Albany River Rats season preview

By Grethe Kvernes





The Albany River Rats had a very disappointing 2003-04 season


The Albany
River Rats had a very disappointing 2003-04 season, becoming the first team to
miss the AHL playoffs for four straight seasons since the 1985-89 Springfield
Indians and Baltimore Skipjacks. The team only recorded 21 wins, and finished
with a measly 0.338 win percentage. Adding insult to injury, the River Rats
were held scoreless in 13 games, and did not post back-to-back wins until the
final two games of the season.

 

The New
Jersey Devils have made a number of offseason changes to their top affiliate.
The first, and perhaps most important improvement, came towards the end of last
season when the River Rats welcomed back their original coach, Robbie Ftorek.
Ftorek, who coached the River Rats from 1993-96, lead the team to the 1995
Calder Cup Championship. During his first tenure with Albany, he helped mold
the careers of future NHL stars Patrik Elias and Steve Sullivan. Ftorek’s
experience in developing young talent will be much needed for the glut of young
prospects he’ll be in charge of this season.

 

 

Moving on

 

Over the
summer, the River Rats parted ways with a group of veterans that combined had
over 2200 AHL games on their resumes. Leading scorer and Albany native Craig
Darby signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and will be suiting up for their new
AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts. Darby’s sidekick for most of the
past two seasons, pint-sized winger Steve Kariya, signed in Finland, and
leading defensive scorer Ray Giroux will be playing for the Houston Aeros, the
AHL affiliate of the Minnesota Wild. Other veteran players who remain unsigned
as of the time of writing include Joe Hulbig, Greg Crozier, Maxim Balmochnykh,
as well as last year’s captain, Mike Matteucci.

 

Veterans
weren’t the only victims of the roster makeover as the Devils also opted not to
resign defensive prospect Tyler Hanchuck,
and forward prospect Chris Hartsburg.
Both players have since signed with teams in the Central Hockey League.

 

 

Offense

 

With most
of the veteran core gone, the River Rats will have a distinctly different look
up front, though one familiar face is set to make a comeback. Pascal Rheaume,
one of the original River Rats, was signed to a two-year contract this summer.
Rheaume was on the team that won the Calder Cup in 1995; he later won the
Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2003, and has played in over 300 NHL contests.
His experience and veteran presence will be invaluable for the young team,
especially since it appears that the only other non-prospect forwards will be
veteran enforcer Rob Skrlac as well as last year’s surprise discovery,
penalty-killing specialist Ryan Murphy.

 

Apart from
the three veterans, every forward is born in 1981 or later. Most are returning
for their second or third season, but there are a handful of newcomers.
Headlining the crop of new arrivals is one of the Devils most touted prospects
in recent years, Minnesota native Zach
Parise
. Parise, the Devils first round draft pick in 2003, spent the past
two seasons at the University of North Dakota. At the tender age of 20, the 5’11
playmaker has already assembled a lengthy hockey resume. He was a top-ten Hobey
Baker nominee in his freshman year and a top-three nominee in his sophomore
year at North Dakota. Along the way he also earned numerous other collegiate
accolades. He has excelled on the international stage as well. He was
tournament MVP at the 2004 World Junior Championship where he helped the USA
bring home their first ever gold.

 

The second
rookie forward, Ivan Khomutov, hails
from Saratov, Russia. The 6’3 center, who doesn’t turn 20 until March of 2005,
spent the past season with the London Knights, one of the top teams in the OHL.
He missed almost half the season due to a broken arm, but still finished with
21 points in 40 games.

 

The last
player in the group of new forwards is Missouri native Cam Janssen. The 5’11 right wing agitator spent the past three
seasons with a couple of different teams in the OHL, and racked up a stunning
748 penalty minutes in 178 games.

 

On the
wings, five prospects are returning for their second season in Albany. Finnish
wingers Tuomas Pihlman and Ilkka Pikkarainen both had decent first
seasons in North America. Pihlman led River Rats prospects in scoring with 29
points in 73 games. While Pikkarainen also chipped in offensively, he mostly contributed
as a pest, recording 118 penalty minutes in only 63 games. The two Finns are
joined by Russian right wing Aleksander
Suglobov
. Suglobov displayed great offensive skills last year, and lead all
AHL rookies in shooting percentage. Unfortunately he was limited to only 35
games because of a wrist injury that required surgery.

 

Two
towering Canadians round out the group of returning wingers. British Columbia
native Aaron Voros spent the past three seasons at the
University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and arrived in Albany after his college
season ended in late March. The 6’4, 23-year-old right wing made a quick
transition to professional hockey, recording two goals and an assist to go
along with 14 penalty minutes in nine games. On the opposite wing, 6’3 Ahren Nittel had a tough rookie year.
The 20-year old OHL graduate struggled with nagging injuries, and only appeared
in 42 games.

 

At center, Adrian Foster and Eric Johansson are the only returning prospects. Former first round draft pick Foster,
who had barely played any hockey over the past five years due to a debilitating
abdominal injury, managed to appear in 44 games last year. While he still
suffered some minor injuries, the talented pivot hopes he has put his major
injury woes behind him. Johansson will need to compete to retain his place on
the team. With Rheaume, Parise, Foster, and quite likely also Khomutov ahead of
him on the depth chart at center, it is unclear just how much playing time the
Alberta native will earn.

 

 

Defense

 

In an
attempt to replace the experience of departing defensemen Giroux and Matteucci,
the River Rats have brought in two former AHL captains. Ray Schultz, who
captained the Milwaukee Admirals to last year’s Calder Cup Championship, is a
stay-at-home defenseman who can substitute as enforcer. The more offensive
minded Bobby Allen captained the upstart Toronto Roadrunners last year. By
joining the River Rats, Allen will be reunited with a former college teammate.
He played with River Rats goaltender Scott Clemmensen on the Boston College
team that won the NCAA championship in 2001.

 

Joining the
two veteran AHL players is the only returning veteran from last year’s defense,
former University of Wisconsin Badger Alex Brooks. Brooks, a hard working
crease-clearer, was the only regular roster player who recorded a positive
plus/minus last year.

 

The trio of
AHL veterans will be complemented by a young NHL player. As a result of the
ongoing NHL lockout, the River Rats will be adding former first round draft
pick David Hale to their squad. The 23-year-old Hale, who suited up in 66 games
for the Devils last season, does not have a lot of offensive upside, but
projects to be a solid NHL defensive defenseman. The River Rats should benefit
from having him in their lineup.

 

Returning
for a second year is University of Minnesota graduate and two-time NCAA
champion Matt DeMarchi. Demarchi
will need to rebound from a tough rookie year, where he struggled with injuries
and sub par defensive play, finishing as a -19. Latvian native Krisjanis Redlihs had a great offensive
year last season, registering nine goals and ten assists, and finished off the
year by representing his native country at the IIHF World Championship in
Prague. The last returning defenseman is Manitoba native Phil Cole. The tough-as-nails blueliner started out last season
with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL, but was recalled halfway through the
season.

 

Rounding
out the crop of defensemen are two European rookies. Twenty-year-old Anton Kadeykin, a native of
Elektrostal, Russia, spent the past two seasons with the Sarnia Sting in the
OHL. The 6’3 defenseman only recorded 12 points during his time in the OHL, and
will probably not contribute much offensively. Finally, the last newcomer is
23-year-old Teemu Kesa, who becomes
the fourth Finnish player in the River Rats lineup. The 6’1 blueliner, who
spent the past three seasons with Lukko Rauma of the Finnish SM-Liiga, was the
Devils fourth round draft pick in 1999.

 

Goaltending

 

Entering
his fourth season between the pipes for the River Rats is Finnish netminder Ari Ahonen. The 23-year-old former
first round pick has struggled with inconsistency and only posted a 2.99 goals
against average in the 2003-04 season. His perhaps best outing last year came
on March 3rd against the Springfield Falcons. Ahonen made 47 saves
and received some rare support from the offense as the River Rats went on to
win 7-1.

 

Ahonen’s
goaltending partner Scott Clemmensen, who is also back for a fourth season,
showed last year what a difference playing behind a solid defense can make for
a goaltender. He split his time between Albany and New Jersey last season. In
the four games he started for the Devils, he went 3-1-0 with a 1.01 goals
against average and an impressive .954 save percentage



Outlook

 

The River
Rats have attempted to address the defensive problems that have haunted the
team in recent years, but it is hard to determine if the offseason adjustments
will be effective. Schultz and Allen do not appear to represent significant
upgrades over Matteucci and Giroux. While David Hale is a solid addition, none
of the other newcomers on the blueline are likely to make an immediate impact.

 

Offensively,
the team has a good core of talented players with a nice mix of size, skill and
speed.

The downside
is that most of the forwards are young and inexperienced, and can be expected
to make mistakes as they grow and develop.

 

Ftorek’s
return may provide a glimmer of hope for this squad, and there is certainly
reason to believe that the team can and should improve. However, with the
questionable defensive corps, it is unlikely that the River Rats will be able
to dig themselves all the way out of the basement this season.

 

The River
Rats open their season at home on Friday, October 15th against
archrivals the Binghamton Senators.

 

 

Copyright
2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate
without permission of the editorial staff.