Albany River Rats 2008-09 season preview

By Cory Lavalette

The River Rats begin their second season as the Carolina Hurricanes’ top affiliate with two major questions: Can new coach/general manager Jeff Daniels succeed in his first head coaching job? And can the Rats replace AHL goalie of the year Michael Leighton, whose play last year earned him the backup job in Carolina?

Daniels took a step back to climb a step up. After four seasons as an assistant coach with the Hurricanes under both Paul Maurice and Peter Laviolette, which included a Stanley Cup title in 2005-06, Daniels is being given the chance to run his own show in Albany. He replaces Tom Rowe, who was promoted to Daniels’ old position with the Canes. The move makes absolute sense for the Carolina organization — Rowe gets rewarded for the job he has done over the past four years leading the Canes’ AHL affiliate, while Daniels has the opportunity to earn valuable experience running his own team.

As for goaltending, it will be tough to replace Leighton’s play from last season, but Carolina has two young goalies looking to make an impression on the organization and earn the No. 1 job.

Forwards


The River Rats were the 21st-ranked scoring team in the AHL last season and lost three of their top four scorers from 2007-08, so the key to the forward corps will be producing goals through new additions and the growth of the organization’s young players.

Forward Jakub Petruzalek is Albany’s top returning point producer, having scored 14 goals and adding 31 assists in 2007-08. But those 45 points ranked just 108th in the AHL last season, compared to the team’s top scorer Jamie Johnson — who is playing in Finland this season — scoring 58 points for the Rats (42nd in the league). Also gone are Keith Aucoin (45 points in just 38 games) and Brandon Nolan, who is still recovering from a late-season concussion.

Returning winger Jerome Samson was a 21-goal scorer in his first professional season and has been a valuable undrafted find by the organization. Samson spent his offseason trying to improve his skills for his sophomore campaign.

“I was in the gym all the time,” Samson said following Carolina’s Red-White scrimmage Sept. 20. “I tried to get faster and quicker. In the AHL last season with Tom Rowe, that’s what he focused on with me, to get my release quicker, just move my feet quicker.”

Samson also thinks having a year under his belt will help further his development as a pro.

“Last year was my first year and I didn’t know anyone expect for [fellow Canes prospect Nicolas] Blanchard,” Samson said. “And now I played all year in Albany last year and I know pretty much everyone. I kind of feel like I’m more in my groove, in my place.”

Another undrafted find by the Hurricanes, wing Mike Angelidis enters the final year of his contract and will be looked to emerge as more than a defensive forward and provide offense. Angelidis teamed with Pat Dwyer and Blanchard for much of last season, forming a formidable checking line, but all three could improve their point totals in 2008-09.

Veteran Matt Murley was signed this offseason to fill the void left by some the team’s departures and provide depth at the NHL level. But after being sent to Albany, Murley decided to instead sign in Russia and play in the Kontinental Hockey League. The Hurricanes refused to grant his release and subsequently suspended him. Carolina has also contacted the NHL offices, which has been at odds with the KHL over honoring contracts.

Murley’s departure places added pressure on newcomer Dwight Helminen, who returns to North American after a solid season in the Finnish league. Helminen, a University of Michigan graduate who made his mark in college as a defensive specialist and evolved into a scorer in the AHL, will be a key part of Albany’s season. Murley’s former RPI teammate Marc Cavosie earned a 25-game tryout contract and will be on the opening day roster.

Four other former Hurricanes draft picks will with the Rats this season. Bobby Hughes looks to bounce back from a mysterious neck injury that cost him the majority of the 2007-08 season. If he’s able to play and, more importantly, regain his confidence, Hughes could be a huge addition to Albany’s lineup.

Stefan Chaput, Nick Dodge and Harrison Reed will all begin their first full professional seasons with the River Rats. Chaput will look to parlay a 33-goal season with Lewiston in the QMJHL last year into a scoring role with Albany. Dodge, who was widely regarded as one of the NCAA’s best defensive forwards and faceoff men during his tenure as Clarkson, should be ready to fill any role given his experience and versatility. Reed, who had 81 points two seasons ago with Sarnia in the OHL, will try to shake off a bad 2007-08 and return to the 20-goal form that once made him look like a third-round steal.

Both Joe Jensen and Trevor Gillies were late cuts from Carolina’s training camp and figure to have roles, though vastly different. Jensen should provide more scoring, while Gillies will be the team’s forward enforcer. Ryan Weston, who played seven regular season games and two postseason games with Albany last year after finishing college with Boston University, and ECHL sniper Yannick Tifu are also battling for a spot among the forwards.

Defense

While the offense is in a state of transition, the defense should be Albany’s strong suit in 2008-09. Defensemen Casey Borer and Brett Carson are two of Carolina’s top prospects and either could earn a promotion during the season.

Borer 11-game stint in Carolina last year opened eyes, and he is trying to bounce back from a knee injury that ended his season with Albany prematurely. But he thinks he’s ready to move past the injury.
 
“[It’s fine] as far as I can tell,” Borer said following Carolina’s preseason opener, a 4-1 loss to the Capitals Sept. 24. “I really don’t like talking about, but as far as I know it’s all right.”

Carson was one of the few players in the Carolina organization to stay healthy last season, giving him the chance to log a lot of minutes with Albany.

“I put a little extra work in this summer just making sure when I came here I was in the best shape I could be in,” Carson said. His toughness, durability and two-way skills should be a huge asset to the River Rats.

Bryan Rodney was the surprise of training camp on defense. His poise with the puck and smart decisions made an impression on the Hurricanes brass. Also barely missing out on a roster spot was Carolina fan favorite Tim Conboy, who came up last season due to all of the Hurricanes’ injuries and scratched, clawed and fought his way into the hearts of the RBC Center faithful. Conboy will likely earn a promotion to Carolina at some point during the season, and his new two-year deal will be an NHL-only contract next season.

Mark Flood and Noah Babin are both looking to bounce back from injuries. Flood saw his promising 2007-08 season end early due to a shoulder injury, but his 10 goals and 12 assists in just 53 games bodes well for Daniels and his staff. Babin was a disappointment in his first full pro season, struggling with his confidence and knee and concussion problems. If he can regain his confidence, Babin could be a dark horse NHL prospect.

Burly blueliners Brett Bellemore, a sixth-round pick in 2007 who played 11 total games with the River Rats last year in the regular season and postseason, and free-agent signee Benn Olson will provide size on the back end. Olson had 266 penalty minutes in 71 games with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds last year to go with 12 assists.

Former Kings sixth-rounder — and one-time Plymouth Whaler — Ryan McGinnis is also looking to earn a spot. McGinnis had six goals and 42 assists and 115 PIMs in 64 with games in his lone season with OHL superstar John Tavares and the Oshawa Generals in 2007-08. Defenseman Jonathan Paiement shuttled between the ECHL and AHL last season and is looking to fight his way past many returning blueliners.

Goalies

The most intriguing subplot of the season for the River Rats is the battle between Justin Peters and Daniel Manzato. Both players got to carry the load for an ECHL team last year, with Peters backstopping the Hurricanes’ affiliate in Florida while Manzato spent the majority of the season as the Las Vegas Wranglers’ No. 1.

But this isn’t the first time Peters and Manzato have gone head to head. They were on opposite sides of the ice for the third period of last year’s ECHL All-Star Game and again at the Red-White Scrimmage.

While Peters may have a slight edge over Manzato for the starting job, both are being given an opportunity to compete for the No. 1 job. Chances are the starter’s job will have to be seized in the regular season. More importantly, Daniels needs one — or both — to emerge as a suitable replacement for Leighton.

Relationship with Carolina

Daniels takes the reins in Albany and should be able to give the Carolina brass another viewpoint of what they have in their prospect ranks. This is Daniels’ 12th season with the organization, which started as a player in 1997-98 and resumed two seasons later. Daniels then retired in November 2003 season and took on a position in player development. He was then named an assistant coach Dec. 15, 2003, which he held until his promotion this offseason. His familiarity with the organization — coupled with Rowe’s — should prove to be valuable asset in accessing and developing the Hurricanes’ prospects.

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