Though the Lowell Devils have yet to reach the halfway point in their first season, things are looking pretty sunny compared to the River Rat days in Albany the past few years. The New Jersey Devils newly-relocated AHL affiliate currently is sitting in third place in the very tight Atlantic Division, but only three points behind the division-leading Portland Pirates.
Led by veterans such as Justin Papineau, Grant Marshall and Dan McGillis, Lowell’s 15-13-2-1 record is on pace to easily eclipse the 57 points the River Rats recorded in 2005-06. The playoffs are definitely in reach, the first time in quite a while that a Devils AHL affiliated team can actually boast that. With the help of some of the aforementioned veterans, the first and second-year pro prospects have not had to shoulder as heavy a load as in seasons past and that shows in the early success the team has had thus far.
A higher commitment to defense has lead to a drastic decrease in goals against. Starter Frank Doyle has not had to stand on his head quite as often as last season in Albany and much of it is due to the fact that the defensemen have been playing much better in front of him. However, the organization also has a legitimate prospect and current backup in first-year pro Jordan Parise. After a rough pro debut that saw him let six goals get by him in a loss to Worcester, he has been fairly steady since, including a couple games that saw him turn aside more than 40 shots. The North Dakota product has posted a 6-4 record in 11 appearances with Lowell, posting a 2.96 GAA and a .913 save percentage, a percentage point better than Doyle thus far this season. Parise has been very solid positionally, keeping himself very composed despite the heavy traffic that he often has to look through. He also has flashed his quick glove hand on more than one occasion. Parise will continue to push for more playing time as the season wears on, and should he continue to play as well as he has thus far, Lowell head coach Kurt Klienendorst will have no problem giving Doyle a breather when he needs a rest.
The solid all-around play and NHL experience that team captain Dan McGillis has provided to Lowell can’t be overlooked in the development of two first-year pro blueliners. Andy Greene and Mark Fraser have shown little trouble in adapting to the rigors of the pro game. In fact, both Greene and Fraser are the only two Lowell players who have suited up in all 31 games thus far this year, a testament to the steady play both have provided from the start. But while the two have in common the fact that they are both first-year pros, their styles of play are quite contrasting.
Greene, the former Miami of Ohio standout is a strong-skating blueliner who is steady at both ends of the rink. He makes good decisions with and without the puck, and that has resulted in a lot of ice time for him thus far. Greene currently sits second in defenseman scoring on the team behind McGillis, whom he is often paired with, with two goals and eight assists for 10 points on the season. He scored both of his goals in a mid-December victory over Providence. After starting the season at a -3 through Lowell’s first five games, he has only been a minus player on three occasions since. Greene’s current rating of +6 is second best on the team. Greene stands an excellent shot at a promotion to the big club next season should he continue to progress at his current rate.
Fraser, a graduate of the OHL, is more of a rugged, stay-at-home type of defenseman. A lot of what he does won’t often show up on the scoresheet. The 6’3, 200lb Fraser did score his first pro goal back in October against Springfield and has also put up a pair of assists to go along with an even plus/minus rating. Fraser could have spent another season in junior, but New Jersey thought he was ready for the challenge of playing pro in the AHL and he has not disappointed the team thus far.
Much like on the blue line, there has been great leadership up front in the form of two-time Stanley Cup Champion Grant Marshall. Marshall, along with seasoned minor pro veterans Justin Papineau, who leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and 29 points, and Ryan Murphy are players that have been through the grind of multiple NHL and minor pro seasons.
Like last season, the Devils most promising forward prospect at the AHL level is Swedish winger Nicklas Bergfors. The hard-working 19-year-old, who is coming off a fantastic 2005-06 season as the youngest player in the league, has picked up where he left off. Currently sitting third in team scoring with 10 goals and 9 assists for 19 points in 24 games, Bergfors has had a few different linemates this season. Yet, regardless of whom he plays with, he has been producing despite a few bouts of inconsistency which is to be expected from such a young player. At +4, Bergfors also is showing a better commitment to the defensive game. Well-rounded, smart and strong on the puck, Bergfors is on pace to easily eclipse his 17-goal, 40-point season and not surprisingly, he sees a tremendous amount of power-play time as one of the most skilled players on the team. Bergfors will represent Sweden for the second time at the upcoming World Junior Championships in his native Sweden and will again form a potent one-two punch with Niklas Backstrom (WSH).
After being arguably one of Albany’s most consistent forwards last season, power forward in training Barry Tallackson has played well thus far in the early going for Lowell but he also is capable of elevating his game even further. For a big man, Tallackson has great on-ice vision, silky smooth hands and can make some jaw-dropping moves but still needs to use his big 6’4 frame more to his advantage. A regular amongst the top-six forwards, Tallackson sits tied for fourth with Chris Minard in team scoring with six goals and 12 assists through 26 games. He spent some early season time in New Jersey with the big club, but was sent down to Lowell after not having much of an impact in a limited role. The Devils have to be relatively satisfied with Tallackson’s play in the AHL over the course of almost a season and a half, but if he can step up his play one more notch, he will get that much closer to forcing the big club to call him up again and keep him up for good.
Another second-year forward, Petr Vrana, has shown good improvement in terms of his overall consistency after being up and down last season. The tiny, yet feisty Vrana has put up four goals and 11 assists for 15 points on the season thus far. Despite often being out-muscled along the boards, Vrana’s hard-working nature helps compensate for that weakness in his game, a weakness that is sure to lessen as he continues to mature and fill out. The former Halifax Moosehead captain has assumed one of the assistant captain roles this year, a role that his aforementioned traits compliment well. Vrana seems to have the makings of an all-purpose, Sergei Brylin type of forward, the type of player who gives everything he has and can be seamlessly moved in and around the line-up. Vrana is improving, but he still might need the rest of this season, plus a good part of next season to continue to get stronger before he’ll be ready for a full-time gig in New Jersey.
After a strong preseason showing that saw him come very close to making the Devils out of training camp, David Clarkson has resumed his role as super pest and agitator extraordinaire in Lowell. He excels at getting under the opposition’s skin, and has a knack for drawing penalties, though he must be careful as he often takes some bad penalties himself. His current total of 59 PIM’s should see him easily crack the 200 PIM barrier again. Clarkson clearly knows and understands what he has to do to be an effective player, but he also will chip in on the score sheet every once in a while. He’s tailed five goals and six assists for 11 points so far on the season.
The clock is really starting to tick for Tuomas Pihlman. After a mediocre season last year, Pihlman needed to show some improvement in his all-around game, and thus far has yet to really stand out and is in danger of being passed by other prospects in the organization on the depth chart. The big winger is capable of producing at both ends of the rink, but he has yet to show much consistency after almost 2 ½ full seasons in the minors. Sitting at six goals and four assists on the season, Pihlman needs to step up his play to remain in the Lowell line-up on a regular basis and to show the Devils that they shouldn’t give up on him just yet.
After struggling to remain in the line-up at the start of the season, huge and burly Aaron Voros has seen more game action as of late as has contributed in a variety of ways, much like he did last season and the team has a 6-0 record in games in which he has recorded a point. In 18 games, he has three goals and five assists for eight points to go along with 59 PIM’s, which ties him with Clarkson for the team lead.
Following a fairly good rookie pro debut last season in Albany that saw him earn and extended his stay in New Jersey, Jason Ryznar has struggled somewhat to find his game this year. Known to be a responsible, defensive-minded forward, Ryznar has often seemed lost on the ice. He still possesses the tools to be a solid, role-playing checker in the NHL eventually, but Ryznar is currently going through the motions and could be suffering a bit of a sophomore jinx at the minor pro ranks.
A trio of first-year forwards are learning the nuances and daily grind of the pro level. Rod Pelley a free agent signing and Ohio State grad has been a pleasant surprise for New Jersey. Though not the most spectacular player, he’s a hard worker who plays solid at both ends of the ice. He has six goals and six assists for 12 points on the season, including Lowell’s only short-handed marker of the season, and the first hat trick in Lowell Devils history in a 6-4 December victory over Hartford. Patrick Davis got off to a great start with three goals and two assists through the first six games of the season. Since then, he has cooled off considerably recording only four points in his next 17 games. One of the Devils more offensively gifted wingers in the system, Davis is showing the growing pains that some first-year pro players experience. His future is still bright, but the Devils hope to see a little more production in the second half of the season. With only five points in 24 games, Stephen Gionta wasn’t able to build off his great pro debut last spring. The small and shifty winger has struggled thus far this year, but he has the work ethic to eventually turn things around and contribute more.
Janine Pilkington contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.