For the first time since 1997-98, the Albany River Rats advanced past the first round of the AHL playoffs. The team was swept in Round 2 by the powerhouse Hershey Bears, but the influx of new, young talent and growth of several returning players had Hurricanes fans more interested in the team’s affiliate than any time in recent memory.
Several of the players saw time in Raleigh with the Hurricanes, but none of the organization’s players spent significant time with the Florida Everblades, Carolina’s ECHL affiliate. Next season, the River Rats franchise will be in-state, moving to Charlotte as the Checkers.
Nicolas Blanchard, LW, 22
Blanchard was among those seriously injured in last season’s bus crash, but he worked his way back to health to play 76 regular season and all eight postseason games with the Rats this season. He finished with a career-high 14 goals and fell one point short of matching his best point total, finishing with a total of 22 points. Blanchard, who at 6’3 and 200 pounds is one of the organization’s biggest players, has also become a physical force in Albany, finishing with a 171 penalty minutes (third on the team) and a team-high 21 fighting majors. Blanchard’s three-year entry-level contract is up, but with several players set to graduate to the NHL next year, the Canes will probably look to hold on to him.
Drayson Bowman, LW, 21
Bowman’s rookie season didn’t go exactly according to plan. Slowed by injuries and the adjustment to professional hockey, the rookie sniper managed 17 goals and 15 assists in 56 games with the River Rats and also played nine games with the Hurricanes, scoring twice — both in an 8-5 win over Tampa Bay April 6. Bowman’s skill level in undeniable, but the key to him having a chance at making the NHL roster next season will be for him to get bigger and stronger and more consistent away from the puck.
Zach Boychuk, C/W, 20
Many thought Boychuk, Carolina’s top prospect, would have a shot at winning the Calder Trophy in 2009-10. But with the Hurricanes advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the team instead looked to veterans to start the season. But as the Canes tumbled to the bottom of the standings, Boychuk saw extended time in Raleigh. With Albany, Boychuk had 15 goals and 21 assists in 52 games and added another nine points (three goals, six assists) in 31 games with Carolina. Boychuk will have every opportunity to join the NHL roster next season, but will need to show he can be a threat offensively while also being responsible in the neutral zone and his own end.
Stefan Chaput, C, 22
After having his rookie season limited to just 15 games in 2008-09 due to injury, Chaput played 75 games with the River Rats this season, finishing with 10 goals and 28 assists. While his 38 points ranked him fifth on Albany, Chaput hit a bit of a wall late in the season. He’ll need to improve his play in the defensive zone, especially if he can’t pick up his goal scoring, if he wants a shot at moving up the organizational ladder.
Zac Dalpe, C, 20
Dalpe played just nine regular season and eight playoff games with Albany after he signed his pro contract following the end of Ohio State’s season, but he definitely contributed. He had six goals and an assist after joining the Rats, then tacked on three goals and three assists in the postseason. His seamless transition to the pro game has him in consideration for the Hurricanes’ vacant No. 3 center spot in 2010-11. The big question is how well he will handle the grind of a pro schedule vs. the lighter college workload he had the past two seasons.
Nick Dodge, C, 24
Dodge is often overshadowed by the other big-name prospects in the Carolina system, but the all-situations center has been a reliable player for the River Rats. He played 80 games for the second straight season, finishing 2009-10 with 16 goals and 20 assists, and added four goals and an assist in eight playoff games. But Dodge’s contributions go beyond the score sheet. He’s a standout defensive forward and faceoff man, and Daniels has called him “steady, very professional and low maintenance.” If Rod Brind’Amour decides to retire, Dodge could be a dark-horse candidate for fourth-line center in Raleigh next season.
Cedric Lalonde-McNicoll, C, 21
Acquired from Colorado in the deal that sent veteran Stephane Yelle back to the Avs, Lalonde-McNicoll finished 2009-10 with seven goals and eight assists in a combined 52 AHL games with Albany and Lake Erie, plus had six points in 10 ECHL games. Lalonde-McNicoll also registered two assists in six playoff games with the River Rats. He is a skilled player but will need to adapt his game to be good in all three zones if he’s going to have a shot at sticking in the AHL, especially if he doesn’t put up more points. Size is a barrier for him.
Oskar Osala, LW, 22
Not only is Osala from Finland — a rapidly growing population with the Hurricanes — but he’s exactly they type of player Carolina needs in its system. At 6’4, 219 pounds, Osala could be the offensive zone force lacking from the Canes forward corps. But first,he’ll need to adapt to playing more minutes in more situations. He was acquired in the trade that sent Joe Corvo to Washington, meaning he was previously part of the juggernaut Hershey team that eventually eliminated the Rats in four straight games in the second round of the playoffs. Osala played a smaller role with the Bears because of the team’s wealth of talent, but upon arriving in Albany was thrust into a top-six role with power play time immediately. In his 16 regular season games with Albany after the trade deadline, Osala fired in 10 goals and added three assists. Compare that to the pedestrian 29 points he had in 53 games with Hershey, and his ability to produce when given the opportunity is evident. Osala could compete for time in Carolina next season — he saw one game with the Canes after the trade — but will likely see big minutes in the AHL in 2010-11 in preparation for a bigger role with the Hurricanes down the road.
Matthew Pistilli, RW, 21
The undrafted free-agent signee split time between Albany and Florida this season. The majority of his regular season was spent with the River Rats, where he had five goals and three assists in 41 games in a limited role. He also had four points in 11 games with the Everblades, plus spent the postseason in the ECHL, registering three goals and six assists in eight playoff games, second on the team. Pistilli, a hard worker with good size, will likely spend 2010-11 in Charlotte.
Jerome Samson, RW, 22
The numbers say it all for Samson: 37 goals, 41 assists, 78 points. The Rats workhorse was one of the AHL’s best players in 2009-10, finishing 31 points ahead of his closest teammate. That continued in the playoffs where Samson finished with six goals and three assists in eight postseason games. Still, he found himself passed over several times when it came time to recall a forward to Carolina. Was it that Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford didn’t want to deprive Daniels of his top player? Or was that Samson’s skills are hard to appreciate without close observation? He’s not the most skilled player, but he makes up for it with a constant motor and the ability to cycle and control the puck in the offensive zone. In the seven games he did have with Carolina, Samson showed that his puck possession skills translate to the NHL level. But he only received limited minutes and had two assists in his time in Raleigh. Some untimely penalties — 10 minutes with Carolina — put a damper on his solid play with the Hurricanes, but Samson should have a chance to make a run at a bottom six or reserve role next year.
Chris Terry, LW, 21
The rookie left wing quickly adapted to the AHL and finished the season second on the River Rats in scoring, managing 17 goals and 30 assists in 80 games. Unlike Chaput and Lalonde-McNicoll, Terry overcame his smaller size and not only produced offensively but also gradually improved without the puck. His play was solid in eight playoffs games as well, registering two goals and four assists. As the latest player to come through the Plymouth Whalers pipeline, Terry will likely be given every chance to make his mark in the organization and will be a key cog in the Checkers attack in 2010-11.
Brett Bellemore, D, 21
Bellemore was slowed by injuries in 2008-09, delaying his full-time duty with the River Rats. But the big, stay-at-home blueliner adapted well with Albany this season. He had seven points and 81 penalty minutes in 75 games with the Rats and added an assist in eight playoff outings. The overage season in the OHL with Plymouth seems to have benefitted Bellemore. Daniels praised his growth over the year and said he was very positionally sound — a must for a player as big as Bellemore.
Casey Borer, D, 24
Maybe — just maybe — Borer’s luck is starting to turn. After suffering a broken neck in the Albany bus wreck last year, Borer missed about a year. That piggy-backed a 2008-09 that was cut short by a knee injury. But Borer finally did return and worked his way back in to game shape the best way possible: by playing. Borer played 30 games this season finishing with a goal and eight assists, plus had an assist in six playoff games. But perhaps most importantly, Carolina gave Borer a two-game later-season recall, more than two seasons after he opened eyes in an 11-game stint in the NHL in 2007-08. Borer may not be all the way back yet, but he’s finally off the road to recovery and back on a path to the NHL.
Brett Carson, D, 24
Carson played the majority of his season in Raleigh, but by definition the steady blueliner is still a prospect. Carson had 11 points in 14 AHL games before getting the call-up to Carolina, a promotion he never relinquished the rest of the season. While Carson had grown into an offensive threat in the AHL, he wisely got back to his core skills once with the Hurricanes. As the year went on, you could see Carson’s confidence in the defensive zone grow, and with that came more of a willingness to jump into the offensive zone. He finished with two goals and 10 assists in 54 NHL games, but most importantly showed he could contribute in the defensive zone. Carson could use his size more and be more physical, and he sometimes struggles with speedier forwards. But those criticisms are nitpicky when you look at how well the fourth-year pro acclimated himself to the NHL.
Jamie McBain, D, 22
No call-up opened as many eyes as McBain this season. Halfway through his rookie season, McBain flipped a switch and became the dominant offensive defenseman he was with the University of Wisconsin the last three years. That’s not to say he struggled out of the gate, but it was clear that once McBain’s confidence grew in his own end, his ability to change the outcome of games in the offensive zone exploded. He finished with seven goals and 33 assists in 68 regular-season games with the Rats, plus four goals and two assists in eight postseason outings. But most impressively was McBain not missing a beat when he was recalled to Carolina. The rookie blueliner had three goals and seven assists in just 14 NHL games and all but cemented a top-four role in Raleigh next season. Finally, McBain’s defensive prowess is often overlooked; while not physical, McBain is positionally sound and responsible, illustrated in the combined 10 penalty minutes he had in 82 regular season games with the Rats and Hurricanes in 2009-10. McBain could contend for the Calder Trophy in 2010-11.
Mike Murphy, G, 21
Injuries slowed the rookie goaltender in his first season, but the two-time OHL Goaltender of the Year still finished 2009-10 with a respectable 10-9-0 record with a .917 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average. With Justin Peters the frontrunner for the Carolina backup job, Murphy should have the inside path to beat out deadline acquisition Justin Pogge for the starting job in Charlotte in 2010-11.
Justin Peters, G, 23
It’s been a long apprenticeship for Peters, but he finally got his shot in the NHL and seized the opportunity. An AHL All-Star who finished 26-18-2 with a .917 save percentage and 2.54 goals-against average with Albany this year, Peters was equally impressive in nine games with Carolina. The 2004 second-rounder had six wins and a respectable 2.83 GAA and .905 save percentage with the Hurricanes at the end of the season, matching veteran Manny Legace down the stretch and giving Rutherford plenty to think about this offseason. His postseason numbers aren’t as impressive (4-4, 3.42, .896), but Hershey has made ruining goalies’ stats an art form in recent seasons.