On April 16, the AHL Albany River Rats concluded their seventh straight losing season with a 5-4 victory over the Binghamton Senators, and in the process, also concluded a 13-year partnership with the New Jersey Devils. Their miserable 25-48-4-3 record was only better than the San Antonio Rampage. In late March, it was announced that the Devils were ending their affiliation agreement with the River Rats and at the same time, the Devils announced the purchase of the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters, which will be the new home for the Devils prospects starting next season. In essence, the River Rats and Lock Monsters traded NHL parent teams, with the Devils taking over the Lowell franchise and the Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche moving their operations to Albany.
In a theme that has become all too familiar to River Rat fans, Albany continued to have major problems keeping the puck out of the net. If not for the often spectacular play of Frank Doyle between the pipes, things likely would have been even worse. With former top prospect Ari Ahonen nursing a severe groin injury for most of the year, he became the River Rats workhorse. Doyle, too old to be considered a prospect, provided the River Rats with the most consistent goaltending Albany had in years. He did fade down the stretch due to being overworked and facing an unbelievable number of shots. However, the biggest overall disappointment was the River Rats inability to score goals. It was a major struggle for a team with so much supposed offensive talent.
Overall, it was a positive year in terms of development for some of the Devils’ top forward prospects. The River Rats were very green up front, but the Devils have plenty to be excited about with the likes of first year pros Niklas Bergfors, Barry Tallackson,Petr Vrana and David Clarkson who finished one through four in team scoring. Where the River Rats were lacking, again a common theme from previous seasons, was on the blue line. Injuries and an overall lack of talent were the main culprits for this problem.
Likely the most positive and exciting development in Albany this past season was the play of 2005 first round draft choice, right winger, Niklas Bergfors. Easily the youngest player in the AHL (he turned 19 on March 7), Bergfors finished the season as the River Rats active leading scorer with 17 goals and 23 assists for 40 points in 65 games. Bergfors showed to be deceptively strong for a player his size and age and played smart and disciplined; only 10 penalty minutes in 65 games is quite an accomplishment. His 40 points was 33rd among AHL rookies, and no other team had a leading scorer with so few points. Bergfors had a -11 rating, but his play at the other end of the rink improved with each passing game. Despite this, he was one of the few forwards who rarely saw any time on the penalty kill. He’s only had one year in the system, but already, the Devils have to be very pleased with how quickly Bergfors adapted to the pro game at such a young age. Thought to be quite a few years away from making an impact in New Jersey, the Devils new top prospect may get there faster than most think. At his age though, it may be best for him to remain the AHL for one more season, but his marvellous talents and high skill level could change the Devils thinking.
The River Rats’ second leading scoring was another first-year player. Hulking winger Barry Tallackson, the former University of Minnesota grad, even got a call-up to New Jersey early in the season for a 10-game stint and scored his first NHL goal. Known as an inconsistent performer during his time in the NCAA, Tallackson was one of the steadiest River Rats from start to finish. At times, his imposing 6’4 frame was a load for opposing defensemen to handle. He scored 14 times and added 23 assists for 37 points in 65 games. Tallackson’s strong and productive first pro season will likely garner him some serious consideration to make the Devils starting line-up next season.
Appearing in a team-high 74 games was yet again another first-year player in small and feisty Czech center Petr Vrana. He showed the same tenacity he showed as a junior player in Halifax, but what this season also showed was that he must get stronger as he got knocked off the puck and pushed around a little too easily. Vrana’s season was somewhat disappointing and inconsistent offensively, but he was not the only one to fall victim to that fate. Overall, Vrana scored 13 times and added 21 helpers for 35 points. The Devils can’t be disappointed with the season the former second round draft choice had though. Chalk up Vrana’s first AHL season as a learning experience at both ends of the rink, as evidenced by a team-worst -15 rating. More will be expected of Vrana in his second season in the AHL, and he has the talents to improve on his 2005-06 numbers and all around game. Vrana may need a few more years of AHL seasoning before he’s ready to withstand the rigors of the NHL.
Continuing a common theme of first-year pros, the River Rats got a somewhat surprising season out of free agent signing David Clarkson, who quickly became a fan favourite with the energy and effort he showed each and every game. Despite missing much of the last quarter of the season due to a hand injury, Clarkson managed to rack up a team-leading 233 PIM’s (fifth among AHL rookies) in 56 games and showed an offensive touch as well with 13 goals. Had he not gone down with the injury in February, he very well could have ended up leading the team in scoring. He showed no fear, did not back down from anyone, and often showed a dirty side to his game from time to time. Clarkson’s excellent all around game and ability to play multiple roles has moved him quickly up the Devils prospect ladder and he may not be that far away from making an impact in New Jersey. Expect him to start the season in Lowell, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him earn a few looks with the Devils before the season is out.
Another first-year player, Jason Ryznar fresh out of the University of Michigan, showed glimpses of potential, both in Albany, and a brief stint in the NHL with the Devils. While by no means will he likely ever develop much of an offensive touch, he has a great work ethic, is solid defensively, and contributes on the penalty kill. He had seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points in 59 games. His -4 rating was very respectable on a team that struggled to keep the puck out of the net. He could be ready to contribute in a checking role in New Jersey as soon as 2007.
A couple of second-year players put together solid, yet unspectacular seasons. Lanky Russian centerIvan Khomutov, who just turned 20 in early March, improved quite a bit from last season, but still is quite raw and rough around the edges. He flashes glimpses of offensive potential from time to time, but has yet to do that on a consistent basis. His nine goals and 20 assists for 29 points were all improvement from his first pro season. Aaron Voros contributed in a variety of ways in his second full season as a pro. He scored 16 times, second among active River Rats at season’s end, and racked up 180 PIM’s, picking up the slack in the enforcer department after the promotion of Cam Janssen to New Jersey and a season-ending injury to David Clarkson. At 6’4, 190 lbs, Voros is an intimidating presence and could provide some much needed size to the Devils checking line in the very near future.
A couple of Finnish-born Devil prospects had somewhat below par seasons. After a great start and an early season promotion to New Jersey, Tuomas Pihlman salvaged a rough middle portion of the year with a decent finish. However, Pihlman’s consistency has waned periodically throughout his brief pro career and he may be close to peaking in terms of overall upside. He may have an outside shot at a roster spot in New Jersey next season, but this may be his last chance. He still did post a career-best 12 goals and had the best plus/minus rating on the team among regulars at -1.
Ilkka Pikkarainen, like his fellow countryman, couldn’t put together a full season. This time around, he reversed his usual trend of slow starts and fast finishes with a great start and a lackluster finish. He had 18 points before New Year’s and only two points in the remaining games. Of note was his improved discipline, but still being able to play abrasively and with an edge. Due to his age (he just recently turned 25), it remains to be seen if he will remain in the Devils short or long-term plans.
It was another year full of injuries for hard luck forward and former top draft pick Adrian Foster. After playing in Albany’s first two games of the season, Foster did not return to action until April after spending the majority of the season recovering from post-concussion syndrome. Foster has an abundance of talent, but it is appearing more and more likely that injuries are going to ruin what once was a promising career. Another River Rat with constant injury issues, Ahren Nittel, didn’t have quite the season that he had hoped after scoring 25 goals last year. This season, a collapsed lung forced him out of action and when he did return, his consistency wasn’t there. After notching a hat trick in a late February game against Syracuse, he scored only three more times in the last 18 games, finishing with a disappointing 14 goals. Nittel has yet to play in more than 50 games in his three years with Albany. He is still relatively young, but going into his fourth pro season, Nittel needs to stay healthy and produce consistently to get over the hump in terms of his development.
Despite having solid veteran presences in former NHL regulars Dan McGillis and Brad Ference and long-time AHL vet Bobby Allen, the Devils few defensive prospects for the most part had sub-par seasons. In his third pro season, Matt DeMarchi again struggled. He looked fine early in the year after missing some time due to injury, but battled more injuries and inconsistent play as the season progressed. A former second round draft choice, DeMarchi has yet to live up to that potential. Teemu Kesa also had a disappointing season. Like DeMarchi, he struggled with injuries throughout the year. He won’t be back next season as he has signed a contract to play in his native Finland with TPS Turku for 2006-07. The lone exception to the struggles on the back end was rookie pro Bryan Miller, who until a season-ending shoulder injury was often one of Albany’s top defenders. His three goals and 18 assists in 40 games and a respectable -2 rating show that he has all-around potential and in the new NHL, Miller could be useful for the Devils in a couple of seasons.
There were a handful of rookies who saw limited action at near the end of the season and some showed that they may be ready to contribute in Lowell next season. The most notable name here is Travis Zajac, who after only two collegiate seasons at the University of North Dakota, pronounced himself ready to turn pro. Strong and both ends of the rink, the Devils have high expectations for the former first round draft pick and Zajac will get at least one, but possibly two seasons in Lowell before the Devils give him a long look as an NHL’er. 2005 draftees Mark Fraser and Sean Zimmerman, showed some promise on the blue line, though Fraser is the more likely to stick next season as Zimmerman still has one remaining year of eligibility in the WHL. Fraser could become the next Colin White down the road: strong defensively, steady, composed and physical.
A couple of late season signings add depth and potential to the system as college seniors Andy Greene and Stephen Gionta were inked to deals. Greene was unable to play for the River Rats due to a clause in the CBA, but Gionta, was able to get into a few late season games and did not disappoint. Gionta, the brother of current Devils sniper Brian Gionta scored five goals, including a hat trick in his pro debut in three games and hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps and eventually make the jump to the NHL.
Next season, the Devils will begin a new era with their AHL franchise in Lowell, and while there will be some positive memories from the Devils affiliation with the River Rats, the Devils will look to turn a new page in terms of prospect development and look to build a winning tradition in Lowell with the Lock Monsters.
Grethe Kvernes contributed to this article. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.