getting a full-time job. Theyre looking for concrete jobs.

3. Competing with international leagues

Since COVID pushed back the regular season and postseason, the Everblades had less time to recruit. Meanwhile, foreign and domestic teams that didnt have a season had more time to connect with and sign players.

I think Europe ran into the same issue,McCarron said. A lot of teams didnt play, so players retired. Top ECHL players were getting offers to fill roster spots. You can go overseas and make more money comparable to the NHL on the lower end or the AHL. Its a risk because if you dont have a great season, you can be retired for sure.

Everblades fans

Everblades fans

McCarron said he received 10-15 offers to play in Europe this offseason after an ECHL season that included career highs in goals (31) and assists (37).

One was very close with the Swedish Elite team,said the Bladescaptain. It fell through, but unless it was an amazing opportunity, it wasnt worth it.

Players who are in their mid20s often face a dilemma: help their ECHL or AHL team win a championship and play for the dream of making the NHL; or go to Europe, where the pay and benefits are better, while being aware that the chances of playing in the NHL are reduced greatly.

Aleardi played in Europe for six years with clubs in Sweden, Austria and France. Among his coaches was former Everbladeshead man Greg Poss.

He enjoyed learning about different cultures off the ice. On the ice, he was impressed with players working on their skating and puck skills.

In the U.S., its more grit,he said. There, they were more well-rounded in their skill set. I grew into mine over the years.

When Aleardi and his wife considered a return to the U.S., he remembered Everblades General Manager Craig Brush staying in contact with him.

Craig always asked to see how things were going for me in Europe. Weve been in contact over the years. Im a very loyal person, so I took that as a very good thing. I was there only 20 games and the playoffs. Usually, its out of sight, out of mind,Aleardi said. I felt like I was a piece of their puzzle.

Florida Everblades against South Carolina Stingrays

Florida Everblades against South Carolina Stingrays

He then reached out to former Blade Alex Kile, as well as McCarron.

I remember Florida being very professional, and everything I knew had gotten better,Aleardi said. It doesnt feel like the ECHL. They treat players well.Its a good locker room.

Aleardi, along with the returnees, gives the Blades a solid core group. The teams contract with the NHLs Nashville Predators guarantees Florida a player at every position, so thats at least three players. Milwaukee, the BladesAHL affiliate, didnt have a team last year, so itll be interesting to see who Florida gets from there.

We have a good group of older guys coming back,Masella said.Sometimes having turnover is a good thing. You never know who youll get until the last minute. Nashville opens camp, and then the AHL starts the next week. Theyve got good prospect pools. Whoever they send us will be quality.

Were looking forward to getting back at it,he said. We have a lot of unfinished business. Were chomping at the bit to get back.

 

Florida Everblades 2021-22 Home Schedule

Oct. 23 vs. Jacksonville

Oct. 27, 29 & 30 vs. Norfolk

Nov. 10 & 17 vs. Orlando

Nov. 20 vs. Jacksonville

Dec. 1, 2 & 4 vs. Trois-Rivieres

Dec. 15, 17 & 18 vs. Atlanta

Dec. 29 vs. Orlando

Jan. 7 & 8 vs. South Carolina

Jan. 21 & 22 vs. Atlanta

Jan. 26 vs. Jacksonville

Feb. 5 vs. Orlando

Feb. 16 vs. Jacksonville

Feb. 18 & 19 vs. South Carolina

Feb. 23 vs. Orlando

*All games are at 7 or 7:30 pm. Find the full schedule on floridaeverblades.com

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