With the month of December coming to a close, the Albany River Rats find themselves in a situation they have become all too familiar with — the bottom of the AHL standings. Much like in previous seasons, the River Rats have struggled defensively. While goaltenders Ari Ahonen and Frank Doyle haven’t been spectacular, they have held the fort as best they could in front of a suspect defense and a group of young and developing forwards. In the newly-formed Atlantic Division, the River Rats sit last, and sit last overall in the league with only eight wins through 30 games.
Despite the struggles of the team in general, many of the first-year players in Albany have started their pro careers very well and the more seasoned AHL prospects in the New Jersey Devils system seem to have taken steps forward in their development.
One of the most impressive first-year River Rats up to this point in the season has to be 2005 first round pick Niklas Bergfors. At 18, he is the AHL’s youngest player, and his play has been very solid considering he was expected to play the year in the CHL. He hasn’t been a force, but he has not looked out of place either. The start of his season was delayed due to VISA issues, but through 24 games this year, Bergfors has tallied 5 goals and 7 assists for 12 points. The fast and skilled Bergfors displays good vision and possesses above average passing skills. His work ethic has also been impressive. He still has to work on simplifying his game and not trying to do too much. Bergfors will spend the next few weeks in Vancouver B.C. participating at the World Junior Championships for Sweden. Bergfors has already surpassed expectations by skipping the CHL and going right to the AHL. He is a lot closer to reaching the NHL than the Devils anticipated.
Another first-year player who has played very well is the hulking Barry Tallackson. Tallackson has seven points in his first 11 games before earning a recall to New Jersey. He made his NHL debut November 12th against the Washington Capitals and scored his first NHL goal November 19th against the Ottawa Senators. He has been up and down from Albany to New Jersey a few times since then and while he has seen limited minutes while with the Devils, he’s been showing great determination and physicality, using his big frame to his advantage. He has 12 points in 17 games in Albany and has definitely been one of the most consistent Rats up to this point in the season
Enigmatic Russian sniper Aleksander Suglobov currently leads the team in scoring with 11 goals and 20 points through 26 games and also leads the team in power play markers. Suglobov appears more mature in his third AHL year and has taken on more of a leadership role with the younger players, even wearing an “A” on occasion. Suglobov has played more physically this year, but he still must iron out his defensive game and continue to strive for more consistency offensively. Suglobov was recently recalled for one game to New Jersey to replace and injured Grant Marshall and promptly scored his first NHL goal on a power play in a December 17th game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
It has been an up and down first pro season for former Halifax Moosehead captain Petr Vrana. He scored in his first AHL game but then slumped in late October and early November and was scratched on a couple of occasions. He has begun to adjust and find his way lately and recently ran off a six-game point scoring streak in December. A quick and tenacious offensive player, Vrana has also displayed his defensive prowess and often plays on the Rats penalty-killing units. He currently sits tied for second on the team in scoring with seven goals and 17 points.
First year AHL’ers Jason Ryznar and David Clarkson both have been up and down in their play. Ryznar seems to still be finding his way and his role, as he has been shifted from scoring to checking line throughout the season so far. He has stood out as a penalty killer. Clarkson, an undrafted OHL grad leads the team in PIM’s with 118 and sits fourth in team scoring with five goals and 14 points in 28 games. He’s played a good all around game, playing physically, chipping in offensively and killing penalties, but from time to time his play has wavered and he has taken some questionable and ill-advised penalties.
Though his last season was a disappointment, Tuomas Pihlman has seemed to get his game back on track. He has seen action in New Jersey as a reward for his great start to the season. In 14 games, he has five goals and 10 points and along with Barry Tallackson, has been one of the most consistent River Rat forwards up to this point in the season. Pihlman scored his first NHL goal in a loss to Philadelphia and managed to suit up in 11 games before being returned to the farm. Pihlman seems to have put it all together and now understands what he has to do to be effective on a nightly basis. Expect to see him back in New Jersey at some point this year.
Second-year tough guy Cam Janssen with four points in 25 games has already matched his point total from last year when he appeared in 70 games. He earned his first recall and made his NHL debut on November 5th against the New York Rangers. He went pointless and without penalty minutes in two contests for the Devils. He has continued to show his aptitude for fighting as he is second to David Clarkson with 117 PIM’s. Janssen was again recalled to the Devils recently and still has yet to have his first NHL fight.
Ilkka Pikkarainen has been allowed to play a more offensive role this season and currently is tied with Petr Vrana for second on team scoring with 17 points, including 8 goals. Second year forward Ivan Khomutov has looked more comfortable and is showing more confidence and composure on the ice. He has improved his defensive game and is even seeing limited minutes killing penalties.
Unfortunately for Adrian Foster, he continues to constantly fight a battle with injuries, and has only suited up for two games thus far. This current injury is a recurrence of an old abdominal injury, and may limit him for the rest of his career. One of the pleasant surprises last season, Ahren Nittel, much like Foster has struggled to stay healthy long enough to make an impact, though he recently had a two-goal, four-point game, a sign that he may be coming around. Aaron Voros got off to a slow start, as he struggled to stay in the line-up. As of late, has been playing much better, displaying the scoring touch that he displayed at the beginning of last season.
On the defensive side of things, after missing most of the first chunk of the season due to injuries, Matt DeMarchi returned to the line-up and appears to be more focused and consistent than last season and has limited the defensive brain cramps that he seemed prone to last season. Second-year blueliner Teemu Kesa has just recently recovered from an injury and has only played in five games up to this point. Bryan Miller has been a pleasant surprise thus far. He is the only River Rat to suit up in all 30 games, and is tied with Krisjanis Redlihs for the team scoring lead for defensemen with one goal and 10 assists for 11 points. While he won’t outmuscle anyone, he is smart and competent defensively as well.
Grethe Kvernes contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.