Heartlanders Roster Set as Club Readies for Franchise Opener
Friday night, the Iowa Heartlanders will drop the puck for the first time in franchise history, as they open the 2021-22 season at the Xtreme Arena against the Kansas City Mavericks. Head Coach Gerry Fleming has readied his team, naming his final roster for Friday night’s affair.
Currently, Fleming set the roster at 21 players. Only 18 will take to the ice on Friday evening. That includes 16 position players and to goaltenders. The other three will be on reserve for the opener, but do not be surprised if you see one, two, maybe even all three by Saturday evening’s game. Here is a look at the opening-night roster.
This is expected to be a strength for the team. Hunter Jones, drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Wild in the 2019 draft, comes in as the opening-night goaltender. Jones got off to a rough start with the Iowa Wild (AHL) last season, giving up 16 goals in his first two games. However, he rebounded nicely, finishing with a 3.50 GAA and a .886 save percentage in 19 games. In his last six contests, Jones allowed 10 total goals and pitched two shutouts. A year of professional experience and a step down in levels should make the Heartlanders’ goaltender one of the top netminders in the ECHL this season.
The backup will be Trevin Kozlowski, who appeared in one game for the Iowa Wild last season, posting a 3.04 GAA. Kozlowski comes out of West Point where he started for the cadets. The goaltender had a breakout junior season, going 17-11-3 with a .909 save percentage and a 2.20 GAA in 31 games. In 2020-21, Kozlowski finished 14-4-1 with two shutouts and a .922 save percentage. He boasted an impressive 1.91 goals-against average for an Army team that has not been known for spectacular hockey players over the last few generations. Should Jones get called up to Des Moines, Kozlowski could handle the No. 1 duties well.
Currently, there are eight defensemen listed on the opening day roster. This is a group with good size, starting with Alex Carlson. The 6-5, 218 lb. defenseman has spent the last three seasons with the Knoxville Ice Bears (SPHL). Last season he appeared in just three games, but the previous year appeared in 44 for Knoxville, scoring three goals and adding four assists. He is a tough grinding defenseman who should add some leadership.
Fedor Gordeev is probably the most skilled of the group. The 22-year-old appeared in seven games for the Iowa Wild last season, adding an assist. This after having an impressive career in the OHL.
Jake Linhart is the most experienced of the group, playing two seasons with the Adirondack Thunder (ECHL). Linhart did not play last season, but scored five goals and had 18 assists in 51 games the previous season. During the 2018-19 season, he played in 60 games for the Thunder, and even moved up to the Hershey Bears (AHL) for five games.
Shane Kuzmeski, Riese Zmolek, and Jeff Solow are all 25, but have limited or no professional experience. Kuzmeski finished his college career at Clarkson University in the 2019-20 season, then played for the Wheeling Nailers last season, where he scored two goals and added five assists in 31 games. Solow also graduated from college in 2019-20, but sat out last season. Friday will be his first professional contest. Zmolek graduated from Minnesota State University in 2020-21, where he had been the captain. This will be his first professional contest as well, but he is no stranger to the Coralville-Cedar Rapids area, playing two seasons with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (USHL).
Two youngsters fill out the group. Adrien Beraldo turned 21 in January and sat out last season. However, he had an impressive season in his final year in the OHL (2019-20), scoring five goals and adding 18 assists in 45 games. Billy Constantinou turned 20 on March 25. He is another OHL stand out, playing for the Soo Greyhounds in 2019-20 where he scored eight goals and had 39 assists in 52 games.
Like the defense, the offense is thin on experience. It is also lacking in a lot of premier scorers, so fans should expect a lot of low-scoring games early on.
Ryan Kuffner is the most skilled of the group. He played with the Detroit Red Wings in his rookie season (2018-19), appearing in 10 games. Kuffner also played 32 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins that season, scoring six goals and adding three assists in 32 games. A year later he appeared in four games for the Bakersfield Condors, and last season played for Ingolstadt ERC of the DEL (Germany), where he scored seven goals and had seven assists in 31 games.
Bryce Misley appeared in nine games for the Iowa Wild last season, scoring a goal and adding two assists. He is more of a defensive forward, producing just eight goals and 14 assists in 109 games at the University of Vermont.
Joseph Widmar is the most experienced player on the team, beginning his professional career with the Peoria Rivermen in 2017-18. After scoring 11 goals and adding 29 assists in 36 games, Widmar moved up to the ECHL where he played 11 games for the Fort Wayne Komets and nine games for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, combining for six assists in 20 games. In 2018-19, Widmar split time between three clubs. He played 15 games in Peoria, scoring four goals and adding 18 assists. He also played 34 total games in the ECHL, appearing in three games with Fort Wayne. Widmar appeared in 31 games with the Atlanta Gladiators where he scored seven goals and added 11 assists. Widmar played three games for the Wichita Thunder and six games for the Quad City Storm in 2019-20. Last season he did not play. Widmar will likely lead the top line for the Heartlanders.
Kris Bennett also has some professional experience. He played nine games for the Stockton Heat (AHL) last season where he added two assists. Bennett has scoring touch, producing 47 goals in 89 games at the University of New Brunswick. This came after three outstanding seasons in the OHL with the Saginaw Spirit, where he produced 57 goals in 185 games. He will likely also be on the top line.
Two other players have professional experience. Tom Tsicos has played professionally since 2017-18 when he joined the Huntsville Havoc of the SPHL. He appeared in four games for the Worcester Railers in 2018-19. Last season he played in just two games for the Storm. Tsicos had his biggest season in 2020-21 when he scored 13 goals and had 11 assists for the Carolina Thunderbirds. Canon Pieper made his professional debut in 2019-20, when he played 47 combined games for the Birmingham Bulls and the Fayetteville Marksmen. Pieper scored eight total goals and had eight assists. He did not play last season.
The other three forwards are coming fresh out of juniors or college. Two of those – Ben Sokay and Jack Billings – played at Niagara University together for a season. Billings was at Niagara the last two years, where he scored 19 goals and had 21 assists in 54 games. Sokay did not play last season, but spent four seasons at Niagara, producing 11 goals and 11 assists in 33 games in his senior season (2019-20). Kaid Oliver finished out his time in the WHL last season, appearing in 23 games for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Oliver scored 11 goals and had 14 assists. He set a career-high in juniors in 2018-19 when he scored 27 goals in 58 games for the Victoria Royals.
By Robert Pannier