After a promising 2006-07 season that saw the Lowell Devils finish eight games over .500 and just miss the playoffs the last week of the regular season, things appeared to be on a bit of an upswing. However, nearing the mid-point of the 2007-08 season, Lowell currently resides at the bottom of the AHL’s Atlantic Division standings with a record of 10-17-3-2. The Devils just snapped an eight-game winless drought with a victory right before the Christmas break, ironically, over the best team in the league, the Providence Bruins, and followed that up with a 4-3 OT victory over the Worcester Sharks, to finally reach double digits in the win column.
The Lowell Devils have a blend of youth, sprinkled in with a few NHL and AHL veterans, but don’t have an abundance of first-year players that they had last season, which was part of the reason for some optimism coming into the 2007-08 season. Lowell has had just as many issues putting pucks in the net as they have had keeping them out, making it hard for the team to generate much momentum in the standings. There is still another half season of hockey left, but in order for them to make a run at the playoffs, they must show immense improvement over the course of the next three and a half months to make the playoffs a reality.
Jordan Parise finished the 2006-07 season practically splitting the time in between the pipes with Frank Doyle, and it was thought that there was a good opportunity for Parise to maybe take the reins and take over as the Lowell Devils starting netminder for the 2007-08 season. However, a minor injury, combined with some sub-par play in front of him has resulted in a rocky season for Parise thus far. Parise has a record of 3-8-1, a 3.37 goals against average and .895 save percentage, well below the pace he had set for himself last year. While not necessarily the goaltender of the future, Parise still has the potential to turn into at worst, a competent NHL backup. The Devils hope to see improvement from Parise over the second half of the season, and to get back to the level that he was playing at last year. Improved play by the team in general would also aid Parise in improving his game.
Just like last season, Lowell has again had the luxury of having experienced NHL defenseman on the roster this year to help aid the development of younger players still learning the ropes of professional hockey. Richard Matvichuk, deemed expendable by the big club in New Jersey, and Ian Moran, a free-agent signing over the summer have helped speed up the development and progress for the likes of prospects Mark Fraser, Olivier Magnan and Sean Zimmerman.
Although Fraser had to be somewhat disappointed that he didn’t receive much of a shot to crack New Jersey’s line-up during training camp after showing promise in a brief NHL audition last year, he did not take that disappointment with him back to Lowell. He has arguably been one of Lowell’s most reliable and steadiest defensemen so far this season. Fraser has suited up in all of Lowell’s 32 games, registering six assists, a respectable -1 rating and 40 PIM’s, which is second on the club. A sturdy, no-nonsense, defensive-minded blueliner, Fraser likely will spend the remainder of the season in Lowell barring a few injuries in New Jersey as the team has been carrying eight defensemen the past couple of months. Fraser doesn’t have a lot left to prove at the AHL level, however another half season there definitely won’t hurt him.
Magnan received a promotion from the ECHL to the AHL late last season, and since then, has not looked back and has become a regular on the Lowell blueline. While he hasn’t really stood out, like Mark Fraser, he has suited up in all 32 of Lowell’s games thus far. He has four assists, a -5 rating and 35 PIM’s in those contests. Magnan isn’t regarded as one of the top shelf defense prospects in the system, but has earned himself a regular spot on the Lowell Devils blueline.
Zimmerman started the season the ECHL with Trenton but was called up to Lowell in mid-November and has stuck in the AHL since. As is often the case with first-year pro blueliners, Zimmerman has had his ups and downs as evidenced by his -7 plus/minus rating through 19 games, but is slowing making progress as he adjusts to a different level of hockey. The potential is there with the 6’2, 200 lb. Zimmerman, as he suited up for Team USA at last year’s World Junior Championships, but he isn’t the type of prospect that is going to knock the socks off someone. He’s a physical, stay at home type who will make the smart, simple play more often than not. He’s a couple of seasons away from getting a sniff at the NHL, but his development appears to be on track.
It looks as though third-year forward Petr Vrana has taken the next step in his development as he currently leads Lowell with 30 points in 32 games, and is well on his way to shattering his career numbers across the board. With 24 assists, Vrana sits tied for fifth overall in the AHL in that category. Vrana started slowly with only three points in the month of October, but since then, he has racked up 27 points in 24 games. A heady, aggressive two-way center, Vrana has showed much more consistency in his game on both sides of the puck, especially defensively, which has led to improved numbers at the offensive end of the rink. His -2 plus/minus rating is third best on the team. Should he continue his strong play over the course of the season, he could be in line to contend for a spot in New Jersey next season.
Nicklas Bergfors had an absolutely fantastic training camp that saw him make New Jersey’s opening night roster, however he suffered a shoulder injury in that game, and missed a few weeks of action before being returned to Lowell in mid-October. He has since struggled to find his stride, and again missed a couple of weeks of action near the end of November, due to his shoulder acting up again. In 20 games with Lowell, Bergfors has scored three goals and five assists, including a game-winning goal in overtime against Worcester in December. His +4 rating is impressive on a team that his given up over 100 goals already. New Jersey saw what the energetic, hard-shooting winger had to offer during training camp, and shouldn’t be too concerned about his struggles in Lowell, which in part have been tied to his shoulder injury. It’s hard to remember sometimes that he is only 20 years old going into his third season of pro hockey, so the Devils shouldn’t feel the need to rush their most prized forward prospect.
It’s much of the same for hulking power forward Barry Tallackson in his third season of professional hockey. The 6’5, 210 lb winger can be a force to be reckoned with when he wants to be, but still doesn’t do it on enough of a consistent basis. He scored five goals in six games earlier in December, but has only one assist in his last five games, going -6 in that span as well. On the season, he has nine goals and nine assists in 27 games, and his 18 points in good enough to place him third on the team. He has seen action in New Jersey in parts of the previous two seasons but has yet to receive an audition this year. New Jersey knows Tallackson has the talent, he just needs to show it on a more regular basis in order to be able to take that next step to the NHL.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise early on in the season for Lowell has been the play of Stephen Gionta. His 11 goals is second best on the team behind AHL vet Noah Clarke, and his 16 points in 31 games is one more than he scored all of last year in 67 games. The highlight of his season had to be a hat trick in an early December game against Manchester. The pint sized winger doesn’t possess the same amount natural skill that older brother Brian has, but the work ethic runs in the family as Gionta doesn’t let his small stature keep him from contributing on a regular basis.
A somewhat forgotten prospect, Ivan Khomutov has surfaced again after spending much of last season playing in his native Russia. Though his -11 rating isn’t much to write home about, he has played well in spurts. Suiting up in 30 of Lowell’s 32 games, Khomutov has taken a regular shift and scored five goals and seven assists thus far. Second year winger Patrick Davis started off slowly, but has picked things up as of late, scoring seven points in his last 12 games. He leads the team in PIM’s with 41, 27 of which came in a fight filled affair with the Philadelphia Phantoms in November. Jason Ryznar continues to battle nagging injuries, but has already equaled his goal output from last season with five in 23 games. The defensive-minded winger recently potted two goals in a win over Worcester.