San Antonio 2009-10 preview

By Kyle Kujawa

After a first-ever franchise playoff berth in 2007-08, the San Antonio Rampage saw themselves fall to the division cellar in 2008-09. Nonetheless, their 36-38-2-4 record meant that they only missed the playoffs by eight points. The 2009-10 roster is shaping up to be a very competitive one, as a few prominent NHL cuts and the addition of another parent club give the Rampage depth almost unmatched in the AHL.

Forwards

The Rampage placed bottom five in the league in goals for last season, an area that was definitely targeted for improvement this summer. Returning are the team’s top five goal scorers — veterans David Spina, Jeff Hoggan, and Joel Perrault, as well as prospects Brett MacLean and Chad Kolarik, each entering their second professional seasons. Both MacLean and Kolarik were quick out of the gate to produce offense, only to struggle in the second half of the season. Both are highly-skilled offensive players who could earn huge minutes on the top line if they can keep up consistent play throughout the season.

Outside of that, the only regular throughout all of last year returning is enforcer Francis Lessard, who led the team with 324 penalty minutes last season. Reinforcements come this year courtesy of two players who should be very familiar: Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov. Turris put up seven points in eight games after a late-season demotion, and may spend a good chunk of the season in San Antonio as the Coyotes don’t want to rush him into the NHL. Tikhonov spent the entire 2008-09 season in Phoenix, making his demotion a surprise to some. He impressed many with his mature two-way game, but he’s the victim of a little bit of a numbers game on the NHL club this season. Ending up on the top two lines, opposed to Phoenix’s fourth, might be very beneficial to Tikhonov’s game as he he has the talent to offer more offensively than he did as a rookie last season.

Justin Bernhardt and Colin Long are the other two Phoenix prospects up front, with a combined 183 points between the two of them in the WHL last season. Bernhardt is the certainty, while Long’s status is still up in the air as he’s currently in camp without a contract from Phoenix. They may offer him a contract yet, otherwise he will end up in the WHL again. Former Florida Panthers prospect Stefan Meyer, acquired this offseason by Phoenix, will likely assume a checking role.

Filling out the roster is a quartet of prospects from Anaheim. The Ducks are the only NHL team without their own affiliate, and have dumped a fair number of their prospects in San Antonio. Matt Beleskey, Ryan Donally, Troy Bodie, and Dan Sexton appear to have secured spots on the roster. Several other Duck prospects have been reassigned to the ECHL‘s Bakersfield Condors, but are free to be recalled by San Antonio. Finally, the Rampage may get one more player when Phoenix’s forwards are all healthy, as Kevin Porter, Daniel Winnik, and Ryan Hollweg are all on two-way deals.

Defensemen

While the Rampage offense received a complete face lift this offseason, the defense only needed minor cosmetic alterations. Only one regular from last season has moved on, with this season’s corps starting to crowd with players not too far away from full-time NHL duty.

Heading this group is Swedish stay-at-home defenseman Jonas Ahnelov, fresh off a successful albeit injury-plagued rookie season. Ahnelov was limited to 43 games, but made a positive impression when he was in the lineup. He could see a very expanded role if he stays healthy this season, including a lot of time on the penalty kill. Joining him could be rookie Nick Ross, a Phoenix first-round pick in 2007, graduating from the WHL. Ross is a talented player at both ends of the ice who has been slighted for his work ethic in the past, but has a chance to leap up the depth chart with a solid start to the season.

Also returning are prospects David Schlemko and Sean Sullivan, the top two point-scoring defensemen from last year’s club. Each were coming in last season in their first year of full-time AHL duty and neither missed a beat, highlighted by Schlemko’s brief, but impressive, stint in the NHL. Additionally, Sean Zimmerman may be ready for regular duty after half a season with the CHL’s Arizona Sundogs.

The battle for the final pairing could be won by a new addition, though. Shaun Heshka is a three-year AHL veteran acquired by Phoenix from Vancouver at the draft. Jeff May was signed by Phoenix late last season after stops in several AHL and ECHL cities early in the year. Anaheim also bolstered the San Antonio blueline by sending down Brett Festerling, who played in 40 NHL games last season, and Mark Mitera, a 2006 first-round pick who has just graduated from Michigan.

Goaltending

If there is one position that San Antonio won’t need to worry about this season, it’s goaltending. The Rampage have a stable of five goalies under NHL contract at their disposal.

Returning from last season are both Josh Tordjman and Al Montoya. Tordjman has played the bulk of the minutes over the past three seasons and may be the favorite to do so for a third straight season. However, after an uninspired start resulting in a 1-11 record, Montoya came on strong at the end of the season. His play led to a brief NHL stint where he posted numbers impressive enough to warrant a long look for himself as Phoenix’s backup this season. Jason LaBarbera won that spot, but Montoya may be able to claw his way back into the NHL if he performs well.

Anaheim sent a total of three goaltenders to San Antonio. Justin Pogge remains on the roster and could challenge for significant playing time as he has several seasons of AHL experience under his belt. Timo Pielmeier, a German import out of the QMJHL, and Jean-Philippe Levasseur, who started about half of the Iowa Chops games last season, have both been reassigned to Bakersfield. To be certain, there’s no shortage of capable goaltenders in San Antonio this season.

Overall

The addition of a second parent club has assuredly bolstered an already strong looking San Antonio lineup. Despite an eighth-place division finish last season, the team has been left plenty to build off of, from returning scorers to high-profile young talent. The Rampage should be able to contend for the division this season, which will be a change.