As an AHL franchise, the San Antonio Rampage has not had a winning season or a playoff appearance since their inaugural 2002-03 season. However, the management mix-up in Phoenix last summer eventually led to new bench boss Greg Ireland and a retooled roster. In such short time, things are starting shine again in the Alamo City.
The team finished with a 42-28-3-7 record (94 points), which left them in the fifth position in a tight West Division at the end of the regular season. San Antonio’s record was strong enough to get them into the post season, but they would bow out to the Toronto Marlies in a hard-fought seven-game series in the first round.
As projected, the Rampage surpassed previous totals since they affiliated with the Coyotes two seasons ago. Though, the biggest difference started and ended from behind the bench in Ireland and assistant coach Ray Edwards.
Along with management teams from Phoenix and San Antonio, the coaches were able to make a profound affect by changing the culture, which provided the foundation for the successful turnaround.
Scoring was not a problem as the team scored a franchise-record 238 goals, with the bulk of the offense spread out over their top lines. With the increase in scoring, the team also set a new record with 398 assists during the season. Matt Murley paced the squad with 62 points (21 goals, 41 assists) in 76 games played. Murley also finished as the team’s assist leader and also led the entire team with a plus-20. Bill Thomas led the team scoring 24 goals, while resident tough guy Pete Vandermeer was the most penalized player with 332 minutes.
As for Thomas, he was team’s second-best point producer for the Rampage with 52 points in 75 games. Even though he got his points, the forward’s story was more about inconsistent play, as he never seemed to emerge as a bona fide threat throughout the year. While he was noted for having a good touch around the net and a great attitude, he really seemed to struggle at finding his identity.
“He was inconsistent sometimes in going into the strong areas in order to do what he does best,” Ireland said. “He either has to score goals or move the puck and make some plays while playing with a little more edge to his game.”
While Thomas did increase his point total from his rookie season, one has to note that the second-year forward did more damage in fewer games during the 2006-07 season.
The Coyotes only other forward prospect there all year was Enver Lisin, who made progress on many fronts. Having stuck with the team for the majority season, the crafty winger chipped in 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) in 58 games, but really seemed to grow and mature as player. Staying in North America was crucial as he got a better introduction to what the new regime is all about. Lisin really came around, as he built a level of trust and confidence with his teammates and coaching staff.
“He is a very proud young man,” Ireland explained. “He wants to be the very best player. Not so much playing at the best level, but he wants to be the best player he can be.”
While progress is being made, Lisin has to continue to challenge himself in order to bring out his best every day, which means being honest to himself and giving it is all without any shortcuts.
“Hudler was talented but didn’t bring it every day and had to learn how to compete,” Ireland recounted. “Now I’m watching him in the Stanley Cup Finals and I’m really proud of where his game is at. I think that Enver can be that same type of guy. Lisin is a little different type of player, but the same type of guy and I hope he really gets it sooner than later.”
In the playoffs, the team got an immediate boost from incoming prospects Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik. In seven games, the two really stepped up to the challenge and impressed Ireland and the rest of the team.
“I haven’t seen a lot of guys come in at that point in the year and have the impact they had night in and night out consistently,” he said. “I really think they did a great job for us in coming in and right off the bat making us a better team.”
Kolarik led the team with four goals and finished second in team scoring with six points in seven games. Three of those goals came in Game 2 as the Rampage stormed past Toronto 6-3.
“The puck finds him and he knows his way around the net and knows how to score,” Ireland said of Kolarik.
On the other hand, Porter picked up four assists in the series and spent six of games during the series with his former Wolverine teammate as well as Lisin.
“He is a very intelligent player,” Ireland said about the 2008 Hobey Baker Award winner. “The puck follows him; he makes great decisions with the puck and is very savvy. I really thought he was watching and seeing where his game fell in at the pro level. Every shift and every game he was elevating, getting better and better.”
Just like the forward position, the Rampage was led by a strong veteran presence on the blueline. Travis Roche and Bryan Helmer were solid for the team all year, as Brendan Bell and Ryan Caldwell also stepped it up from the backend. Roche led all rearguards in scoring with 41 points (6 goals, 35 assists) in 71 games played, while Caldwell led all defensemen with a plus-18 (which was also second best on the team). Caldwell and Logan Stephenson tied for most penalized defensemen, collecting 94 minutes last season.
In his second professional season, Stephenson made some progress as a whole but also struggled to find his identity as a player. While his game should translate into that of a defensive-defenseman at the NHL level, Ireland stated that he really had trouble carving out what his game should really be all about.
“There were times I would see that he thought he was a puck handler and he could skate the puck from his own end to the other blueline,” Ireland explained. “But that is what I think puts him in a bind, that is, he thinks he is an offensive guy.”
Ireland pointed to some of the better defensemen in the NHL in assessing how Stephenson should look to improve his game. He noted that what makes the majority of those blueliners effective and able to remain in their roles is the fact they take care of their own end and move the puck up the ice.
“With Logan, he’s a big strong kid,” he added. “He needs to move the puck quicker, he needs to really consistent with his physical play and with his defensive play down low.”
The Coyotes also had first-year pro Sean Sullivan end the season in San Antonio. After getting off to a slow start out of the gate, Sullivan spent some time with the Arizona Sundogs in the CHL. After adjusting to his speed and skill of the pro level, Sullivan continued to grow and advance with the Rampage.
“He went down there and understood it and figured out his role,” Ireland recounted. “When he came back he was not only ready to compete but he was ready to attack that role.”
Sullivan finished the season with 8 points (all assists), 13 penalty minutes and a plus-9 in 34 games for the Rampage.
Keith Yandle was effective with the team while he was there, but he was quick to move on to Phoenix where he spent the majority of the year finding his way in the NHL. He would return for playoffs but was not big factor in those contests. In his 30 games during the regular season, he collected 15 points (1 goal, 14 assists) 80 penalty minutes and was a plus-3.
Early on, a three-goalie rotation made life extremely interesting for the Rampage netminders. Things settled down when the Coyotes were able to move older netminders out of the system. For the majority of the contests thereafter, Josh Tordjman and David LeNeveu held down the fort as both of them posted decent numbers. However, as the NHL trade deadline came knocking, the Coyotes packaged LeNeveu with Fredrik Sjostrom to the New York Rangers in exchange for Marcel Hossa and Al Montoya.
Two seasons removed from junior, Tordjman remained the top goalie for San Antonio this past season. It’s a far cry for a goalie that went undrafted and was expected to just be a decent ECHL goalie.
“Josh has come along way,” Ireland said. “Late last year, he was a good goaltender on a bad team. There wasn’t a lot of pressure. So when he didn’t give two or three goals, that was a major improvement for them and they were happy.”
Things were definitely different for the former Q goalie as the pressure to compete at a higher level was established early. Tordjman answered the call and closed out the regular season with a 22-14-4 record and also turned in a 2.65 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. His numbers were a bit down from the 2006-07 season but the growth as a player both mentally and physically was noticed.
Tordjman was also pegged the starting goalie for the playoffs. In six games, he went 3-3-0 with a 1.85 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Unfortunately, while these numbers were astounding, they couldn’t help push the Rampage into the second round.
Joining the team late in the season, Montoya got a new lease on life and jumped into the mix without much distraction.
“Our guys really liked him,” Ireland said. “From day one, he came in and always had a smile on his face. He was really excited to be here. He knew some of the guys already or had competed against some of them. He knew about the coaching staff and he welcomed that. I think he excelled from the start.”
Montoya didn’t get a chance to really establish himself in San Antonio given the timing. He posted an 8-6-0 record in 14 games played, while turning in a 2.59 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Regardless, he earned the respect of his new teammates and brought some good values to the squad.
“Our guys liked how he communicated from back there, which is an important part of the goaltender position now,” Ireland said. “He handled the puck well, which is also important part of the position. I think he also brought those things out in Tordjman as well.”
Between San Antonio and Hartford, Montoya turned in another consistent year, with an overall record of 24-14-3. He also posted a 2.55 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.
While this team wasn’t as young and wasn’t filled with as many prospects as the Coyotes probably would have liked, the fact that the Rampage is headed in the right direction brings a sigh of relief throughout the organization. You couldn’t have really asked for more in the first year of a new regime.
While the team would also have loved to make it farther into the playoffs this year, there is much to be thankful for and a lot of positive things to work off for next season. Ireland and Edwards have implemented a structure that is very demanding of its players but is very positive and competitive. Looking ahead, things should only continue to improve as there is a strong base to build off of.
The Coyotes AA affiliate, the Arizona Sundogs, had a great year as Phoenix prospect Alex Leavitt helped pace the squad during the regular season and in the post season. The Sundogs finished first in the Southwest Division with a 39-19-6 record. Arizona headed into the playoffs and in their second year and made it all the way to finals. They went on to sweep the Colorado Eagles en route to their first ever President’s trophy.
Leavitt led Arizona and the rest of the league during the regular season in scoring with 128 points (40 goals, 88 points) in 58 games played. He also led the team and the league in the playoffs in scoring with another 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 17 games.
Tyler Redenbach was the team’s second leading scorer with 66 points (18 goals, 28 assists) in 31 games before being loaned to the Grand Rapid Griffins in the AHL for the rest of the regular season. He would return to the Sundogs in the post season, where he collected 21 points (3 goals, 18 assists) in 11 games.
Defenseman David Schlemko turned in a solid year, chipping in 39 points (10 goals, 29 assists) in 58 games. Of his offensive totals, 23 points came on the powerplay, where the Edmonton, Alberta native was effective all year long. During the playoffs, he had an honest 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists), but he led the team with a plus-13 rating.