After boasting a 42-28-3-7 (94 points) and earning a franchise first ever postseason bid during the 2007-08 season, the San Antonio Rampage was definitely trending upwards. Even though the roster got a bit of an extreme makeover this summer, the same should hold true for the 2008-09 season.
With five of his top six scorers gone from a year ago, head coach Greg Ireland is going to have to let this year’s crop loose early on. Though, he’s stressing that they’ll need to be aggressive all season long and never become overly comfortable, especially in the second half.
David Spina is the returning leading scorer from a year ago. The 25-year-old was solid down the stretch and Ireland will look to the Phoenix native to pace the younger core of skilled prospects up front. Rookies Brett MacLean, Chad Kolarik, Adam Perry and third year forward Alex Bourret will be tapped to fill the gap. However, all four are highly skilled snipers who can stack points. Kolarik has the inside track, as he was able to effectively skate in pressure situations with the Rampage during the playoffs. MacLean has a quick release and scorer’s touch, as witnessed when he played with the Oshawa Generals. Perry is a crafty, smart player who’s coming off a successful junior campaign in the OHL. Ireland is going to let him play a bit of an energy role to assimilate him to the pro game, but he’ll have another early test pending. The Rampage will look to convert him to center after spending junior on the wing. After a junior career in the QMJHL where he progressed each year, Bourret has yet to warm up to the pro scene. Prior to joining the club, he’s earned valuable experience by skating with the Atlanta Thrashers and New York Rangers organizations in the AHL. The forward will look to change the tide, as he’s player who plays with a visible edge, but also has tons of skill to go along with it.
Outside of these five forwards, Joel Perrault, Jeff Hoggan and Derek Nesbitt are a trio that should also add some pop up front. After he’s finished rehabbing some injuries, Perrault will likely return to San Antonio. Last year, he was by far the team’s top forwards (before his call-up) and they’re hoping that will be the case again. Hoggan lead the league last year in plus/minus and was a good source of offense for the Providence Bruins. Nesbitt comes in after spending a year with the Rockford Icehogs. He too is an offensive-minded player who combines speed and skill.
Looking at the rest of the players, the majority of the acquisitions over the last year up front were for gritty forwards that will help create space on the forecheck and add protection for the skilled players. San Antonio will look to guys like Adam Keefe, Garth Murray, Steve Goertzen, and Francis Lessard to fill those roles.
Even though San Antonio lost some talent and veteran leadership on the blueline, there is plethora of replacements. Within this group, there is a wide range of talent and experience. And as the season opener approaches, it is going to become clear who is going to stay, be waived, or sent to the team’s double-A affiliate, the Arizona Sundogs in Central Hockey League.
The team returns only two starters on the blueline in Logan Stephenson and Dylan Reese. Big things are expected from Stephenson. With two AHL seasons under his belt, he should have a firm understanding what he needs to do. He’s a talented defensive-defenseman who needs to simplify his game. As for Reese, last year’s free-agent signing just finished his first full year of service a season ago and should be ready to expand his role.
San Antonio was happy to learn that they’ll have the services of Matt Jones, who was just sent down by Phoenix. Jones has spent the majority of the last two seasons with the Coyotes and will fit in nice. And even though Jonas Ahnelov is listed on the Coyotes injured reserved list, there is a high probability that the first year Swede will be added to the Rampage roster after his broken finger heals. If he does make down to the AHL, he’s going to be the one of the bunch to watch. The Coyotes really like what he brought to the table during camp and believe he’s closer to full-time action than earlier anticipated. So, you could expect him to be in a first call-up situation.
Prospects David Schlemko and Sean Sullivan also available and will be considered for full-time duty after making spot appearances and doing extremely well last year. Newcomer Sean Zimmerman has also added to the mix after Phoenix acquired the former Spokane Chief from the New Jersey Devils for Kevin Cormier. Along with other newcomers Ryan Lannon and Drew Fata, the three will have to impress early because there are only so many spots left on the roster.
If there is one position that remains strong and unchanged for San Antonio, it’s between the pipes. The Rampage returns both prospects from last season, in Al Montoya and Josh Tordjman. Montoya is coming off a strong training camp, and is eager to get the season going. Tordjman, returns after two consecutive strong seasons in the AHL. He’s also eager to get going and will give his partner a run for his money. Together, the two were steady last year, backstopping the team into the postseason. Combined, they posted a 30-20-4 record, 2.62 goals-against-average and a .911 save percentage. Both are young, have tons of potential, and are ultra competitive, which makes for a healthy environment on the back end. Ireland will likely rotate the two to start the season until either one establishes himself as the go-to guy.
With the Coyotes in a holding pattern with goalie Mikael Tellqvist (until they’re comfortable with Ilya Bryzgalov as their starter), they had to help the Rampage avert a logjam at the position. In doing so, they sent prospect netminder Joel Gistedt to their double-A affiliate. The first year North American pro will be pegged as the starter for the Dogs but should see a promotion to San Antonio when Tellqvist is eventually moved.
The team is younger, faster, and grittier, something that matches the Phoenix blueprint. Ireland feels that team has a good blend of size, talent, and skill to compete in a tough conference. They have a good mix up front, one that should be able to generate points. On the blueline, they have the numbers, but don’t have a true offensive threat. Ireland feels they can work around that (especially on special teams), if the rearguards can keep things simple, move the puck up to the skill players, and get shots through without getting blocked in the process. San Antonio is steady in net and really need either Tordjman or Montoya to be a top 5 goalie in the league. Both would be a bonus, but one thing at a time.
In order to get from point A to point B, the Rampage are going to have to rise up early and establish a clear identity. This identity is going to have to be one that the team can live with and live up to all season long. There’s not going to be any shortcuts this season because a lot of the teams around them got tougher. In order to maintain that high level of play, their top players will have to continuously rise to the occasion and not disappear when it matters most.