The Albany River Rats squeaked their way into the Calder Cup playoffs last spring by a mere two points. To make the postseason cut again in 2007-08, the team will have to win with without its former starting goaltender, leading playoff scorer and a number of contributors on defense from last season.
That may be fine for the Carolina Hurricanes, however, who will take sole control of the Albany franchise after having partnered with the Colorado Avalanche at the AHL level since the NHL lockout. Though key contributors from last year like goalie Tyler Weiman, forward Matt Murley and defensemen Johnny Boychuck and Kyle Cumiskey have all left Albany for Cleveland with the rest of Colorado’s prospects, simply having more roster spots available for Carolina up-and-comers can only be a good thing for the Hurricanes.
With one season of professional netminding behind him, Justin Peters, 21, will continue to hone his skills in Albany this year. Peters split starts in the early going last season with Weiman before taking a back seat during the River Rats’ brief playoff run. As the 39th overall pick in the 2004 draft, Peters still has time on his side in the Hurricane goalie pipeline. Twenty-six-year-old veteran Michael Leighton, with 48 career NHL games, was acquired in a draft-day trade and will also see time in Albany. Look for Peters to improve on his numbers as a rookie (10-18 record, 3.26 GAA, .886 save percentage in 34 games).
A new signee, Daniel Manzato, 23, played in his home country of Switzerland, backstopping a last-place team in the Swiss-A League, went 13-30, with a 3.50 GAA. Manzato could be sent to the ECHL Florida Everblades, AA affiliate of the Hurricanes.
There is also 22-year-old Kevin Nastiuk, who will likely toil for a third straight season in the ECHL. Nastiuk, playing for the unaffiliated ECHL Las Vegas Wranglers, earned a 15-8-6 record and 2.53 GAA last season.
If injuries are an issue for the Hurricanes on the blue line this season, a pair of 2004 draft picks will be waiting in Albany for a call-up. Surviving several rounds of training camp cuts in September, both Brett Carson and Casey Borer have impressed ‘Canes GM Jim Rutherford with their play during the NHL exhibition season. Carson, a captain of his junior team in 2005-06, made a successful jump to the pros last season, playing 63 games and contributing an impressive 18 points with the Rats while remaining a solid presence in his own end (+4). With more refinement at the AHL level, Carson, at 6’4, could soon be adding some size and youth to Carolina’s defensive ranks.
Borer, upon completing his senior season at St. Cloud State, signed an entry-level deal with the Hurricanes in May 2007. At 6’2, Borer, like Carson, is a defense-first blueliner, and has the skills to succeed in the AHL as a 22-year-old rookie. Before playing in the WCHA, Borer, a Minnesota native, spent the 2002-03 season playing on the US National Team Development Program.
Another American who had a solid training camp in Raleigh was Florida-born Noah Babin. Signed at age 23 out of Notre Dame, Babin joined the Rats in late March of last season, logging a goal and six assists in 11 regular season games. Babin, who caught the eye of Carolina Director of Player Development Ron Francis while playing in college, should be counted on to contribute on the Albany blue line, as should Mark Flood, who will get a chance to play his first full AHL season in 2007-08. After being picked up in a trade from Columbus last year, Flood, 22, played 36 games (3 goals, 7 assists) with the River Rats.
Goals could be hard to come by in Albany this season unless some of the Hurricanes’ forward prospects have a few surprises in store. Most of the organization’s top young forwards are playing in either Canadian juniors or the NCAA.
Two prospects in Albany to watch are 19-year-old Bobby Hughes and 20-year-old Nicolas Blanchard. Hughes, an Ontario native, signed to an entry-level contract last spring, played three seasons for Kingston of the OHL. Blanchard also signed at the end of his third junior season, played with Chicoutimi in the QMJHL.
At just 5’11, it should be interesting to see how the offensive exploits Hughes displayed in his third junior season (40 goals and 56 assists in 59 games) translate to the pro game. The opportunity is there for the center to carry much of the Rats offense, and if that’s indeed the case, it could mean a call-up or two to Carolina during the regular season.
Blanchard, with 22 goals and 35 assists in 62 games with Chicoutimi, made the jump to Albany at the end of last season, playing in seven regular season and five playoff games with the River Rats. A full AHL season should allow for Blanchard, a center, to develop the toughness that could make this 6’3 Quebec native an interesting player to watch.
Beyond Hughes, Blanchard, and 22-year-old Czech center Jakub Petruzalek (who scored 10 goals and 20 assists in 60 games split between Hartford and Albany last year), offense for the Rats should come from older players like Ryan Bayda, Mike Angelidis and Pat Dwyer, and veteran Keith Aucoin.
Though the subtraction of Colorado prospects from Albany this season will mean more opportunity for Carolina prospects to perform at the AHL level, it should be a battle for the Rats to match their success of last year.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.