Albany “First Period” Report

By pbadmin

By Mike Buskus

“First period” report

This started out as a “first quarter” (20 games out of 80) report but,
for a
variety of reasons, got delayed in writing and editing. This writer
could,
somewhat arbitrarily, have limited the writeup to the first 20 games,
but
ignoring the next five that have been played did not seem to make
sense, so
instead of four “quarterly” recaps, there will be only three,
coinciding
with approximately equal “thirds” of the season. So, it is now a
“first
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
contests,
this is a grade report to date.

Goaltending

Not since the Albany River Rats won the Calder Cup in their second year
of
existence (1994-1995) (Mike Dunham; Corey Schwab) has the minor league
affiliate of the New Jersey Devils been so blessed with goaltending
talent.
The River Rats actually have three prospects who probably have a future
in
the NHL. The trio of Ari Ahonen, J.F. Damphousse and Scott Clemmensen
has
wowed the fans, and impressed the scouts.

Damphousse currently is in New Jersey, as backup to Martin Brodeur.
The
most experienced of the three netminders, Damphousse worked five games
for
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
Albany
River Rats. Due, in part, to a groin injury of teammate Frederic
Henry,
Damphousse played in 55 AHL games last year with the Rats, earning 24
of the
team’s 30 wins, with very decent numbers including GAA of 2.86 and a
save
percentage of .914. Most impressive of all, those numbers came despite
a
very young, rather inexperienced defense last year. Unfortunately for
him
and the team the River Rats failed to qualify for post-season play.
But,
the first round draft pick of the Devils (24th overall in the 1997
entry
draft) was most noteworthy for his poise. A “soft” goal did not rattle
him.
J.F. Damphousse matured quickly with the Rats and the booster club
voted him
their choice as MVP.

For his rock-solid performance in net with the River Rats, Damphousse
earns
a grade of “A-”.

Ari Ahonen, also a first round pick of the Devils (27th overall in the
1999
entry draft), has been the workhorse so far this season, measured by
time in
net (669:28 through 25 games). It was not until November 24 that he
got his
first win (Rochester, 3-1), with his second victory coinciding with the
team
’s first (and so far only) road win (Hartford, 4-2).

Ahonen, like his colleagues in net for Albany, has faced a lot of
shots.
The River Rats are second-last in the league (26th out of 27 teams, at
34.60
shots per game), so Ahonen has faced a lot of rubber. His save
percentage
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
Albany
this spring (along with teammate Brian Gionta). But, the BC netminder
played in eight games with the River Rats before getting his first
victory.
In team game #25, on Sunday, December 9, Clemmensen was the goalie in
net
when the Rats won, 2-1, in overtime, against the Syracuse Crunch.

Clemmensen actually was chosen, out of the three, to start the season
with
New Jersey, through that assignment was expected to be mostly emergency
backup as Martin Brodeur would play almost every game. Then, several
weeks
later, he got sent to Albany and J.F. Damphousse got sent to the
Devils.

Clemmensen has been decent in net, and, like his colleagues, has simply
not
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
team
that has the lowest scoring in the entire league. At 2.12 goals for
(versus
3.24 goals allowed), the Rats have won only 4 out of 25 games (with 5
ties
and 3 overtime losses), for 16 points. That is better only than one
team
(Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) in the 27-team league, so it certainly puts
more
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
the
goaltenders are not the problem for Albany. If anything, they have
played
better than expected. Collectively, the goaltenders earn a grade of
“A-” to
“B+”. Nothing to be ashamed of there; plenty of upside potential for
all
three netminders.

Forwards

Overall, the forwards net a grade of “B-”, with somewhat of a
disappointment
for the second and third liners in terms of offensive production,
underperformance in terms of back-checking for all the forwards, and,
in
general, insufficient physical play.

One forward, veteran Stephen Guolla, acquired several weeks into the
season
as a free agent, merits a grade of “A”. He has been, game in and game
out,
the most dependable two-way player on the ice. An excellent faceoff
artist,
Guolla, a former league MVP with Kentucky, has adapted very, very well
to
the Devils/Rats’ defensive style of play. No one on the team works
harder
at killing penalties or is more reliable in both attack and defense
zone.
If the Devils had a spate of injuries, illness or suspensions, they
would
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,
he is
one of the most generous players in terms of passing to others. His
work
effort is consistently 100%, quite reminiscent of when John Madden wore
an
Albany jersey. Steve Guolla has earned and deserved numerous “first”,
“second” or “third” star awards in post-game honors. He is often the
best
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
what the
team’s record would be without Steve Guolla in the lineup. If only the
Rats
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;
8A;
15 points; -3 +/-); Stan Gron, a second-year player from Czechoslovakia
(8G;
6A; 14 points; -4 +/-); Jiri Bicek, a fifth-year pro from Slovakia (6G;
7A;
13 points; -8 +/-); and Christian Berglund, a rookie (7G; 5A; 12
points; -7
+/-), have each shown excellent promise and occasional
excellence.

Of the four, two (Gionta and Bicek) have truly blazing speed. They
have
tremendous acceleration which leads to breakaway scoring chances. Both
need
to work on “finishing” skills near the net. Each of them have
tremendous
work ethic and a willingness to fight through traffic. Gionta lost
parts of
his dental work during one game, but managed to get back into play to
secure
an assist on the ensuing power play. Both of them lead the team in
terms of
“puck pursuit” and intensity in terms of puck control. They are fun to
watch.

Albany Week in Review believes that Gionta has so much up-side
potential
that he may be the next Steve Sullivan. Bicek, with more experience,
has
taken his transfer from New Jersey to Albany as an opportunity. Bicek
has
eliminated his tendency to get bad penalties. He certainly is one of
the
most-improved River Rats, judged by prior seasons.

Gron and Berglund add pretty nice “finishing” skills around the net.
Gron
gets rebound goals with his ability to snap wrist shots into the upper
shelf
of the net. Berglund shows pretty good poise for a rookie.

Captain Sylvain Cloutier earns a grade of “B”, though it should be
stressed
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
the
model “team player” and a very reliable two-way forward. Last season,
he
got the team’s first goal of the season and the last marker as well.
He
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
sets
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,
earns
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
Scott
Cameron. The effort has been acceptable, but the results for these
guys are
not quite up to potential.

Other players, who have seen limited ice time, have received grades of
“C”,
including Bruce Gardiner, Jason Lehoux, Max Birbraer and Brett
Clouthier.

Sniper Pierre Dagenais, who made the Devils’ roster during training
camp,
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
of
the net or waits at center ice to enter the attack zone. Lazy, pure
and
simple. A waste of talent. An embarassment on the ice, considering
his
talent. A lot of fans in Albany would prefer a “grinder” who works in
the
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
concern
and movement without the puck is not a regular part of his repertoire.
For
all his talent, it is sad that he collects a grade of only “D”, but
that is
what he gets for his unenthusiastic half-dozen games in Albany this
season.

Defense

Promise, but performance is not there yet.

The blueline has been a trouble spot so far this season, mostly
because,
like the past two seasons in Albany, it is too green. Too many
rookies,
once again. A collective team grade of “C” on defense, despite real
effort.

The most dependable defenseman is Mike Commodore, who has split time
between
Albany and New Jersey. He is the only blueliner in postive territory
in the
plus/minus category (at +1). Commodore is pretty physical, a trait
which
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,
Commodore
earns a grade of “B”.

Two blueliners grab grades of “B-” for significant contributions.
Veteran
Joel Bouchard has been the best puck-carrying D-man, who often joins
the
attack. Second-year man, Daryl Andrews, has been a pleasant surprise,
stepping up his play after Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne were traded
to
Tampa Bay for Andrei Zyuzin. Andrews and Bouchard both see substantial
time
on special teams. They both show good hockey sense and both have been
reliable.

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
have yet
to make their mark.

Special teams

Team grade for special teams is “D”. Far below expectations. Far
below
average. The power play is 26th overall (12.9%), 20th at home (16.1%)
and
26th on the road (9.3%). They waste 5-on-3s and are inept with
5-on-4s. A
bunch of the losses (13 losses in 25 games) can be placed squarely at
the
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
17th
overall (81.1). The only saving grace is that the team is one of the
least
penalized. But PK has been weak, by any standard.

Coaching

With three rookie coaches (Bob Carpenter, head coach, his first year as
boss; Geordie Kinnear and Chris Terreri, defense and goaltending
coaches),
fans have to be patient. These guys were fine players during their
playing
days. Whether they can make the transition to coaching is an open
question.
But, like any other coaches, you have to grade them in part based on
team
results. So, a grade of “C” for coaches is all that can be awarded at
this
time.

Overall comments

The team surrenders far too much “center ice” to opponents. The trap
has
not been working. Goaltenders have been pounded with far too many
shots.
The team spends far too much time inside its own blue line.

The team lacks toughness. Apparently because coach Carpenter (to judge
from
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
Rats
were, by far, the least penalized team in the league. Fans cannot
remember
the last time they saw charging or boarding called. Gone are the
thunderous
checks for which Eric Bertrand and Sascha Lakovic were legendary.

The slide in the standings (to 26th out of 27 teams) has hurt
attendance.
The team averages only 3,741 fans, a far cry from the nearly 6,000 in
1996,
the year after the Rats won the Calder Cup.

With only 16 points in 25 games, unless dramatic improvement is on the
way,
the team will fail to qualify for playoffs for only the second time in
its
nine years of existence.