While the Lowell Devils missed out on the post-season yet again in 2008-09, they were a vastly improved club from the cellar dwelling 2007-08 team, finishing just a game below .500 with a record of 35-36-2-7. An influx of talented first-year players played a key role in the improvement of the club, however, inconsistency was the main reason why the club failed to qualify for the playoffs.
The biggest change in this off-season for Lowell was at the head coaching position. Gone is Kurt Kleinendorst, who coached the club for the first three years of its affiliation with New Jersey, and in is former Devils assistant coach John MacLean, who is looking to get some head coaching experience on his resume. Assisting him will be Kevin Dean and Chris Terreri, both former Devil players.
There was the usual bit of roster turnover as well, but with last year’s top three scorers either currently up in New Jersey or with other organizations, there will be an opportunity for a handful of returning players, along with a few first-year pro prospects to lead the team this time around.
It’s been a long, and at times, a bumpy road, but it finally appears that 2005 first-round pick Nicklas Bergfors has made the long awaited graduation to the NHL. While he will have to produce to stick, he doesn’t have anything left to prove in the AHL. Joining Bergfors in New Jersey to start the year are Rod Pelley, Matt Halischuk, and Pierre-Luc Leblond. Halischuk may not be up for long with Patrik Elias due back from injury before the end of the month, but he’s earned a shot after an impressive showing last season in Lowell and in training camp this year.
Alexander Vasyunov and Vladimir Zharkov, a pair of Russian wingers both going into their second seasons of North American pro hockey, will be expected to help pick up much of the offensive slack left by the departure of Bergfors, Pelley, and minor-league veteran Jon DiSalvatore. Having a full season of training camp under his belt should help Vasyunov be more consistent putting the puck in the net this time around. He has pure goal-scoring instincts. Zharkov, a potential Sergei Brylin clone, had an outstanding training camp and pre-season in New Jersey, and might not be in Lowell for much longer if he continues to develop at his current pace.
Patrick Davis and Stephen Gionta return to provide some leadership and stability on the wings for Lowell, who will be asked to help break in two new faces along with a second-year pro who spent last season in the ECHL. Burgeoning power forward Nick Palmieri capped off his OHL career with a splendid post-season and will look to bring his goal-scoring prowess to the pro ranks, while Lake Superior State grad Nathan Perkovich did nothing but score goals for the Lakers, and the parent Devils hope this will translate to the pro level as well. Brad Snetsinger started last season in Lowell, but he was dispatched to Trenton early on where he quickly re-discovered his scoring touch, and was one of Trenton’s top players all season long. He should stick full time in Lowell this season, as long as he’s able to put the puck in the back of the net.
Michael Swift appears to be ready for a more prominent role this season after progressing steadily in his rookie pro campaign, and will be supported up the middle by new faces to the organization, Ben Walter, and Tim Sestito. Gritty center Brad Mills returns this year, while first-year pro Kory Nagy will get his feet wet as well.
While there are currently four forwards up in New Jersey, the Devils are being patient with their top defense prospects, opting to return them to Lowell for more seasoning. Neither Matt Corrente and Tyler Eckford played in any pre-season games, yet that does not diminish their value in the organization. They each showed steady progress in their first pro seasons last year in Lowell, and with that year of experience, they should both be ready to make significant gains in their development. Corrente brings a more aggressive, physical brand of hockey to the table, while Eckford is more of a finesse, offensive type of blueliner. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see either one of them get into a handful of games with the parent club at some point this season.
Olivier Magnan showed well in his third training camp with New Jersey, and returns to Lowell full of confidence, looking to continue to show the gradual improvement he has shown in his first two years in the organization. Mark Fraser is currently in New Jersey on injured reserve with a suspected concussion, but he is likely to return to Lowell once he is back to full health.
Those four will be joined by seasoned NHL and minor-league veterans Jay Leach and Rob Davison, along with players going into their first full AHL seasons, Matt Cohen, who was arguably Trenton’s top blueliner last year, and Matt Taormina.
The Devils should be strong between the pipes this season with second-year pro Jeff Frazee leading the way after a spectacular pro debut that saw him shatter many club records. The start of his season will be slightly delayed for a week or two after he suffered a deep laceration to his neck in an exhibition game, but he avoided serious injury and will be ready to go once the wound heals. Journeyman goaltender Mike McKenna and Trenton sensation Gerald Coleman with both start the year with Lowell, but one will likely man the pipes as the No. 1 goaltender for Trenton once Frazee returns.