Albany River Rats coach Jeff Daniels has an influx of top-end talent this year, but struggles and injuries with the Hurricanes have led to several players being shuttled to and from Raleigh throughout the season.
But the Rats are 17-10-1-2, waking from some early season up-and-down play to run off seven consecutive wins through Dec. 17. Their 37 points are good for second in the East Division and one point behind the Hershey Bears.
Blanchard’s evolution into a grinder and pugilist has continued this season. After dropping the gloves 18 times last year, Blanchard has a team-high 10 fights through just 30 games for the Rats.
The 22-year-old’s offensive contributions are small (four goals, two assists), but his size and toughness — his 78 penalty minutes are third on the team — are a welcome addition to the Albany lineup.
Drayson Bowman, LW
First-year pro Bowman has been slowed by injuries this season, but he has flashed glimpses of what the future holds for the 20-year-old sniper.
In 18 games, Bowman has six goals and six assists, but has been more than willing to fire the puck on net, registering 54 shots (three per game). Unfortunately, a knee injury has sidelined him since late November.
Zach Boychuk, C
Boychuk, the Canes’ top prospect, earned a two-game call-up earlier in the season, showing off his world-class speed and big-play skills with several good scoring opportunities and an assist. His numbers in Albany have been decent — seven goals and 11 assists in 28 games — and with Carolina sliding to a distant last in the NHL standings, the 20-year-old will likely spend the majority of 2009-10 with Albany until GM Jim Rutherford sheds players for assets at the trade deadline.
After a fast start to his pro career was derailed by injury last year, Chaput has returned to form for Daniels in 2009-10. The 21-year-old center is among the AHL’s top rookie scorers with 19 points on five goals and 14 assists — good for a tie for second on the team. He has four multi-point games so far this year — including two three-point nights — and seems no worse for wear after missing most of last season.
Nick Dodge, C
Second-year pro Dodge’s value goes beyond statistics, but his plus/minus helps tell the story. Dodge’s team-high plus-9 is indicative of what a responsible defensive player he is. But Dodge, 23, has also been a contributor on offense, scoring seven goals and adding three assists for the River Rats. His consistency in both ends bodes well for his future.
Matthew Pistilli, RW
Pistilli, an undrafted free agent signed prior to this season, brings size and grit to the Rats’ forward corps. At 6’2, 219 pounds, the 21-year-old has five points (three goals, two assists) in 24 games with Albany. He also played three games with Carolina’s ECHL affiliate in Florida.
Pistilli scored his first two professional goals with the Rats on Oct. 30 — his lone multi-point game this season — and is plus-1.
Harrison Reed, RW
Reed has split time between the ECHL’s Everblades and the River Rats, but has played 23 of his 31 games this season with Albany. A one-time 80-point scorer in the OHL, the second-year pro put up 13 points (eight goals, five assists) in eight games with Florida, but has not found his scoring touch at the AHL level, managing just two assists in a limited role. Reed, who will be 22 in January, really needs a strong second half to get back on track.
Jerome Samson, RW
Samson tied for the Rats lead in scoring last year with 54 points, and is again at the top of the heap in 2009-10 with 23 points. He is also tied for the team lead in goals with 11. He also leads the AHL in shots with a staggering 137 through 31 games (4.4 per game), one of just three players with more than 100 shots — and 34 more than the two tied at 103.
But despite his success with Albany, Samson, 22, has been passed over several times for promotion to Carolina — perhaps indicative of his jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none skill set.
Chris Terry, LW
An elite scorer the past couple seasons in the OHL, Terry has adapted well to the pro game. The 20-year-old left wing has 13 points (six goals, seven assists) through 31 games into his rookie season, including a five-game point streak in November. Terry is still a work in progress as far as his NHL future, but his first season with the Rats has thus far been a success.
Bellemore was poised to be with the River Rats last season, but injuries led to him playing an overage season with Plymouth of the OHL in 2008-09. Finally with Albany, Bellemore has been the stay-at-home defenseman the team expected.
Through 28 games he has just three assists, but he is a plus-7 with 39 penalty minutes. At 6’4, 205 pounds, Bellemore is among the biggest players on the team and not afraid to use it to his advantage. Bellemore hasn’t been much talked about, which is the preferred state for a defense-first blueliner.
Casey Borer, D
Borer is finally skating with the River Rats, but still has not been cleared for contact and has not played this season. He is still recovering from surgery needed to correct injuries suffered in the River Rats bus crash last season.
Brett Carson, D
Many thought Carson, 24, would get a chance at making the Carolina roster this season. But the team’s long run to the Eastern Conference finals led to veteran additions to the defense. Carson then missed time with a broken wrist early in the season, but returned to lead the Albany defense.
Until his recent recall to Carolina, Carson anchored the Rats’ blueline, providing shutdown defense and a team-best 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in just 14 games. He has one assist in five games with the Hurricanes, but has played in every situation while averaging nearly 20 minutes a game with Carolina.
Jamie McBain, D
McBain’s arrival has been highly anticipated, and so far he has not disappointed. Although his 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 30 games isn’t jaw-dropping, his play in all zones has been as advertised. McBain, 21, is plus-2 after going minus-7 in 10 games at the end of the season with Albany, and the presence of other experienced defensemen has allowed him to ease into the pro game.
While McBain’s offensive upside is well-documented, he‘s shown the patience to pick his spots and remain defensively aware. Many want to see McBain in Raleigh as soon as possible, but he still needs polishing before making the leap.
The 20-year-old rookie goalie has shared the duties in Albany this season, winning three of his past four starts and greatly improving as the season has moved on. He has a record of 6-6 with a 2.59 goals-against average and .923 save percentage on the year.
With Carolina’s backup situation up in the air for 2010-11, Murphy is battling for an opportunity to stick in Carolina or earn the top job with Albany.
Peters, 23, needs to make an impression this season with Murphy climbing the organizational ladder. So far, so good. The four-year pro is 11-6-2-1 for the River Rats this season with a 2.08 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and one shutout.
While Carolina opted against recalling Peters — instead signing veteran free agent Manny Legace — when Ward went down with an injury earlier this season, Peters is making a case to be the No. 2 in Carolina in 2010-11.