The San Antonio Rampage will take the lead as the Phoenix Coyotes’ top development medium as both franchises enter into
a new relationship. Even though this is the third AHL franchise in as many years for the Coyotes, the arrangement actually couldn’t have come at a better time for both
sides as they exited previous affiliations that were a strain.
Each brings something to the table. San Antonio
has a great ownership group who knows how to market and build championship teams. On the other hand,
the Phoenix development program is eager to develop stability and committed to build a bright future from the inside out.
On the ice, the Coyotes bring a small but talented core of players. This same group did struggle in Utah
with the Grizzlies last year, but they showed a lot of promise towards the end of the season. As head coach Pat Conacher
would attest, his prime players down the final stretch last season were the younger players. It couldn’t save them from the distinction of the worst team in the ‘A’ during the 2004-05 season, but it does give them a
good place to start this year.
Conacher and the Rampage will look to David LeNeveu to take the lead between the pipes once again this season. They are going to have to be patient
to get him, however, because Phoenix is giving LeNeveu the chance to back up Curtis Joseph
while Brain Boucher rehabs from an injury.
It’s unlikely that he’ll see action while with Phoenix, but the second he gets back to San
Antonio you can expect him to push himself and the team to another level. LeNeveu’s stats in the last past two seasons in the AHL are not indicative of the skill and potential he possesses.
In his stead, expect journeyman goalie Steve Passmore to take over the reins, while free agent newcomer Dov Grumet-Morris backs him up.
Grumet-Morris made his debut for the franchise at the 2005 Pacific Division Rookie Tournament in San Jose last month. Prior to the tournament, he signed on with the Coyotes after a successful career with Harvard. He’s designated to play with either the team’s ECHL or CHL affiliate. In the meantime, the promotion of LeNeveu gives him a chance to experience AHL-level competition.
The most promising part of the Coyotes development system at the moment is their defensive core.
Expect them to be looking for a lot of redemption after last season. This will be a key area to see just how well they can tighten up and show the experience they have
The group returns Matthew Spiller, and Joe Callahan, while rookie Matt Jones joins the team after four successful seasons with the University of North Dakota. The team will also welcome back the services of Igor Knyazev, who spent last season in the Russian Super League.
After being one of the odd men out in for a roster spot with Phoenix, Spiller will be the backbone of the Rampage defense this year. He is a defensive
defenseman who will continue to advance his game and leadership skills in San Antonio. He will
likely be on of the team’s hardest workers on the ice.
Callahan returns a year older and a year stronger. Having turned in the league’s worst plus/minus rating during the 2004-05 season, you can bet the Brockton, Massachusetts native will look to tighten up his positional game, while adding a little more bite on the offensive side of the ice. He has a lot of momentum form last season, where he went
on to earn the most improved player honor on Utah’s roster.
Jones was one of the last defensemen to be reassigned by the Coyotes earlier this week. Management expected good things from the former Fighting Sioux rearguard, but he even went on to surpass
those expectations with the veterans these past few weeks. For a newcomer, he was by far one of the better in the Coyotes training
camp. Even though Jones was sent down to the Rampage, he’ll get all the opportunities to improve and prepare himself for a long future in the professional hockey.
Knyazev will have to continue to work himself out of the Coyotes’ doghouse. He made a first good step by getting back over to North America this
year. Having played the 2003-04 season in Phoenix’s system in Springfield, he is familiar to the style of play in the league.
If he ever intends on making the NHL, he is going to have to show the Coyotes that he is committed, coachable and willing to do what it takes to succeed. If he gets over a couple of personality quirks, he could be a great addition to the team.
At 22, he brings a lot of skill and potential to the club.
The Rampage will also be without the services of two of the brightest Coyotes defensemen in Keith Ballard and newcomer Zbynek Michalek. Both will start the season on the Phoenix 23-man NHL roster.
But either could see a demotion in the near future, if the Coyotes decide to add another veteran rearguard to their roster. It will be vital for the pair to get consistent
minutes, and if that can’t happen in Phoenix, management will more than likely be willing to move them down to San Antonio to get them that consistent playing time.
The offense is going to need a shot in the arm this year. Look for the Coyotes to continue to surround their youth by proven veteran point producers. While a select few will need to continue to carve their identities, the majority simply
need to put up the numbers.
San Antonio will have Randall Gelech, Kiel McLeod, Martin Podlesak and
Jakub Koreis returning from last years group. Gelech came out and did a great job displaying his grit, determination and true understanding of the
game last season. He was one of Conacher’s most reliable players. He put up respectable numbers in his rookie
season and will be back on one of the energy lines this year.
McLeod is a big centerman who’s an average skater, but a monster on the puck. At 6’5, he definitely stands out on the ice. The team will look for him to create space and opportunities down low for the skilled wingers.
Podlesak was with last year’s club early on, but injury cost him the majority of the 2004-05 season. He is a tall and crafty winger who has the potential to put up points, something he has yet to prove. He looks healthy, a bit bigger and poised to lace it up this year.
Koreis has improved by leaps and bounds over the last two seasons. He projects to be a third line centerman in the NHL, so don’t expect gaudy numbers from him. Look for his commitment to team play, his persistence on the puck and calm nature under fire. He should be ready to have a breakout season of sorts.
The team will look to prospects Frank Lukes, Lance Monych and Ladislav Kouba to help generate more offense this year.
Lukes should be in San Antonio after spending the last year with in the ECHL with the Coyotes then affiliate, the Idaho Steelheads. Lukes took a disastrous blow to his confidence early on because of his demotion. It took him some time to rebound and get back on track, but once his was firing on all cylinders, he was the most electric and consistent forward on Idaho’s roster.
If Monych can stick with the Rampage, management will be eager to see what talented
right winger can bring to the table this year. He looks to build upon a solid 2004-05 campaign, one he spent as an overager with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL. In what will be his rookie season this year, Monych not only has a sniper’s trigger when it comes to scoring, but he’s also is a very reliable two-way winger. Effective in all situations, look for Conacher to use him in tight defensive situations, especially in big penalty-kill situations.
Kouba’s another player in the system that needs to decide what he wants from his North American career. He started his first full professional season last year in the ECHL with Idaho, but got into the
coach’s doghouse early on. He would go on to be traded to the Texas Wildcatters, then get shipped to New Mexico Scorpions of CHL. This is a big year for him and he needs to bounce back to get on track. He has the size and ability but he needs to buy into the system and earn everyone’s trust.
If he doesn’t immediately stick with the Coyotes, San Antonio might have the services of Fredrik Sjostrom sparingly throughout the 2005-06 season. He could prove to be the missing piece for the Rampage unless
veterans from last year’s squad like Martin Sonneberg, Peter White and Jarrod Skalde can’t produce for the Rampage.
The team will have key obstacles to overcome in all areas, but the key will be veteran leadership and chemistry in the locker room. They are far from being a complete team, but they have a lot of pieces to be a competitive team. Add in a proven AHL scorer or two and the Rampage could make an honest bid for a post-season berth.
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