First-year GM and coach Jeff Daniels knew running an AHL franchise would be hard work. What he couldn’t know is just how much of a struggle it would be to ice the same lineup in consecutive games. With both Albany and the Carolina Hurricanes, the Rats’ parent club, beset by first-half injuries and defections, Daniels has had to constantly shuffle his roster to compete in the league’s East Division.
But with the second half of the season looming and the Hurricanes in relative health, Daniels finally has the luxury of worrying about only his team’s injury report. With some semblance of line chemistry now possible, Daniels is getting the Rats back on track and with a chance to re-enter the playoff hunt.
With veterans Matt Murley and Dan LaCouture both breaking their two-way contracts with the Hurricanes to head to the newly formed Kontinental Hockey League, the River Rats have had to look to their returning players and two newcomers for production from the front lines.
Michael Ryan, a 28-year-old journeyman with 67 games of NHL experience, was brought in after Murley’s defection and has been the team’s top point producer with 27 points in 29 games. He will be the Rats’ sole representative at the AHL All-Star events Jan. 25-26 in Worcester, Mass.
Jakub Petruzalek, the top returning scorer from last year (45 points), is again near the top of the Rats’ scoring leaders. The 23-year-old has benefited from playing alongside Ryan and is ranked second on the team with 25 points on 10 goals and 15 assists in 38 games.
After missing the early portion of the season with an injury, Jerome Samson has nine goals and 10 assists in 29 games in an effort to better the surprising 21 goals he had in his first professional season last year. Like Petruzalek, he has had the chance to play with veteran linemates, recently skating with Dwyer and Helminen.
Angelidis, in the final year of a three-year contract, is second to only Ryan in goals with 10, but has managed just three assists. Blanchard’s 15 points (six goals and nine assists) are good for a tie for sixth on the team, and his 83 penalty minutes — inflated by his 11 fights — is second on the team to pugilist Trevor Gillies. Blanchard’s -16 is a team worst.
Dodge, a rookie forward, has provided sound play in his first pro season. He has four goals and nine assists while providing the kind of defensive play he was known for during his four years at Clarkson University.
Bobby Hughes has again been derailed by injuries, though luckily this year’s problems are not related to the mysterious neck and back injury that threatened his career last year. He had sports hernia surgery in mid-December, but hasn’t played since Nov. 8. He resumed skating right after Christmas but his still rounding into form before returning to game action. Hughes has played just seven games this year, scoring two points.
First-year center Stefan Chaput has also been slowed by injury and hasn’t played since early December. The 20-year-old has been a pleasant surprise for Daniels when in the lineup, earning some top line time next to Ryan and Petruzalek when healthy. In 15 games before the injury, Chaput had four goals and seven assists.
Left wing Joe Jensen has also struggled with injuries, getting in just 16 games and managing four goals and an assist. Ryan Weston has two goals and two assists in 28 games in a bottom-six role.
Rookie Harrison Reed has played 29 games this season, earning mostly fourth-line minutes when in the lineup. He has two goals and an assist in his first pro season, plus a goal and an assist in one game with the Canes’ ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades.
There was a good look at the future of the Hurricanes defense early in the season when four different Albany blueliners dressed with the Hurricanes after a rash of injuries.
The most impressive of the four was Brett Carson, who in five games with the Canes established himself as a reliable defender and clearly etched a future spot on the Carolina defense corps. Equally impressive about Carson is the continued growth in his offensive game with Albany. After registering 24 points last year — a six-point improvement over his first AHL season — Carson has 13 points in just 33 games with the Rats and, though pointless with Carolina, showed the ability to efficiently move the puck during his stint in the NHL.
Casey Borer, who impressed in his 11-game showing with Carolina in 2007-08, played three solid, if unspectacular, games with the Canes this season, but has seen his point production with Albany drop off some this year. In 34 games he has two goals and four assists, well off the pace of the 19 points he had last season in 61 AHL outings. His -12 is also concerning.
Bryan Rodney, who was the final defenseman assigned to Albany in training camp, also made his NHL debut earlier in the season, getting in two games with Carolina until his reassignment to the River Rats. The 24-year-old leads Albany with 16 assists and is the top scorer on the Rats’ back end.
Noah Babin was in and out of the Albany lineup this year, pointless in 22 games. Babin was recently sent down to the Everblades, where he has four assists in four games.
Rookie Florida Everblades callup Jonathan Paiement has played in 26 games for the Rats and has five assists, while 21-year-old rookie Benn Olson is just recovering from an injury that has contributed to him playing just six games this year. Brett Bellemore saw only six games in his first pro season due to injury and was reassigned to Plymouth of the OHL as an overage player.
Justin Peters and Daniel Manzato have split time with the River Rats this season, with neither able to grab the reins and seize the top job. While Peters earned the majority of the starts at the beginning of the year, Daniels has recently settled into more of an even rotation with the two young netminders.
Overall, Peters has seen a little more action, going 6-13-2 in 23 games while registering a 2.68 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. Manzato’s numbers look very similar: 2.74 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. The big difference is his 9-7-0 record in 18 appearances. Manzato is simply winning more games.
Most of the difference in wins and losses can be attributed to goal support — Peters has gotten an average of less than two goals a night from his teammates while Manzato has received more than three goals of support per game. The Rats haven’t had more than three goals in any game with Peters in net, while Manzato has seen his teammates score four, five, six, seven and eight goals in the five times they managed more than three on the season with him between the pipes.
Peters was briefly recalled to Carolina when starter Cam Ward was injured, but he did not play.