By Mike Buskus
“First period” report
This started out as a “first quarter” (20 games out of 80) report but,
variety of reasons, got delayed in writing and editing. This writer
somewhat arbitrarily, have limited the writeup to the first 20 games,
ignoring the next five that have been played did not seem to make
instead of four “quarterly” recaps, there will be only three,
with approximately equal “thirds” of the season. So, it is now a
period” report, or a recap after “one third” of the “game”. Since the
Albany River Rats have played 25 out of their 80 regular season
this is a grade report to date.
Not since the Albany River Rats won the Calder Cup in their second year
existence (1994-1995) (Mike Dunham; Corey Schwab) has the minor league
affiliate of the New Jersey Devils been so blessed with goaltending
The River Rats actually have three prospects who probably have a future
the NHL. The trio of Ari Ahonen, J.F. Damphousse and Scott Clemmensen
wowed the fans, and impressed the scouts.
Damphousse currently is in New Jersey, as backup to Martin Brodeur.
most experienced of the three netminders, Damphousse worked five games
the River Rats (1-1-1; 3.62 GAA; .883 save percentage), plus one start
(Tampa Bay) and one relief effort (Washington) with the Devils.
Damphousse got a real “trial by fire” last year (2000-2001) with the
River Rats. Due, in part, to a groin injury of teammate Frederic
Damphousse played in 55 AHL games last year with the Rats, earning 24
team’s 30 wins, with very decent numbers including GAA of 2.86 and a
percentage of .914. Most impressive of all, those numbers came despite
very young, rather inexperienced defense last year. Unfortunately for
and the team the River Rats failed to qualify for post-season play.
the first round draft pick of the Devils (24th overall in the 1997
draft) was most noteworthy for his poise. A “soft” goal did not rattle
J.F. Damphousse matured quickly with the Rats and the booster club
their choice as MVP.
For his rock-solid performance in net with the River Rats, Damphousse
a grade of “A-”.
Ari Ahonen, also a first round pick of the Devils (27th overall in the
entry draft), has been the workhorse so far this season, measured by
net (669:28 through 25 games). It was not until November 24 that he
first win (Rochester, 3-1), with his second victory coinciding with the
’s first (and so far only) road win (Hartford, 4-2).
Ahonen, like his colleagues in net for Albany, has faced a lot of
The River Rats are second-last in the league (26th out of 27 teams, at
shots per game), so Ahonen has faced a lot of rubber. His save
of .919 reflects his 364 saves on 396 shots in 11 games. For his solid
performance to date, Ahonen receives a grade of “B+”.
The other member of the Rats’ goalie trio is Scott Clemmensen. He
celebrated an NCAA title for Boston College at the Pepsi Arena in
this spring (along with teammate Brian Gionta). But, the BC netminder
played in eight games with the River Rats before getting his first
In team game #25, on Sunday, December 9, Clemmensen was the goalie in
when the Rats won, 2-1, in overtime, against the Syracuse Crunch.
Clemmensen actually was chosen, out of the three, to start the season
New Jersey, through that assignment was expected to be mostly emergency
backup as Martin Brodeur would play almost every game. Then, several
later, he got sent to Albany and J.F. Damphousse got sent to the
Clemmensen has been decent in net, and, like his colleagues, has simply
gotten the offensive support he needs to win more games. His stats are
respectable (2.85 GAA; .915 save percentage), but he is playing on a
that has the lowest scoring in the entire league. At 2.12 goals for
3.24 goals allowed), the Rats have won only 4 out of 25 games (with 5
and 3 overtime losses), for 16 points. That is better only than one
(Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) in the 27-team league, so it certainly puts
than the usual pressure on a goaltender. For his solid performance,
Clemmensen earns a grade of “B+”.
Fans, as well as media covering the River Rats, seem to recognize that
goaltenders are not the problem for Albany. If anything, they have
better than expected. Collectively, the goaltenders earn a grade of
“B+”. Nothing to be ashamed of there; plenty of upside potential for
Overall, the forwards net a grade of “B-”, with somewhat of a
for the second and third liners in terms of offensive production,
underperformance in terms of back-checking for all the forwards, and,
general, insufficient physical play.
One forward, veteran Stephen Guolla, acquired several weeks into the
as a free agent, merits a grade of “A”. He has been, game in and game
the most dependable two-way player on the ice. An excellent faceoff
Guolla, a former league MVP with Kentucky, has adapted very, very well
the Devils/Rats’ defensive style of play. No one on the team works
at killing penalties or is more reliable in both attack and defense
If the Devils had a spate of injuries, illness or suspensions, they
not do badly to summon up Guolla to fill in.
Guolla’s seasoning in San Jose and Atlanta are very evident on the ice.
Despite his reputation as a “scorer” with the Kentucky Thoroughblades,
one of the most generous players in terms of passing to others. His
effort is consistently 100%, quite reminiscent of when John Madden wore
Albany jersey. Steve Guolla has earned and deserved numerous “first”,
“second” or “third” star awards in post-game honors. He is often the
player on the ice. His numbers (5G; 7A; 12 points, -4 +/- in 18 games)
underestimate his value to the team. This writer shudders to think
team’s record would be without Steve Guolla in the lineup. If only the
had a few more veterans like Guolla.
Four of the forwards earn grades of “B+” for overall solid effort and
generally good play. Brian Gionta, the rookie from Boston College (7G;
15 points; -3 +/-); Stan Gron, a second-year player from Czechoslovakia
6A; 14 points; -4 +/-); Jiri Bicek, a fifth-year pro from Slovakia (6G;
13 points; -8 +/-); and Christian Berglund, a rookie (7G; 5A; 12
+/-), have each shown excellent promise and occasional
Of the four, two (Gionta and Bicek) have truly blazing speed. They
tremendous acceleration which leads to breakaway scoring chances. Both
to work on “finishing” skills near the net. Each of them have
work ethic and a willingness to fight through traffic. Gionta lost
his dental work during one game, but managed to get back into play to
an assist on the ensuing power play. Both of them lead the team in
“puck pursuit” and intensity in terms of puck control. They are fun to
Albany Week in Review believes that Gionta has so much up-side
that he may be the next Steve Sullivan. Bicek, with more experience,
taken his transfer from New Jersey to Albany as an opportunity. Bicek
eliminated his tendency to get bad penalties. He certainly is one of
most-improved River Rats, judged by prior seasons.
Gron and Berglund add pretty nice “finishing” skills around the net.
gets rebound goals with his ability to snap wrist shots into the upper
of the net. Berglund shows pretty good poise for a rookie.
Captain Sylvain Cloutier earns a grade of “B”, though it should be
that he has played with a knee injury and probably returned to the game
earlier than expected and before he was really healthy. Cloutier is
model “team player” and a very reliable two-way forward. Last season,
got the team’s first goal of the season and the last marker as well.
started the same way, earning the team’s first goal on the road in
Providence, but was felled with a knee injury the next night. Cloutier
a standard for working in the corners and behind the net and is very
reliable faceoff man.
Richard Rochefort, who has missed half the season with a knee injury,
a “B” for solid work when he was healthy enough to play.
A bunch of forwards have underperformed, in the opinion of AWIR. For
whatever reason, these guys receive grades of “C+”, reflecting limited
offensive productivity. This group includes Ted Drury, Mike Rupp and
Cameron. The effort has been acceptable, but the results for these
not quite up to potential.
Other players, who have seen limited ice time, have received grades of
including Bruce Gardiner, Jason Lehoux, Max Birbraer and Brett
Sniper Pierre Dagenais, who made the Devils’ roster during training
receives a grade of “D” for his 6-game “conditioning” stint in Albany.
Unable or unwilling to give or to take a check, Dagenais parks in front
the net or waits at center ice to enter the attack zone. Lazy, pure
simple. A waste of talent. An embarassment on the ice, considering
talent. A lot of fans in Albany would prefer a “grinder” who works in
corners and finishes his checks to a talented but unmotivated guy like
Dagenais. Despite the fact that he has a remarkable release and superb
shot, Dagenais simply is not a complete package. Defense is not his
and movement without the puck is not a regular part of his repertoire.
all his talent, it is sad that he collects a grade of only “D”, but
what he gets for his unenthusiastic half-dozen games in Albany this
Promise, but performance is not there yet.
The blueline has been a trouble spot so far this season, mostly
like the past two seasons in Albany, it is too green. Too many
once again. A collective team grade of “C” on defense, despite real
The most dependable defenseman is Mike Commodore, who has split time
Albany and New Jersey. He is the only blueliner in postive territory
plus/minus category (at +1). Commodore is pretty physical, a trait
earned him a three-game suspension as a result of a brawl last week in
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton when he apparently left the bench to come to the
defense of goaltender Ari Ahonen. For his overall performance,
earns a grade of “B”.
Two blueliners grab grades of “B-” for significant contributions.
Joel Bouchard has been the best puck-carrying D-man, who often joins
attack. Second-year man, Daryl Andrews, has been a pleasant surprise,
stepping up his play after Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne were traded
Tampa Bay for Andrei Zyuzin. Andrews and Bouchard both see substantial
on special teams. They both show good hockey sense and both have been
The rest of the defense earns grades of “C”. Andre Lakos, in his third
year, has started to play more physically, but trails blueliners in +/-
with -13. Rookies Victor Uchevatov, Mikko Jokela and Joel Dezainde
to make their mark.
Team grade for special teams is “D”. Far below expectations. Far
average. The power play is 26th overall (12.9%), 20th at home (16.1%)
26th on the road (9.3%). They waste 5-on-3s and are inept with
bunch of the losses (13 losses in 25 games) can be placed squarely at
feet of the special teams’ play.
Penalty kill is not much better than power play. Below average for the
league, the team is 17th at home (81.6%), 16th on the road (80.4), and
overall (81.1). The only saving grace is that the team is one of the
penalized. But PK has been weak, by any standard.
With three rookie coaches (Bob Carpenter, head coach, his first year as
boss; Geordie Kinnear and Chris Terreri, defense and goaltending
fans have to be patient. These guys were fine players during their
days. Whether they can make the transition to coaching is an open
But, like any other coaches, you have to grade them in part based on
results. So, a grade of “C” for coaches is all that can be awarded at
The team surrenders far too much “center ice” to opponents. The trap
not been working. Goaltenders have been pounded with far too many
The team spends far too much time inside its own blue line.
The team lacks toughness. Apparently because coach Carpenter (to judge
his quotes in the newspaper and on TV) lambastes players for getting
penalties, they are not nearly physical enough. Not counting a
heavily-penalized game last weekend in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the River
were, by far, the least penalized team in the league. Fans cannot
the last time they saw charging or boarding called. Gone are the
checks for which Eric Bertrand and Sascha Lakovic were legendary.
The slide in the standings (to 26th out of 27 teams) has hurt
The team averages only 3,741 fans, a far cry from the nearly 6,000 in
the year after the Rats won the Calder Cup.
With only 16 points in 25 games, unless dramatic improvement is on the
the team will fail to qualify for playoffs for only the second time in
nine years of existence.