San Antonio 2006-07 season preview

By Jeff Dahlia

The San Antonio Rampage had a rough 2005-06 season, in which they were by far one of the league’s weakest teams. While their goals against hovered around the league average, they had great difficulty burying the puck, scoring a league-worst 153 goals.

Still focusing on righting their development system, the Phoenix Coyotes are finally a step closer to icing an AHL team that is competitive. This might be the year in which Phoenix is able to attain something very close to that status.

“I think it is safe to say that this team will be vastly improved from last year,” said Coyotes Assistant GM Laurence Gilman, who also doubles as the Rampage’s GM. “We’re going to be solid in goal, we’re going to have depth on our blue line, we’re going to have multi-faceted forwards and our degree of skill has been increased quite significantly. We expect this team to be one that is going to compete on a nightly basis.”

Goaltending

After analyzing their goalie picture over the last year, the franchise realized they had few options when it came to goaltenders. The Coyotes went out and added depth to the position by trading for Philippe Sauve and signing Mike Morrison and prospect Josh Tordjman.

“We knew we had to bolster our goaltending position at the NHL level,” said Gilman. “We needed to create depth in our system.

David LeNeveu will start the 2006-07 season with the Rampage as he continues to develop and hope to prove that he can someday capture a bona fide starter’s role in the NHL. He started last season with the Coyotes, only to be sent down to finish the season in the AHL. Seeing action in 28 games, he posted a 10-16-2 record with a 2.92 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.

Phoenix is committed to LeNeveu for the long term. While some might view this as a step back or a reason to be concerned because this is his fourth season in the ‘A’, he is still just 23. The club’s main concern is that LeNeveu gets consistent playing time and adds to his experience, so when he does get called up, he’ll be able to transition into the role with success.

In the interim, the Coyotes will look to journeyman Morrison to back up Curtis Joseph in Phoenix, but if they need to make a call-up, LeNeveu should be at the top of their list.

San Antonio will probably look to Sauve to fill out the other half of their goalie tandem, but they haven’t counted out Tordjman just yet. Coming off a very strong season in the QMJHL as an overager with the Moncton Wildcats, Tordjman has come into the Coyotes rookie tournament and veterans camp and turned some heads.

Tordjman will make things interesting early on, but expect him to get his fair share of playing time in the ECHL with the Coyotes new affiliate, the Phoenix Roadrunners. Having said that, don’t be surprised if he fights his way back up to the AHL or lands with the Rampage by virtue of other promotions.

Defense

Over the past few years, the Coyotes have had a lot of promising defensive prospects on their AHL teams, but as a whole, they really haven’t dressed a complete unit.

“It’s fair to say that in past seasons, our defense has been our biggest issue,” Gilman said. “At various times during the year, particularly last season, we’ve fielded an ECHL-level defense.”

With that in mind, Phoenix brought in proven AHL veterans.

“Guys like Travis Roche and Bryan Helmer will just create such less pressure on our younger guys to succeed,” he added. “Both Pat Conacher and Gord Dineen can put these guys out on the ice in key situations and take the pressure off the young players.”

While Roche and Helmer will help bolster the Rampage blue line, they’ll still look towards their prospects to fill the remaining void.

Matt Jones, Joe Callahan and Matt Spiller return, while the team also welcomes talented players in Logan Stephenson and Keith Yandle.

Yandle is marked to be the premier offensive-defenseman who will log a lot of ice time. He’s not that far off from being able to play at the elevated pace, as he should be able to fit in rather well. During his first pro year, Yandle will need to work on his sense of urgency when it comes to moving the puck.

Stephenson enters his first pro year after coming off a solid 2005-06 season with the Tri-City Americans in the WHL. Bringing a high level of tenacity and grit will not be a problem, but expect the rookie defensive defenseman to start the year in the No. 5 or 6 role. Once he’s able to match the flow of the game he should jump up into a top four role. Once he gets to that status, he should rival Jones hit for hit and match him as one of the team’s top defensive-defensemen.

Callahan might have slipped on the depth charts. Because of that, the Coyotes are expecting him to make a big step in his development this year. He has made progress in each of the years in the AHL but he needs to take that extra step for Phoenix to retain interest in him.

Since Spiller cleared waivers, he’ll help round out the Rampage defense. Having seen time in the NHL, he’s aware of what it’s going to take to get back to the top league. Though his progression has been steady but slow, he’s still a fringe NHL defenseman who really needs to show he belongs in the bigs.

Heading into this sophomore season, Jones should be one of the defensive headliners again. He came in last year after a successful campaign at the University of North Dakota and didn’t skip a beat in his transition. He went on to effectively shut down and punish the opposition en route to earning All-Star status for his effort. Jones finished off a strong first year and he’s expected to come back and continues to be one of San Antonio’s top young defenders.

Forwards

The Coyotes farm system has generally had a multitude of deficiencies in the forward position over the last few years. It was evident last season when the Rampage had the league’s weakest offense. The franchise spent a lot of time revamping the roster looking for a good blend of personnel in which they believe will help bolster the team both on and off the ice.

In turn, San Antonio will look to a couple established AHL forwards in Don MacLean, Yanick Lehoux, and Jeff Taffe to lead the way.

“Those players are going to be a huge component of creating a better environment in San Antonio,” Gilman said. “Number one, they’re going to be better players, who our younger players can feed off of, and number two, they’re going to be players who can score points, score goals, get assists and help us build that winning environment.”

While the more seasoned forwards will help lay the foundation to build upon, a lot of the focus will obviously be on the influx of talented youth that joins the team this year.

The top newcomers include Enver Lisin, Bill Thomas, Daniel Winnik and Olivier Latendresse.

Lisin jumps across the pond to get his North American pro career started with the Coyotes. Really known for his top-end skating speed, Lisin also has a very high level of skill and natural ability with the puck. He’ll need to spend this time adjusting to the style of game as well as showing he can be just as effective without the puck as he is with it.

Thomas, who played last season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and saw action in the Coyotes’ last nine games of the 2005-06 season. Even though he got a taste of the pro style and approach, he’ll look to apply what he learned in that short time, all while adding a high of energy and a lot of positive energy.

A Coyotes former 2004 ninth round selection, Winnik has developed into a well-balanced, puck hungry, power forward while playing at the University of New Hampshire for the last three years. He’s progressed each and every season he played for the Wildcats. He’ll add strength down the middle as well as a strong presence down low.

Latendresse enters the system after turning in a solid season with the Val-d’Or Foreurs in the QMJHL. He’s a very smart forward who works very hard in both ends and loves to work with the puck in tight situations. He’s just under six feet, but his size does not inhibit his play. He’s has leadership qualities and very aggressive player who leads by example.

The team also welcomes back Randall Gelech and Jakub Koreis, who have been skating together in the AHL for the few years.

Gelech has progressed at a respectable rate, he should be viewed as a versatile two-way defensive-minded forward, who’s another strong worker. He chips in his points, which could increase with the added talent, though for the most part, he’ll play on the lower lines.

Koreis was pegged to be a solid point producing two-way centerman, but he’s been a bit lacking in the offensive department. He has good size, mechanics and skating ability, but the 22-year-old needs to step it up.

Analysis

Heading into the new season, the Rampage have filled their roster with a lot of fresh faces, both new and old. While winning is the ultimate goal, building a team that succeeds, while harboring a positive environment for the prospects to develop is at the top of the franchise’s priorities.

“The team you will see in San Antonio will be the most competitive team we have had in the tenure I have done this job, which dates back to 2001,” said Gilman.

The Rampage definitely get a shot in the arm in all areas, but will depend on their veteran players to lead the way.

“We felt it was incumbent upon us to surround of young players with top-level players that were going to be guys at the AHL, who were going to be prominent guys on the ice, but leaders in the dressing room,” Gilman explained.

Cohesiveness will need to be the key to this team, because the talent is going to be there. If the team fails to come together from the start, it could be another long season.


Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.