The Albany River Rats are entering their 13th season as the top affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. The River Rats, who won the Calder Cup in 1995, have finished last in their division for the past five seasons. While last year marked an improvement as the team finished with 71 points, their highest point total since the 1998-99 season, a 29-38-6-7 record still left them 21 points out of the last playoff spot in the AHL’s East Division.
Last year the River Rats finished second to last in scoring in the division with 198 goals in 80 games. With the departure of their three leading point-getters Dean McAmmond, Zach Parise and Pascal Rheaume, the River Rats will need several of their young forwards to step up and fill the void.
Fortunately, the two best goal scorers from last season are both returning. Russian winger Aleksander Suglobov and Canadian forward Ahren Nittel picked up 25 goals apiece, and both are talented enough to improve on that total this year.
The other returning prospect forwards who will be battling each other for ice time are wingers Aaron Voros, Cam Janssen, Tuomas Pihlman and Ilkka Pikkarainen along with centers Adrian Foster and Ivan Khomutov. Defensive specialist Ryan Murphy looks to be the only returning forward with veteran status. Murphy, who was an outstanding +15 last season, should continue to anchor Albany’s checking line.
Headlining the crop of new arrivals in Albany is 5’10 Czech forward Petr Vrana. Vrana, who was the QMJHL Rookie of the Year in 2003, spent the last three seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads and was named captain of the team in his second year. Vrana also captained the Czech team at last winter’s World Junior Championship, where he scored the overtime goal in the bronze medal game that sent the American team home without a medal.
6’4 right wing Barry Tallackson also comes to Albany with an impressive resume. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Tallackson went to the Frozen Four three times and won two NCAA titles during his four years with the Gophers. Along with his size and skating ability, Tallackson also brings a reputation for being a clutch playoff performer. Tallackson is joined by University of Michigan graduate Jason Ryznar. At 6’4 and 210lbs the Alaska native brings size and grit to the lineup, but was never a prolific scorer throughout his collegiate career.
Rounding out the offensive acquisitions are three free agent signees. David Clarkson spent the last three seasons in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers. He accumulated over 120 penalty minutes in each of his three seasons, but also proved that he can contribute offensively as he led the Rangers with 33 goals in the 2004-05 season. The second forward, Chris Minard, spent last season in the ECHL with the Alaska Aces where he played with locked out Devils center Scott Gomez. Aided by Gomez’ playmaking ability the Manitoba native led the ECHL with 49 goals and finished fourth overall in scoring with 78 points. The final addition, 6’5 Mike Sgroi, is probably best known as the losing finalist on the recent pay-per-view event ‘Hockey Enforcers 1’. Sgroi has been brought in primarily to replace recently retired enforcer Rob Skrlac.
In the 2004-05 season the River Rats finished with 248 goals against; only Utah and Springfield had worse defensive records in the entire AHL. Part of the poor record can be blamed on losing over 150 man-games to injuries, but even with a healthy lineup the defense was never strong.
Unfortunately this season’s defense is a virtual carbon copy of last year’s. Veterans Ray Schultz, Bobby Allen and Alex Brooks are all returning. Fourth year defenseman Krisjanis Redlihs, who missed a large part of last season with an arm injury, is also back. Other familiar faces are sophomore defenseman Teemu Kesa, as well as third-year blueliner Matt DeMarchi. The only newcomer is free agent signee Bryan Miller. Miller, a 5’10 offensive defenseman in the mold of Brian Rafalski, appeared in eight games with the River Rats at the end of last season, and the Devils signed the New Jersey native to a two-way contract this August.
For the first time since the 2000-01 season, there will be at least one new face between the pipes in Albany. After four long and arduous years of sharing goaltending duties for the River Rats, Scott Clemmensen and Ari Ahonen will finally part ways. One of them will win a pay raise and a lot of bench time as Martin Brodeur’s backup in New Jersey. The other will probably return to Albany for a fifth season.
The other goaltending spot in Albany will likely be filled by Frank Doyle, a free agent who signed with the Devils in August. Doyle spent last year in the ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads where he posted 32 wins and a 2.16 goals against average.
Offensively the River Rats have added enough size, grit, scoring power and leadership to be able to recover from the loss of McAmmond, Parise and Rheaume. The defense, however, will probably continue to be their Achilles’ heel. Unless the team receives some last minute reinforcements from New Jersey, the River Rats are facing an uphill battle on their quest to end the team’s half-decade long playoff drought.
The River Rats open their season October 8th on the road in Syracuse. They return home to the Pepsi Arena on October 15th to face off against the defending Calder Cup Champions the Philadelphia Phantoms.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.