Albany Week in Review

By Jared Ramsden

Rats skid to bottom of league

Rookie coaches, Bob Carpenter, Geordie Kinnear (assistant) and Chris Terreri (goaltender coach), are still looking for the right chemistry for the young team to gel together. Bolstered in recent weeks by the addition of Bruce Gardiner (F), Steve Guolla (C) and Joel Bouchard (D), the River Rats remain winless on the road (0-7) and have only one win in 14 contests.

In the past week, two defensemen (Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne) were traded, with the Devils acquiring blueliner Andrei Zyuzin from Tampa Bay in exchange. (See below, “Defensemen traded,” for more details.)

The River Rats have been blown out of only one game this season, a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Worcester Ice Cats on October 20. Most of the losses have been one- or two-goal games. However, the cumulative deficit of goals-for versus goals-against (-22) is the worst in the league. The deficit in shots-for versus shots-against (-171) explains why the Rats are last in the 27-team league in shots-for (22.79 per game) and second-last in shots-against (35.00).

The players either have been unable, or unwilling, to follow coach Carpenter’s repeated admonitions to get the puck in deep in the attack zone. As a result, time of possession in the offensive zone is substantially less than in their own zone. Goaltenders, despite decent work in net, have paid the price.

It has been three weeks since the River Rats won a game, their 6-3 victory at home against Portland. Since then, the team has the unenviable distinction of having the league’s longest running road streak of non-wins (7 games, from October 5), the longest running home streak of non-wins (4 contests, from October 27 [Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tied the Rats in this category]), and the longest overall streak of non-wins (8 games, from October 20).

In the week just past, the Rats came close to tying Hamilton (a 3-2 loss), took an early two-goal lead against Cincinnati, but fell after allowing five goals in the second period (by a 6-4 margin), and got shut-out in Cleveland (3-0). The most frustrating loss was the defeat on home-ice to Hamilton, especially since the margin of defeat was a short-handed goal caused by a turnover by defenseman Sascha Goc at center ice.

Rookie goaltender Ari Ahonen got two starts this week, at home on Wednesday against the Hamilton Bulldogs and on the road Sunday against the Cleveland Barons. He faced a lot of rubber, with 33 pucks fired at him by Hamilton and 40 by Cleveland. Despite a good effort by Ahonen on Wednesday, the Rats took the loss with the short-handed goal allowed (the only one this season) the decisive tally. On Sunday night, Ahonen yielded only two goals on 40 shots (the other was an empty-netter), but his teammates could not generate any offense.

Rookie Scott Clemmensen, who has yet to start a game for the New Jersey Devils, was once again sent down to Albany to get some playing time. An earlier one-game stint saw him in net against the Hershey Bears. This time, he was in net against the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks at Cincinnati Gardens on Saturday, November 10. Though he was perfect in the first period, silencing all 15 Ducks’ shots, 5 of the 18 shots against in the second period lit the lamp and Albany never recovered, falling 6-4 to Cincinnati.

Although no River Rat had what could be called an excellent week, Albany Week in Review has selected winger Stan Gron as AWIR player of the week. Gron, a speedy winger with good finishing skills around the net, was the only player in positive “plus-minus” territory this week, with a rating of “+1”. He had one goal and two assists for the week and has apparently lessened his prior habit of being a “puck hog”. He has been skating recently on the line centered by Mike Rupp with Brian Gionta on the other wing. For his solid efforts this week, Albany Week in Review names Stan Gron player of the week for the team.

Two defensemen traded

Sascha Goc, now in his fourth year in the Devils’ organization, and Josef Boumedienne, currently in his second season with the New Jersey club, were traded this week. They were sent, along with the Devils’ rights to unsigned prospect Anton But, to Tampa Bay. In exchange, the Devils acquired defenseman Andrei Zyuzin. Zyuzin was chosen by San Jose in the first round (second pick overall) in the 1996 entry draft. He has played 179 NHL games, evenly split between San Jose and Tampa Bay

For the moment at least, Zyuzin remains with the Devils, where he underwent a team physical and will practice with New Jersey. If he remains with the NHL club, it is likely that Mike Commodore would be sent to Albany.

While this two-for-one trade leaves Albany momentarily light on the blue line, it certainly has the effect of instantly upgrading the Devils’ state of readiness on defense. Josef Boumedienne was the River Rats’ lone representative to the AHL All-Star Classic last season. Boumedienne was a decent skater and puck-handler with definite NHL potential. On the other hand, Boumedienne was not overly physical, either in size or in action. Goc, a physically strong player who did use his body checking opposing forwards and who played the point capably on the River Rats’ power play, was sometimes inattentive when skating with the puck.

Lou Lamoriello, the Devils’ General Manager, stated in a Devils’ press release that “Andrei Zyuzin has outstanding puck-handling skills, excellent speed, and good size.” He is 6’1″ and 200 pounds.

Since the Devils have taken two of the more experienced defensemen from the River Rats to consummate this trade, it seems logical to expect that New Jersey is still shopping for another blueliner, possibly an AHL-career type player, to augment the Albany defensive corps. Names like Dave MacIsaac (Hershey, temporarily sidelined with an ankle injury) and Mike Gaul come to mind. It is worth recalling that at about the same time last season, when the Albany River Rats were also struggling mightily on the blue line, the Devils re-acquired defenseman Geordie Kinnear. Kinnear bolstered the defensive corps and helped turn the season around, although he retired from play last December due to a nerve injury in his neck. If history is any guide, the Devils surely will do something to help out on defense. If neither Zyuzin nor Commodore are sent down from the Devils, then the blue line shopping spree needs to continue.

Albany Week in Review wishes the best to Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne. Both are hard-working players with NHL potential.

Other personnel notes

Another River Rat player will no longer wear an Albany uniform. Enforcer Rob Skrlac, who had but one goal in over four seasons, is available for loan (with the Devils paying his salary). On November 2, 2001, Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello, as well as many of his scouting staff, were on hand to watch, among others, goalie Scott Clemmensen and forward Rob Skrlac. Several days later, Lamoriello announced that Skrlac would no longer play, so that rookie prospect Brett Clouthier could get playing time.

Skrlac remained a “team guy” to the end. Though he has played only sporadically over the years, he was and is extraordinarily loyal to the organization and to his teammates. Skrlac went out of his way to praise the Devils and the organization. He was philosophical about the announcement, declaring that he understood that younger prospects need playing time.

There remains the possibility that he would be loaned out to another AHL club and then come back to play against his former teammates. Skrlac only lost a fight on the rarest of occasions. This writer recalls one loss by Skrlac at the HersheyPark Arena several years ago. Then-Hershey Bear (and current Toronto Maple Leaf) Wade Belak stunned Skrlac by pounding the Rats’ helmet against the glass, thereby getting a tactical advantage. However, Skrlac won most fights cleanly, or, at worst had a draw.

One of the most memorable Skrlac fights of all time was not even during a game. In pre-game skating before a playoff game between Albany and Philadelphia in the Calder Cup conference finals, Skrlac dropped the gloves against Garrett Burnett. Burnett had turned the net around before leaving the ice, preventing Skrlac from taking his three-quarter length empty-net shot. When Skrlac skated the length of the ice to put the net back into position, Burnett charged down the runway from the locker room area and challenged Skrlac. It took coach John Cunniff to separate the pugilists. (Billy Barber, then the Phantoms’ coach, made no similar effort.) For his troubles, Skrlac received a multi-game suspension, though neither he nor Burnett were penciled into the lineup in any event.

Skrlac remained a fan favorite in Albany. He always indulged children by signing autographs. One night when sitting in the stands, he saw a child unhappy when an adult, who grabbed a puck that flew over the glass, resisted the tendency to give the puck to the kid who was closest to the puck. Not wanting a young fan to go away unhappy, Skrlac promptly went up to the souvenir stand, purchased a puck with his own money, and gave that puck to the kid.

Rob Skrlac never lost his sense of humor, either. Over a year ago, at a road game in Worcester, this writer went up to the third-level seating area where visiting players (injured or scratched) watch the action at the Centrum. This writer happened to remark to Sylvain Cloutier that he was one of the team’s most reliable two-way centers. Skrlac humorously injected, “I thought that was me.” Though no one would ever confuse him with a scoring threat — his lone goal came after repeated “gift passes” from John Madden — Skrlac remained a positive influence on the team. He was one of the most enthusiastic in celebrating team victories and remained upbeat and optimistic despite seeing limited ice time. His large size (6’5″, 245#) contributed to his slow skating speed, but his skating did get better and faster over the years.

Second-year forward Mike Jefferson continues to make news. Recovering in California from an abdominal injury, Jefferson opted not to take treatment from Devils’ physicians. Instead, according to reporting by Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger, Jefferson selected a medical center in Laguna Hills, California. According to Jefferson, as quoted by Chere, the Devils declined to pay the medical bill sent by the California health care provider.

Jefferson evidently perceived the non-payment of the doctor’s bill as an insult to him (Jefferson). Chere quoted Jefferson as calling Lamoriello “gutless” and denied that he would be willing to return to the Devils organization after medical clearance. Jefferson even went so far as to suggest that Lamoriello would have to convince him (Jefferson) to return to the organization, rather than the other way around. Pretty bold stuff for a kid who has only played two NHL games and spent just one season (to mixed reviews) in the American Hockey League.

For Jefferson’s own good, he needs some sage advice from some players or coaches (maybe not any connected with the Devils’ organization). It would take some medical experts to determine whether or not Jefferson had any basis for seeking a medical second-opinion or for disagreeing with the Devils’ doctors. But it takes no expert in the hockey world to realize that a public shouting match with General Manager Lamoriello will not advance Jefferson’s career. The Devils have a history of not caving in to demands to be traded. If players get traded, it is only on the time-table set by New Jersey, so that talent is not given away at “fire sale” prices. Albany Week in Review believes that Jefferson, despite his hot-headedness and feistiness, has the potential to play in the NHL. But the 21-year-old from Brampton, Ontario needs to change his attitude before he will ever again play in the New Jersey organization.

Tip of the Hat to Viacheslav Fetisov

Albany Week in Review congratulates Devils’ assistant coach, Viacheslav Fetisov, on his entry this week into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He is only the second Russian (Vladislav Tretiak is the other) to be honored by induction into the Hall of Fame in Toronto. He was a member of the Detroit Red Wings when they won successive Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998.

Before leaving Russia to enter the United States, Fetisov was captain of the Central Red Army team and the Soviet national squad. He spent nine seasons in the NHL, with New Jersey and Detroit. During his NHL career, he played in 546 regular-season contests and 116 playoff games.

So, a tip of the hat to Slava Fetisov, for being a trailblazer in leaving the Soviet Union to join the NHL and to excel here. Yet, he never forgot where he came from. As Mark Everson reported in the New York Post, Fetisov was hand-picked by Russian President Vladimir Putin to run the show for the Russian Olympic team in Salt Lake City. AWIR congratulates Fetisov on his Hall of Fame honors and notes that it was the New Jersey Devils that had the vision to sign him and to bring him into the NHL.