For the first time since 1993, the New Jersey Devils will have a new AHL affiliate. After a 13-year partnership with the Albany River Rats, including six straight last-place finishes in their division, the Devils announced the purchase of the Lowell Lock Monsters in the spring of 2006 and renamed the franchise the Lowell Devils.
New Lowell coach Kurt Kleinendorst and his assistants Chris Terreri and Kevin Dean will have some new veterans and first-year pros to work with this season, but there will likely also be a large core of returning players as well. After years of struggling, the Devils have improved their depth within the AHL ranks and hope that a fresh start in Lowell will lead to a playoff appearance, something that the River Rats failed to accomplish since 2000.
If it wasn’t for the often spectacular play of Frank Doyle last season, who knows how bad the River Rats would have been. Far and away the team MVP last year, Doyle returns this season as the No. 1 goaltender for Lowell. Doyle was a workhorse, appearing in 58 games and posting a .906 save percentage, facing a barrage of shots each night.
The likely back-up to Doyle is former University of North Dakota star Jordan Parise. Parise put up some gaudy numbers over the course of his four-year tenure with the Fighting Sioux, including 24 wins, six shutouts and a sparkling .929 save percentage last season. He was not drafted, but is battle tested having helped lead North Dakota to the Frozen Four the past two years. His signing during the summer did not come as a huge surprise as the Devils lacked goaltending depth within the minor pro ranks, especially after the departure of Ari Ahonen to Finland. Having his brother Zach in the organization likely also played a role in Parise ending up in the Devils organization.
After Gregg Naumenko, who likely will start the year in the ECHL with the organization’s new shared affiliate in Trenton, the Devils do not have any other goaltenders in the pro ranks. They are putting all their eggs in one basket with Doyle and Parise, and should they stay healthy and perform as New Jersey expects, goaltending will not be a problem. However, should Doyle go down with injury, it will be a different story.
Defense was often the main culprit for the struggles of the River Rats, but this season should see moderate improvement. There was also a fair amount of turnover as Krisjanis Redlihs, Bobby Allen, Brad Ference, Matt DeMarchi and Teemu Kesa are no longer with the organization.
Devils GM Lou Lamoreillo scoured the talent pool in Europe to help replace some of the aforementioned players and came away with former Nashville draftee Tomas Harant, former Washington prospect Johnny Oduya and giant 6’7, 220-pound Finn Olli Malmivaara. One or two of them could see some time in New Jersey with the current injury to Richard Matvichuk, but all will be asked to shoulder the load should they all end up in Lowell. Also picked up during the off-season was AHL veteran Mike Mottau who lead all Peoria Rivermen defenders in scoring with 56 points.
Returning from last season are NHL veteran Dan McGillis, captain Alex Brooks, and Bryan Miller. Miller was having a great pro debut season before going under the knife with season-ending shoulder surgery. Should he remain healthy, he could put up some good numbers.
Andy Greene and Mark Fraser, are both just starting their professional careers and both bring drastically different styles of play to the table. Greene is an undersized defender who can contribute at both ends of the rink as evidenced by his winning of the CCHA’s best offensive and defensive defenseman award while in his last year at the University of Miami-Ohio. While he could see spot duty in New Jersey, Greene could probably use some minor pro seasoning before being thrust into NHL duty. He is a strong skater and is a potential power play quarterback. Fraser, is a big, physical and steady defensive defenseman who looks after his own end with aplomb. He is a future leader and should become a stalwart penalty killer right away.
Olivier Magnan, Nate Kiser and Eric Lundberg are all in tough for regular duty with Lowell and thus are likely to spend a lot of time in the ECHL with the Trenton Titans.
Unlike the defense, there will be a lot of familiar faces on the Lowell front lines. In fact, Ilkka Pikkarainen is the lone River Rat regular from last season not to return this time around. There is a lot of youth up front, but along with that youth comes a ton of potential.
Lowell will be lead by 2005 first round draft choice Niklas Bergfors. After leading the River Rats in scoring with 17 goals and 23 assists last season, the 19-year-old Swede will be looked upon to improve on his numbers from last year. It was thought that Bergfors could challenge for a regular spot in New Jersey, and he could very well see a cup of coffee in the swamp later this season. However, one more year of seasoning in the AHL for the skilled and aggressive winger will likely prove to be beneficial in the long run.
A trio of top prospects within the system will be expected to contribute heavily in Lowell, should all three not make the big club out of camp. Travis Zajac, Barry Tallackson and David Clarkson all survived the first round of cuts in New Jersey and while all three likely won’t stick, expect at least one, if not two of them to start the season with the Devils.
Zajac, after only two seasons of college hockey with North Dakota, is being given a great opportunity to possibly be the second line center. Should he be sent to the Lowell Devils, expect him to make an immediate impact. Clarkson, a free agent signing out of the OHL, has been getting a long look with checking line stalwarts John Madden and Jay Pandolfo in training camp. Should he return to the farm, expect him to be one of the leaders and top scorers on the team. Tallackson, who had a brief NHL call-up last season, had a great pro debut with the River Rats and will be counted on to provide a physical presence and goal scoring should he start the year in Lowell. Expect all three players to all see NHL duty at some point this season.
AHL veterans Justin Papineau, Ryan Murphy and potentially Dan LaCouture, should he not make the big club, will be asked to help aid in the development of the many young forwards that will dot the Lowell roster. Papineau is a proven scorer at the AHL level and should be right near the top of the scoring lead with the team. Adrian Foster, should he remain healthy, and Tuomas Pihlmanalso all return from last year to provide some experience up front.
Second-year forwards Jason Ryznar and Petr Vrana will both look to improve on solid, yet unspectacular pro debuts. Ryznar is a big-bodied crash and bang winger who prides himself in his solid defensive play. He was a key penalty killer for Albany last season and will again be counted on to help kill penalties this season for Lowell. Ryznar had a brief call-up to New Jersey and is not that far away from challenging for a regular spot as a checker in New Jersey. The small but supremely talented Vrana has his ups and downs last year, but New Jersey still has high hopes for the versatile Czech. Vrana should be much more comfortable his second time around through the AHL and as a result could see his numbers from last season spike dramatically.
Both Aaron Voros and Ivan Khomutov need to take big steps forward this season. While Voros has continually improved in his three years in the AHL, he is an older prospect who needs to make himself noticeable before being passed on the depth chart by others. The physically imposing Voros can contribute in multiple ways and one more solid season on the farm could prove to be huge for his future in the organization. Khomutov has been brought along slowly, but coming into his third year in the AHL, more will be expected of the talented Russian centerman. He has the potential to explode offensively this year.
Stephen Gionta had a splashy debut late last season in Albany, and though undersized like his brother Brian, definitely has the ability to put the puck in the back of the net. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see him among the leading goal scorers in Lowell by the end of the season. Offensively gifted winger Patrick Davis and burly checking centerman Rod Pelley also go into their first pro seasons looking to have an impact sooner rather than later.
With the glut of forwards in the system, there will likely be a handful of them that will have to spend some time in the ECHL to get regular playing time.
For the first time in quite a while, New Jersey has to be excited at the potential that their new AHL affiliate has. With Doyle in goal, a strong group of up and coming forwards and enhanced depth and talent on defense, Lowell should be much improved from last season’s team in Albany and should at worst challenge for a playoff spot and get out of the basement in the AHL’s Atlantic Division.
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