San Antonio Rampage 2007-08 season preview

By Jeff Dahlia

The biggest change for the San Antonio Rampage this season will come from behind the bench as Greg Ireland takes over as the team’s new coach. After spending the last four seasons with the Grand Rapid Griffins and developing prospects for the Detroit Red Wings, the Coyotes will look to Ireland to help change the culture down in San Antonio.

“There’s a great hunger and desire to build the organization from within and to create a culture and an environment that not only expects them to win but demands winning within the players,” Ireland explained. “We have young guys who are going to come into that culture.”

In order to get his players ready for the season, Ireland will look to set the demands and level of expectations high and following through the accountability issues.

“It’s a process that’s going to be laid out really quickly and clearly from the get-go,” he added. “Again, this who we are and this is how we play. We’re going to lay a foundation in place.”

There will be rewards within that foundation but each player is going to have to work hard and buy into the system.

“We’re going to let them know our expectations by communicating that and if it still can’t get done, then we’re going to reward the guys that do,” he said. “There’s going to be a certain way we expect the game to be played and I think the demands will be upon all of us to follow those guidelines.”

Building a new mindset is just the start to what Ireland hopes will turn around an AHL team that has turned in consecutively substandard seasons under the Coyotes watch. On the ice he expects just as much physically as he expects mentally from his players.

“Within that foundation, there are going to be some things that are non-negotiable,” Ireland said. “One of them is work ethic. One of them is responsibility without the puck, and the third one is that we’re going to pursue the puck with vigor.”

Ireland envisions the Rampage having a lot of team speed and mobility. He wants to have a bunch of players who are not only going to be able to get after the puck, but a team that is going to challenge the defense around the league with team speed.

At the other end, he feels they’re going to be really strong in net and have a really good, mobile defense.

In all, Ireland is ready for the challenge and hopes to help get things on track for the Rampage by developing players and doing it in a winning fashion.

Below is what he’s going to have to work this year.

Goaltending

Second-year prospect Josh Tordjman and Coyotes resident project David LeNeveu should end up between the pipes for San Antonio this season. Tordjman should get the nod to take the lead roll after a stellar rookie campaign, where he had a 2.58 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage in 37 games. Looking back to last year, the two played equally strong in front of a weak team. However, it seems given LeNeveu’s experience, he should have outplayed Tordjman with ease. While that was not the case, you still can’t count the former 2002 second-round pick out. At 24 years old, LeNeveu will still make things interesting.

Defense

With a couple of the rearguards from last year’s squad not re-signed, there are going to some new faces playing the back end for the Rampage. Keith Yandle will headline the group, as they’ll expect him to be a strong two-way defender. Yandle is going to be looked at to produce a lot of offense from the blue line and jump in the rush from time to time. In addition to Yandle, Logan Stephenson is back for his second campaign. Still a couple steps off NHL speed, expect Stephenson to pick up his stamina and foot speed. He’ll need to show this year that he is closer to making the jump. Sean Sullivan joins the mix fresh out of Boston University. Having suited up for the Rampage for seven games in the 2006-07 season, expect the New England native to take a starting role. If can deliver the same shutdown style game and reliability on both ends of the ice, he’ll make some noise this season. Fresh out of junior, newcomer David Schlemko will also look to earn a spot with the Rampage. After turning in a fantastic career with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL, he’ll look to improve his two-way game in San Antonio.

In addition to the Coyotes prospects defenders, expect proven veterans Travis Roche, Bryan Helmer, and newcomer Ryan Caldwell to fight to fill out the remaining spots on San Antonio’s roster.

Forwards

Heading into Phoenix’s main camp, the feeling was that Martin Hanzal was probably going to need a season in the AHL to fine-tune his game. Much to everyone’s surprise and to the praise of the organization, it looks as if Hanzal has earned a starting role with the Coyotes heading into the season opener. There’s a chance he may need to come down, so don’t be shocked if he skates with the team for a brief stint or two.

Another pleasant surprise coming out of Phoenix is the story of Daniel Winnik. After having a rough transition season last year with the Rampage, he’s bounced back and is in contention for one of the final roster spots with the Coyotes. It’s going to be quite the story if the former ninth-round 2004 pick makes squad, but if he needs to get quality minutes and consistent play, expect him to be on one of the San Antonio’s top lines.

Everyone held their collective breath earlier this week when the Coyotes reassigned Enver Lisin to the Rampage. Instead of jumping back to Russia, he’s back in Texas to start off the 2007-08 season. He also wasted little time jumping into action and scoring a goal in a 5-4 loss to the Houston Aeros in exhibition play on Saturday. The Russian speedster told Hockey’s Future that he as committed to playing and developing with San Antonio. When asked about having to play in the AHL this year he said, "I just want to play hockey and if I start in San Antonio that means I’m going to have to work harder to get to the NHL. The best players in the world are playing in the NHL and I want to play there too." He’s going to turn heads with his speed, and overall quickness, but he’ll need to continue to show he can play a responsible two-way game, play solid away from the puck and execute, create, and finish when he has it before he moves on.

Headed into his first full season in the Coyotes organization, Alex Leavitt will look to pick up where he left off last season, when he racked up 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 16 games after coming over from Houston. He’s another player who still needs to prove he can play both ends equally and remain a consistent offensive threat for the Rampage. If Leavitt continues to improve beyond expectations, it’s going to be interesting if the Coyotes would be willing to give him a cup or two in the bigs if things remain rough in Phoenix as forecasted.

Other hopeful prospects at the forward position are Tyler Redenbach, Olivier Latendresse and Kevin Cormier. While Redenbach is looking to rediscover the touch he had two seasons ago while playing with Providence in the Boston Bruins system, Latendresse looks to make the adjustment to the ‘A’ after a disastrous 2006-07 season, which left him playing in the ECHL the majority of the last year. As for Cormier, he came into camp with a hurt left arm, so he still may need some time to catch up. As it stands right now, veteran minor leaguer Pete Vandermeer looks to be the club’s muscle. If Cormier, the first-year pro doesn’t make a case for himself really quick, he may see a lot of time in the CHL.

Rounding out the position, Yanick Lehoux and Joel Perrault return from last year’s team. Incoming forwards Joey Tenute, John DiSalvatorre, Matt Murley and David Spina all look to take a roll up front. Craig Weller is in a tight battle for a role in Phoenix, but he more than likely will spend more time with San Antonio this year.

Overall analysis

The Coyotes have a couple of prospects that they’re seriously looking at to make a statement either way. Other than that, the cupboard is really bare. The team is going to look to the proven AHL quality players to set the pace in San Antonio. With the addition of Ireland and assistant coach Ray Edwards behind the bench, and an equal amount of emphasis placed on team and positivity, hopefully the Rampage can finally get on the road to success.

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