Albany River Rats Report

By Mike Buskus

Albany Week in Review #1

Devs’ AHL Club starts 9th season

Coaching changes highlighted the off-season activity of the Albany River Rats, who this week began their ninth American Hockey League season, all as the affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. Bob Carpenter was promoted to head coach of the Albany River Rats, from associate coach. Hired as assistant coaches were Geordie Kinnear, who retired last year from the Rats due to injury and who holds a number of defense records for Albany, and Chris Terreri, recently retired from NHL goaltending, to serve as goaltender coach for the Rats.

Carpenter’s promotion to top bench boss followed two years under the tutelage of John Cunniff, who resumes scouting duties for the Devils after a five-year tenure as Albany coach. Carpenter began his post-NHL playing days as an assistant coach in Albany on August 12, 1999, with a promotion to associate coach the following season.

The former standout centerman who was the first American player ever drafted in the first round (3rd overall in the 1981 entry draft), Carpenter gained notoriety by making the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school senior. He retired from play in 1999, after 728 points (320G; 408A) in 1,178 NHL games.

For a hockey guy new to the coaching business, Carpenter was in the right place at the right time for some on-the-job training. When the Albany River Rats were eliminated in the first round by Rochester in the 2000-2001 Calder Cup playoffs, Carpenter got called up by recently-hired Devils’ coach, Larry Robinson. Carpy was used as an assistant coach by the Devils during their Stanley Cup championship run. He also fulfilled the same role during the Devils’ attempted defense of the Cup this past season. That experience in dozens of Stanley Cup playoff games, including two consecutive trips to the finals, is something that many coaches never get, yet Carpenter has that experience on his resume.

Carpenter inherits a squad that had its worst campaign in the eight years as the affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. The season began on a sour note, with the Rats winning only one of the first seventeen games, with a 15-game losing stretch. Yet, the Rats played with determination, almost squeaking out a playoff spot during the final week of the regular season.

Joining Carpenter behind the Albany bench is defenseman, Geordie Kinnear. One of the most popular players in franchise history, Kinnear was an original member of the team in the inaugural 1993-1994 campaign, and a key component of the 1994-1995 Calder Cup championship squad.

Kinnear was the Albany captain for three years, the longest tenure of any player to wear the “C” for the Rats. He was selected for the AHL All-Star Classic four consecutive times, though twice he was unable to play due to injuries or illness. He was a classic stay-at-home defenseman. On an AHL web-site question and answer session several years ago, Kentucky Thoroughblades’ scoring leader, Steve Guolla, described Kinnear as the best AHL defenseman.

Geordie Kinnear had a brief NHL career – four games – with the Atlanta Thrashers, who signed him in August of 1999 as a free agent. He spent slightly over one season with the Orlando Solar Bears, the Thrashers’ then IHL affiliate. Kinnear’s leadership was instantly recognized by the Solar Bears, who named him team captain the first week he joined the team.

Kinnear was re-acquired by the Devils, for future considerations, during November of 2000, specifically to bolster the blue line of the then-struggling Albany River Rats. He anchored the start of the turn-around for the Rats, whose penalty-killing steadily climbed from the league’s worst (at the time) to respectability.

Tragically, from the player’s and fan’s point of view, Kinnear was forced to retire on medical advice after 14 games with the Rats during the 2000-2001 season. A neck injury that posed a risk of permanent paralysis led to the decision to hang up his skates in mid-December of 2000. Upon his retirement, Kinnear held team records for most games played as an Albany River Rat (406) and penalty minutes (1,094).

But, even after retiring from play, Kinnear stayed in Albany to watch the team and to help out during practices. Newly promoted coach, Bob Carpenter, stated that Kinnear’s name was the only one suggested by Carpenter to the Devils’ organization. (The fans obviously agree; at the home opener on Saturday, October 6, the applause was loudest for Kinnear when the players and coaches were introduced.)

Though the New Jersey Devils have a goaltending coach on staff (Jacques Caron), most of his time is spend working with Martin Brodeur and Brodeur’s backup (see more on that, below). Thus, for the first time in the affiliation with Albany – now entering its ninth season – the Devils hired a full-time goalie coach. Devils’ general manager, Lou Lamoriello, chose a veteran goaltender, Chris Terreri, whom he has known for many years, dating back to Providence, when Lamoriello was athletic director and Terreri was a college player.

Goaltending competition

The goaltender situation will be one of the most interesting stories to watch in Albany this season. Four young goaltenders are vying for the spot as Brodeur’s backup in New Jersey. Frederic Henry, Jean-Francois Damphousse, Ari Ahonen and Scott Clemmensen all played in the Devils’ training camp, with Clemmensen selected, at least for now, as the backup to Brodeur. (Clemmensen actually got NHL ice time his first game, playing 20 minutes in the Devils’ 6-1 loss to the Capitals, making 4 saves on 5 shots.)

The jam-up in the crease results from several factors. Just before the NHL trading deadline, the Devils swapped Terreri – a long-time backup to Brodeur – for John Vanbiesbrouck, then playing for the New York Islanders. Beazer retired after the 2001 Stanley Cup playoffs. Thus, the second-chair on the Devils’ goaltending squad had an opening, which the Devils did not try to fill by off-season free agent activity.

The four contenders for the spot at Brodeur’s backup are: Frederic Henry, a 24-year old selected as the Devils’ 10th choice (200th overall) in the 1995 draft; Ari Ahonen, a 20-year-old tapped as the 1st New Jersey selection (27th overall) in the 1999 entry draft; Scott Clemmensen, a 24-year-old picked as the Devils’ 7th choice (215th overall) in the 1995 draft; and Jean-Francois Damphousse, a 22-year-old chosen as the 1st New Jersey selection (24th overall) in the 1997 draft.

In their own way, each of these netminders had a lot to offer.

Henry has played 125 AHL regular season games and 4 post-season contests. He was exceptionally strong during the 2001 Calder Cup playoffs in which the Rats lost by one game (and one goal over the series) to the Rochester Americans, the team from Albany’s division that went on to the finals. Henry’s glove is particularly quick and he thrives on work, relishing the chance to get consecutive starts. His 2000-2001 numbers (6-17-3; 3.60 GAA) underestimate his abilities. It was a particularly tough year for Albany on defense (starting with 4 rookies on the blue line), a situation not helped by the fact that the Rats had the fewest goals on offense other than Louisville. Then, Henry suffering a groin pull that put him out of action for a month towards the end of the season. Surely, Henry believes that he has something to prove as the 2001-2002 season begins.

Ahonen has only been seen by scouts, not by fans. After his first round selection in 1999, the native of Jyvaskyla, Finland, played two full seasons for the HIFK Helsinki team. He also played in the World Juniors competition for Finland. Ahonen’s professional debut was at the Duncan Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, on Friday, October 5, 2001. He made 29 saves on 33 shots, taking the loss as the Rats lost, 4-2, to the Bruins.

Clemmensen just finished college (Boston College), but what a finish. He anchored the Eagles’ college championship victory, which coincidentally was seen by many Albany River Rats’ fans. The “Frozen Four” was played this spring in Albany at the Pepsi Arena, and among the full house were Devils’ and Rats’ fans and coaches and scouts from the New Jersey organization. At least for now, Clemmensen is the Devils’ backup goaltender, having beaten out Henry, Ahonen and Damphousse in camp. However, NJ coach, Larry Robinson, indicated that the choice was not cast in concrete and that up-and-down movements to the River Rats might be expected, so that candidates as Brodeur’s understudy (he just signed a long-term contract with the Devils) could get plenty of playing time.

Damphousse earned the Albany fans’ vote as player of the year last season. His record of 24-23-3 was very impressive, considering that the Rats only had 30 wins all season and the defense was a work-in-progress through most of the season. Damphousse had a goals-against average of 2.86, a very respectable number for a team with a losing record like Albany last season. His 24 wins ranked him 4th in the league. His 1503 saves put him at the top of the league.

In the opinion of some Albany fans, this writer included, Damphousse at the moment stands at the top of the list for long-term selection as most likely to replace Martin Brodeur in four years, assuming Brodeur and the Devils do not extend the contract again. Damphousse shows exceptional poise, an ability to shake-off a “soft goal,” and a team-ethic that never criticized the defense in front of him, even when, to put it charitably, it struggled mightily. But, some healthy competition from Clemmenson, Ahonen and Henry can only make him better (assuming he gets enough playing time).

Off-season personnel changes

Gone is fan-favorite, Chris Ferraro, who joins his twin brother, Peter, with the Portland Pirates, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals. Ferraro, a speedy center and good face-off artist, lead the Rats last season in scoring, with 66 points (24G; 42A). Also departed is Pierre Dagenais, who made the Devils in training camp. (Dagenais also helped his cause with a hat-trick in the Devils-Penguins’ NHL exhibition game in Albany two weeks ago.) Dagenais had 34 goals last season for Albany, including 8 game-winners (a huge number, considering the Rats only won 30 of 80 contests).

Ed Ward, a veteran free agent center, was not re-signed. Defenseman, Sascha Goc, made the Devils in training camp. Blueliner, Willie Mitchell, was traded at the NHL deadline for Sean O’Donnell (a playoff “rental” by the Devils) of Minnesota, who signed in the off-season with Boston. Defenseman Henrik Rehnberg was not given a contract extension by the Devils.

Newcomers include Christian Berglund, a 21-year-old center who was the Devils’ 3rd choice (37th overall) in the 1998 entry draft, and Brian Gionta, a small (5’7”, 170#) right wing who was a three-time Hobey Baker nominee at Boston College, where he set scoring records along the way to BC’s championship victory on Albany ice this past spring. Those two wingers, centered by Ted Drury (an off-season signing by the Devils, with 414 NHL games under his belt), are expected to be the number one line for the River Rats this season. Though the line has yet to score in two games, it has shown astonishing speed and a good number of scoring chances.

Bolstering the Rats’ blue line are Joel Dezainde, a free agent signing this spring; Mikko Jokela, a 21-year-old defenseman picked as the Devils’ 5th choice (96th overall) in the 1998 entry draft; and Victor Uchevatov, an 18-year-old Russian defenseman picked 4th by the Devils (60th overall) in the 2001 entry draft.

Young forward challenges Devils’ GM

It goes without saying that the New Jersey Devils are a respected organization. It is an understatement to say that Devils’ general manager, Lou Lamoriello, runs a tight ship and supervises all aspects of the organization. It is also well known in hockey circles that Lamoriello is a tough negotiator, a fact readily stated by agents and present or former players.

Along with the reputation for toughness, Lamoriello and the Devils also have earned respect for loyalty to their long-term players and employees. Ken Daneyko, who dealt with his alcohol problem with the full support of the Devils, is a case in point. Chris Terreri, though traded at the NHL deadline for a more experienced “playoff” goaltender (John Vanbiesbrouck), is another, as he recently was appointed assistant coach of the Rats. Long-time Devils’ employee, John Cunniff (coach and scout) is another example.

But, there has been a history of harsh dealing with dissenters. Players who challenged the coach or general manager – especially in quotes in the newspapers – usually ended up traded before too long, or else in the proverbial doghouse with little or no ice time.

Examples that come to mind include Krysztof Oliwa, who challenged the Devils’ medical diagnosis in 1999-2000 (just before the playoffs) and would up being excluded from the team travel to Dallas for the Stanley Cup championship game. Oliwa was dealt to Columbus shortly thereafter. Another example would be Billy Guerin, who as a little vocal about his role on the team. He was dealt to Edmonton in the deal that brought Jason Arnott to New Jersey. Brendan Morrisson was unhappy and said so. He got packaged with Dennis Pederson in the deal that brought Alexander Mogilny to the Devils. However, Morrisson – a Hobey Baker winner – spent most of the season not playing before the trade was arranged.

The latest squabble to emerge in the sports pages involves second-year forward, Mike Jefferson. He reportedly came close to making the Devils in camp this summer, after an up-and-down year last season in Albany. Jefferson led Albany rookies in scoring with 34 points (19G; 15A), though his +/- rating of “-25” was the worst on the entire team. He had one 5-point game, with a hat trick and two assists against Springfield.

The dispute which hit the papers revolves around the suspension of Jefferson by Devils’ GM, Lou Lamoriello, after Jefferson did not report to the Albany River Rats after the Devils’ camp ended and Jefferson was sent down to Albany. According to reporting by Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger and subsequent coverage by Phil Janack of the [Schenectady, NY] Sunday Gazette, Jefferson sustained an abdominal injury in a preseason game which prompted him to travel to Los Angeles to get a medical second opinion.

The newspaper stories included quotes from Jefferson criticizing the Devils’ physician for having mis-diagnosed him, and challenging and criticizing the Devils’ GM for suspending him.

Regardless of whether Jefferson has any merit to his claim about the medical diagnosis, his method of handling it, by airing it in public in the newspapers, was surely bad judgment on his part. Only one year into a three-year contract with the Devils, he has no proven track record, much less any common sense in going on the record to criticize the Devils’ GM.

For the record, this is what this writer concluded, in the season-wrap-up last spring, in Albany Week in Review:

“Mike Jefferson, a rookie, earned a “B” mostly on the strength of his second-half performance. In his first 40 games, he had 5 points and was “-20” on the plus/minus scale. He was a loose cannon, firing off wild shots not just with the puck, but with or without his gloves on. He had, and still has, a tendency to retaliate against every real or imagined infraction, particularly those that escaped the notice of the referee. Yet, he scored 29 points in the second half and improved his plus/minus to “-4” in the second half. He has intensity and then some. He is fearless, willing and able to fight much larger players, including those with deserved reputations as pugilists. With a 14.2% shooting accuracy, he has an ability to find the net. His biggest short-coming, which may be coachable, is the tendency to pursue personal vendattas against other players, while ignoring the game situation. He is a rookie, though, and maybe coaches can shake out the bad tendencies and polish the rest. A big upside potential with this kid.”

Stay tuned for more on the Mike Jefferson saga.

Dated: October 8, 2001.