by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
The American Hockey League postseason has historically been a platform in which the future stars of the NHL have truly made their mark.
In this year’s Calder Cup Playoffs, Winnipeg Jets prospect and St. John’s IceCaps center Eric O’Dell is adding to that tradition.
“For every team at this point in the year, you need your best players to be just that, and he’s done that for us,” said Keith McCambridge, third-year head coach of the IceCaps. “He’s given us key goals at important times during games and has continued to just get better and better every single second here during the season.”
O’Dell, an Ottawa native, was selected by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round (No. 39) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, but was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers for Erik Christensen at the trade deadline in 2009. Prior to the 2011-12 season, True North Sports and Entertainment brought the Atlanta franchise to Winnipeg and moved their AHL affiliate from Manitoba to St. John’s, where O’Dell has been a member of the IceCaps ever since.
St. John’s is set to face the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals beginning Saturday, and through two rounds the 23-year-old O’Dell has scored seven times in 10 playoff games – including six goals in a six-game win over Anaheim’s affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals.
“I thought I played pretty well in the first round, I just couldn’t find the back of the net,” O’Dell said. “Last round, it just felt like everything was finding my stick and I was able to put the puck in. My linemates have been playing awesome; we’ve been finding each other and I’ve been able to score.
“I know a lot of guys on the team from that experience [in Anaheim’s system]. It felt good shaking their hands after that win.”
Proven in his latest hot streak, the third-year pro’s offensive capabilities are nothing new to his coach.
“With Eric, it’s always his ability to find the open ice in the offensive zone,” said McCambridge. “When he finds those pockets, he’s got a really quick release with his shot. He can play a reliable two-way game, but obviously he’s a player that we look to be an offensive contributor for us.”
In 2011-12, O’Dell recorded 22 points (12-10-22) in 39 games and skated in three playoff contests during his rookie campaign. He broke out for 29 goals and 55 points in 59 games during 2012-13 and posted 42 points (17-25-42) in as many games this year.
The 6-foot forward also made his NHL debut with the Jets in 2013-14, recording three goals and four assists in 30 games. He returned to St. John’s with an increased sense of comfort at the conclusion of Winnipeg’s season.
“I think when you get the call to go up there and play with those guys, you feel a lot better,” said O’Dell. “When I came back to finish the year here and start the playoffs, my confidence was high. I just felt way better with the puck and wasn’t really scared to make too many mistakes down here.”
That self-assurance has come in handy as the IceCaps continue to battle against the AHL’s best during their playoff run.
“Teams are more physical and they’re laying their bodies on the line, so it’s tough,” said O’Dell. “We have a young team, so the veteran guys are just trying to keep everyone motivated. I think our team has been doing really well.”
St. John’s, which posted 99 points and a franchise-high 46 wins during the regular season, has been one of the most consistently dominant teams in the league this year.
“We have so much chemistry on the ice and in the dressing room as well, which I think is a huge part of it,” said O’Dell. “We’ve been able to keep a hot streak going throughout the whole year, which has helped us keep the wins coming. I think our team is well-rounded, and that’s what you need in the playoffs.”
McCambridge believes that O’Dell’s tenured history with the IceCaps has further fueled his success in the 2014 postseason.
“He’s not a player that has just been added to the lineup for our playoff run, that hasn’t spent a long period of time here,” said McCambridge. “He has a definite drive and interest to keep pushing this team forward.”
Advancing in the playoffs is advantageous for the IceCaps as a team, obviously, but is just as beneficial for the individual players seeking to further their careers as well.
“I think it’s huge for these young prospects, mixed in with guys in their second or third year starting to turn the corner, as they look to get their opportunity with Winnipeg,” said McCambridge. “They’re playing top-end hockey in the middle of May, and that kind of experience development-wise is nothing but a huge positive, a piece that they can add to their resume.”
Should the IceCaps emerge victorious in the conference finals and advance to the Calder Cup championship round, O’Dell is aware that all eyes will be on them as they step up to the highest point of the platform.
“We have a lot of great players [in the AHL] that have played in the NHL,” said O’Dell. “Playing against them and going far in the playoffs – that’s when ownership really looks at teams.
“We’re fighting for jobs next year. If I have a good playoff run down here, I know the Jets will be looking closely and it will better my odds.”