The Carolina Hurricanes have, in recent years, relied on trades to stock their team with NHL players. But for the first time in a few seasons, the team has talent in the minor leagues that can reliably step in when needed in Raleigh, and several of the players have a future in the NHL.
With the River Rats’ roster speckled with such players, the story should be about their progress, growth and maturation. Instead, Albany’s season was hit with tragedy when, while returning home from a game in Lowell, Mass., in mid-February, the team’s bus crashed on the Massachusetts Turnpike, seriously injuring four — including three players — and testing the resolve of the entire team, including first-year coach Jeff Daniels.
The players and Daniels were courageous following the incident, but the injuries — coupled with the team’s early season struggles — prevented them from reaching the postseason. The team finished the season 33-40-3-4, good for 73 points and 13th out of 14 teams in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.
The Florida Everblades, Carolina’s affiliate in the ECHL, was filled with players on minor-league deals, though a few with Hurricanes contracts played games there in 2008-09. The team finished first in league by 10 points, going 49-17-2-3 en route to 103 points. Despite their regular season success, the Everblades were eliminated by the South Carolina Stingrays in six games in the league’s South Division Finals.
Prospects Jakub Petruzalek and Jerome Samson (both 54 points) were the two top scorers among Canes prospects in Albany this season, but rookie Nick Dodge may have been the biggest story among the forwards.
Dodge, in his first year out of Clarkson University, was the only player on the team to play in all 80 games, registering 39 points on 13 goals and 26 assists. A sixth-round pick in 2006, Dodge was touted as a character player whose defensive play would be his chance at making the NHL. The fact that he provided that along with a surprising point total bodes well for the 23-year-old winger. His durability — in a season where the Rats faced persistent injury problems — is also surprising given that the AHL’s 80-game schedule is more than twice as many as he played in each of his four collegiate seasons.
Petruzalek and Samson were the team’s top scorers, but only Petruzlalek got a shot with the Hurricanes, playing his first two NHL games during a February recall and getting one assist. Petruzlek could have an outside shot a fourth-line job next season, but will likely be back with the Rats next year.
For Samson, it was his second 20-goal season in as many years with Albany, and his 54 points were more than he ever had during his four-year career in the QMJHL. But like Petruzalek, he may be leapfrogged by some up-and-coming recent high draft selections.
Big center Nicolas Blanchard had established himself as a good checker and willing fighter, but was among those injured on the bus crash. The deep lacerations he suffered to his side and abdomen cost him the remainder of the season, and he finished the year with seven goals, 12 assists and 132 penalty minutes in 55 games.
Left wing Mike Angelidis, an undrafted player in his third season with Albany, led the team in penalty minutes with 142, but also contributed 15 goals and 10 assists in 67 games.
First-year pro Harrison Reed spent 70 games in Albany, scoring five goals and adding four assists in a checking role with the Rats. He also had a goal and assist in one game with the Everblades in late November.
Prospects Stefan Chaput, Bobby Hughes and Joe Jensen all played less than half the season due to injuries, with Jensen among those hospitalized following the bus crash. Chaput had 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in just 15 games, while Jensen had six goals and eight assists in 32 games. Hughes, who had bounced back from a career-threatening neck injury in 2007-08, played in 27 games with Albany and had seven points (four goals, three assists) but was limited by hernia surgery. He also had an assist in two games with Florida.
The team’s top picks in 2007 and 2008, Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk, each saw time in Albany. Sutter played 22 games with the Rats, scoring four goals and adding eight assists, during a conditioning stint and then re-assignment to Albany once he was eligible with his junior team’s season ended. Boychuk played two games in the AHL after Lethbridge was eliminated from the WHL playoffs. He had one assist. Both will compete for spots with the Hurricanes next season.
It’s the Albany defense where GM Jim Rutherford surely sees the most promise. Bryan Rodney, Casey Borer and Brett Carson all saw time with the Hurricanes this season, and all are on a path to the NHL.
Rodney may be the first to get there. Rutherford all but assured Rodney a spot on the roster next season, saying his play while in Raleigh was good enough that he’d have to play his way out of a job in 2008-09. Rodney led the Rats’ blueliners in points, getting 36 on three goals and 33 assists in just 58 games. His puck skills and vision translated to the NHL, where in eight games he exhibited his ability to move the puck and a serviceable defensive game while adding two assists.
Borer was the group’s hard-luck kid for the second straight year. After making a splash during a brief recall in 2007-08, Borer injured his knee and was lost for the remainder of the season. This season he took a step back offensively (four goals and six assists in 51 games) but continued to polish his game in preparation for his eventual ascension to the NHL. But injury struck again when Borer broke his neck in the February bus crash. Borer’s season was again over early, but he was fortunate that the injury was not career — or life — threatening. Borer was held without a point in three games with Carolina, but did have his first NHL fight when he stood up for captain Rod Brind’Amour — who opened his home to Borer earlier in the year — when Flyers’ forward Scott Hartnell took a run at him.
Carson could be the most valuable of the three next season because he brings the size and defense-first mentality the team may need to replace in their lineup in 2009-10. Not only that, but Carson continued to develop his offensive game. He finished the year with six goals and 29 assists in 69 games with Albany. He was pointless in five games with Carolina, but proved to be reliable in his own end.
Mark Flood, a 24-year-old defenseman, was in the lineup more than any River Rats rearguard, scoring 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) in 76 games. But with the aforementioned players on the path to the NHL, Flood has been lost in the mix despite his durability and consistently improving offensive production with Albany.
Also in Flood’s way is recently signed Jamie McBain, a Hobey Baker Award candidate who signed with the Hurricanes after his season at Wisconsin ended. McBain, the team’s top defensive prospect, had a goal and assist in 10 games with the River Rats after registering 37 points in 40 games with the Badgers. Expect McBain to make a run at a roster spot next season and at least earn a recall at some point in the year.
Noah Babin, who two seasons ago looked like an amazing find by then-assistant GM Ron Francis, found himself shuttled between Albany and Florida in 2008-09. Babin, signed by Carolina as an offensive defenseman, had just five assists in 45 games with the River Rats, but bounced back with the Everblades, getting three goals and eight assists in 18 games with the Everblades.
Brett Bellemore, a sixth-round choice in 2007, started his first pro season with Albany but injuries limited him to only six games, and he was eventually reassigned to his junior team, Plymouth, for an overage season. The 6’4 stay-at-home defenseman had no points with the River Rats, but managed two goals and 10 assists in 29 games with Plymouth.
Nate Hagemo, whose hockey career was derailed by personal and legal troubles, returned to the game this season. He was loaned to Elmira of the ECHL for four games (he went without a point) and spent 10 games in the Central Hockey League. He was claimed by the Tulsa Oilers of the CHL in mid-January but did not play any games with the team.
Justin Peters and Daniel Manzato started the season battling for the top job in Albany, with Peters eventually seizing control. Peters was hindered by poor goal-scoring support early in the season, but finished the year with a respectable .908 save percentage and 2.89 goals-against average. But the offensive drought from the players in front of him contributed to his 19-30-4 record.
Manzato’s record was better (14-12-0), but his 3.19 GAA and .898 save percentage trailed Peters’ numbers. With two-time OHL goalie of the year Mike Murphy set to start his pro career next season, Peters and Manzato will be in a three-way race for ice time in Albany. If Murphy can’t win the No. 1 job in Albany, he’ll likely head to Florida to be the starter so he can get in a lot of games.