Iowa Heartlanders 2022-23 Mid-Season Report
After a solid first season, the Iowa Heartlanders are finding season two to be far more challenging than many expected. The club enters the midpoint of the season at 7-17-9, last place in the Central Division.
Tale of the Tape:
Record: 7-17-9, last place in Central Division, 27th place in ECHL
Home Record: 7-4-2
Away Record: 0-13-7
Record in Last 10: 1-7-2
Goals For: 87
Goals Against: 123
The Iowa Heartlanders Season in Review
The season got off on the wrong foot for the Heartlanders when last season’s head coach, Gerry Fleming, headed for Europe. While Derek Damon had served as an assistant last season, he was suddenly thrust into taking over the club in July, not only leaving him with the responsibility of coaching and preparing the team for the upcoming season, but this suddenly put Damon in the role of building the team as well. Damon had no experience as a general manager, but was suddenly responsible for building the club.
Added to the challenge was that the Minnesota Wild organization has provided no support to the Heartlanders. Only goaltender Hunter Jones has found his way down to Coralville, as prospects have remained in Des Moines with the Iowa Wild. That has deprived Damon and the Heartlanders of a top-tier talent, something that virtually all of the other 27 ECHL clubs are benefiting from. While proximity makes the Heartlanders a natural affiliate for the Wild, a lack of assistance from the big club could mean a review of that relationship.
The season got off to a tough start with the club losing all five October games, giving up 12 goals in two contests to the Idaho Steelheads to begin the season, then losing three straight games on the road by a combined score of 12-4.
The team returned home on November 6, winning their first game of the season when they defeated the Fort Wayne Komets, 7-2. This was viewed as a potential turning point. The club had struggled out of the gate, but Cole Stallard, who produced 25 points in 60 games last season, delivered a hat trick in the victory and Corbin Kaczperski, who starred in his first season in the ECHL last year, earned 22 saves.
The team then lost their next five contests, but forced overtime in three of those games, finishing 0-2-3. This has become one of the primary stories of Iowa this season, as the team has gone to overtime 12 times only to come away with a single point in nine of those games.
The five-game winless streak came to an end when the club earned their first three-game winning streak, sweeping a pair of 4-3 overtime games against the Cincinnati Cyclones, then defeating the Kansas City Mavericks on November 30, 5-3.
The team came out of November a respectable 4-8-3, then headed north of the border to take on the Trois-Rivières Lions for two games before heading for three against the Newfoundland Growlers. Iowa lost all five of those games, but forced overtime in each of the last four contests, giving them a solid 0-1-4 road trip in the first venture to Canada in franchise history. The team then came home where they took two of three games from the Kalamazoo Wings, and this teams suddenly found themselves at 6-10-7 just a few points out of the final playoff spot in the Central Division.
However, the holidays were not kind to Iowa. The team traveled to Kansas City for two games against the Mavericks before Christmas and two games before New Year’s, dropping all four contests. They then opened the new year losing two of three games at home against the Fuel, then going to Indianapolis where they lost a 3-1 decision. They then dropped the final two games heading into the All-Star break in Kansas City, losing the second one in overtime.
What Has Gone Right
It would be easy to find the warts on this club, but there are some positive things to build on. First, the team has played very well at home. After getting shelled in their first two home contests against Idaho, they have gone 7-2-2, a great sign considering that 23 of their remaining 39 contests are in Coralville. This team has an opportunity to make some noise and maybe even make a playoff run if they can go 15-6-2 in those contests.
Some of the young talent on this club are getting quality minutes and are beginning to develop. Tommy Parrottino played two games for Idaho last season after graduating from Michigan Tech, and he has eight goals and eight assists in 27 games for Iowa. James Sanchez has 19 points after playing in 50 games last season, splitting time between the Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL) and the Jacksonville Iceman (ECHL). Michael Pastujov is also having a solid year in his first professional season, leading the club with 20 points in 26 games. He graduated from the University of Michigan last season.
Goaltending has been in a continual state of flux, as Jones has moved back and forth between Des Moines and Coralville and seeming to hurt his development early on in the season. However, he is beginning to settle in since mid-December, allowing 19 goals over his last seven contests. Kaczperski has also been playing well since the last game of November, allowing 17 goals over his last eight games. This should be a strength of this team moving forward.
What Needs to Improve
To be honest, it starts with the organization itself. It is clear that the Minnesota Wild are not going to give the Heartlanders much, if any help. This is not intended to be harsh toward the NHL team. Injuries have led to a number of call ups from the Iowa Wild and the team simply has not been able to supply much talent to their ECHL affiliate. However, there should be someone out there who needs some quality minutes on a regular basis who would fit perfectly into the Heartlanders lineup.
In addition, it seems that ownership is content on keeping costs down. This group owns the Growlers as well, who are at the top of the North Division, and it seems that they may be content to focus on that club. That has left Damon with a shoestring budget to try to build a contender, something that is extremely difficult to do in that very competitive Central Division.
One area this club really needs to focus on is special teams. Iowa is 24th on the power-play (17.9%) and 25th in penalty killing (72.9%). The power-play has been solid at home, ninth overall at 22.7%. However, they have had just 44 opportunities with the man advantage on home ice, by far the lowest in the ECHL.
The road is another area where this club needs to improve. They are winless (0-13-7) through the first 20 road contests and, with 16 left, they must win four or five of these games minimum. They have proven they can be competitive, forcing seven games into overtime, but seven points out of a potential 40 is simply not good enough.
First Half MVP
This has been a tough season for the team, but one has to like the performance of Pastujov. After five years with the Wolverines, which saw him named as assistant captain in his senior season, the forward has put together a solid year for Iowa, leading the team with 20 points in 26 games.
Pastujov has struggled since the early part of the season, however, as much of the team has. After recording 16 points in his first 13 games, he has just four over the last 13. The team will be leaning on him to deliver in the second half.
What to Expect:
With so many games at home, this team has a legitimate shot of finishing with at least 25 victories. That will not be enough to catch the fourth-place team in the division, but it will serve notice that this club is prepared to do damage next year.
In the final three months, look for an emphasis on special teams and player development. This is not a very talented team offensively. However, these players will have the opportunity to build on their skill set and to be better for next year.
By Robert Pannier