Albany River Rats 2009-10 preview

By Cory Lavalette

The Albany River Rats have only reached the postseason once since they began their affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes, squeaking in the 2006-07 season in the first year of the partnership. But after two seasons on the outside looking in, the Rats looked poised for a return to the AHL playoffs.

Second-year coach Jeff Daniels will lead a team infused with several top-end prospects, something that has been lacking from the Hurricanes’ system in recent seasons. Couple that with some returning firepower at forward, a reliable defense and two goaltenders that will battle for ice time, and Daniels will have better — and more — options in his sophomore campaign behind the bench.

Forwards

The only noticeable departure from the Albany forward corps is 2008-09 co-leading scorer Jakub Petruzlek, who decided to head overseas rather than re-sign on a two-way deal. But his loss is easily filled by two first-year players: Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman.

Boychuk, who joined the Rats for two games at the end of last season, officially starts his professional career, and does so with high expectations. Fast, creative and tough, Boychuk would have made many NHL rosters this season. But Carolina’s depth at forward — and GM Jim Rutherford’s wish to give his young players time to develop — means the 2008 first-round pick will begin the year in the AHL and likely stay there unless injuries or scoring troubles hit the Hurricanes.

Bowman is not as close to cracking an NHL lineup as Boychuk, but his lethal shot and knack for making himself open could translate into a wealth of goals for the first-year winger. Expect him to terrorize AHL goalies on the scoresheet while improving his all-around play and strength in preparation for his eventual promotion to Carolina.

Joining them is center Brandon Sutter, who played the majority of 2008-09 with the Hurricanes before finishing the season with Albany. Like Boychuk, Sutter did everything he needed to make the NHL squad this preseason. But lack of room on the roster and the desire to give him major minutes led to his assignment to Albany. Sutter is noticeably stronger and faster in his second pro season, though his slight frame is still as evident as last year. He will likely serve as the Rats’ No. 1 pivot and play in all situations. Expect Sutter and Boychuk — who have played together since their days at the World Junior Championships — to be paired up.

“We’ve been playing together for quite a few years with Team Canada, and we played together in Albany last year and a little bit for Carolina last year, so we’re definitely pretty familiar with each other,” Boychuk said following Carolina’s Sept. 18 preseason game against Nashville. “I think both our talents complement each other. He’s such a strong skater up through the middle who’s really solid defensively, and I like to use my speed and drive wide and all those types of things. It’s good to have a guy like that hopefully you have chemistry with and you can take it out here and have some pretty dominating shifts.”

Returning forwards Jerome Samson — who tied Petruzalek for the team scoring lead last year — Nick Dodge and Nicolas Blanchard all are penciled in for top-nine roles, while captain Patrick Dwyer and alternate captain Mike Angelidis provide leadership and experience to the top few lines.

First-year left wing Chris Terry, a 2007 fifth-round selection, is the latest in a long line of Plymouth Whalers to earn a job in the Hurricanes organization. While Boychuk, Bowman and Sutter get most of the press, Terry enters his rookie season having averaged nearly 100 points the past two seasons in the OHL. Grinders Brad Herauf and Steven Goertzen will battle for fourth-line minutes, while second-year pro Stefan Chaput is back after a rookie season that saw him burst out of the gate (11 points in 15 games) only to have his year cut short by injury. Harrison Reed, who played in 70 games with the Rats in his first pro season last year, returns and will likely begin on the fourth line.

Noticeably absent is veteran sniper Michael Ryan. Ryan was the team’s best scorer last year, potting a team-high 25 goals in just 40 games with Albany last season and also playing 18 games with the Canes. He is currently still on the Carolina roster, having suffered a concussion in the preseason. Once he is healthy, he will likely return to Albany and slide into a top-six role.

Rookie Matthew Pistilli, an undrafted free agent signing and former teammate of 2009 first-round pick Philippe Paradis, also starts the season injured.

Defense

The River Rats defense will be anchored by rugged Brett Carson and slick Bryan Rodney. But all eyes will be on Hobey Baker nominee Jamie McBain, who enters his first pro season.

McBain left the University of Wisconsin after being one of the country’s most productive defensemen his junior year. The 2006 second-round pick had a 10-game audition with Albany last year, but he’ll be leaned on to be one of the go-to blueliners for the Rats this season. His combination of size, skating and offensive instincts will make it difficult to keep him in Albany beyond this year, if he lasts that long.

Carson — like Sutter and Boychuk — would be penciled in to the Carolina lineup if not for the glut of veteran defensemen signed to one-way deals. During his five-game recall last year and performance this summer, Carson proved he’s ready to make the jump if needed. While his focus is on his own zone, Carson has matured into an offensive threat as well, escalating his point total in each of his three seasons in Albany.

Rodney has been a brilliant free-agent find for the Hurricanes. He showed in eight games with the Hurricanes last year that he is capable of making the first pass needed from puck-moving rearguards in the NHL. He also proved to be capable of running the point of the power play, a weak point on this year’s Carolina roster that could lead to his promotion sooner rather than later. Rodney is an underrated defender, though he seems to play smaller than his 6’0, 200-pound frame a lot of the time.

Benn Olson and Jonathan Paiement will look to earn full-time jobs after playing partial schedules with Albany last year. Big Brett Bellemore will take his second crack at the AHL after injuries slowed him last season and led to his assignment back to his OHL team — Plymouth again — for an overage season. Newcomer Zack Fitzgerald provides toughness on the back end, while free-agent Jay Harrison has made the Canes opening-night roster but could be reassigned once Joni Pitkanen proves ready to play coming off a minor knee procedure.

Hard-luck defenseman Casey Borer, who broke his neck in last season’s gruesome bus accident, needed further surgery this summer to correct the damage. His recovery will determine when — or if — he can play hockey again.

Goalies

Justin Peters finally wrestled the No. 1 position away from the competition last season in Albany. His reward? Two-time defending OHL Goaltender of the Year Mike Murphy.
Peters, a big butterfly goalie, will likely get the benefit of the doubt to start the season. But Murphy has turned heads since last season’s prospect and training camps, and his unconventional style is doubted by many but produces wins. His performance in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament further solidified his status as an up-and-coming goaltender.

Expect Peters and Murphy to share the starting duties so the Hurricanes can determine who has the inside track to backing up recently extended starter Cam Ward next season in Raleigh. If Peters takes a firm grasp of the job, Murphy could be assigned to the ECHL’s Florida Everblades to ensure he gets enough ice time to help his development. That would open the door for Peters to back up Ward next season and give Murphy the No. 1 job with the Rats in 2010-11.