Albany River Rats Report

By Mike Buskus

Rats are re-stocked with veterans

The New Jersey Devils have bolstered the Albany River Rats with the signing of three veteran players in the past week. Forwards Bruce Gardiner and Steve Guolla and defenseman Joel Bouchard joined the club and played this past weekend.

While the mission of the minor league club continues to be developing “prospects” for the NHL, in a nod to the more competitive nature of the American Hockey League in recent years (a trend accelerated by the merger or acquisition of former International Hockey League teams), the Devils for the first time in recent memory will have a roster that will allow the team to field a maximum of six “veterans”.

The incoming players join Richard Rochefort, Sylvain Cloutier (out with a knee injury) and Ted Drury. These players, as well as Gardiner, Guolla and Bouchard have played more than 260 combined NHL and AHL games.

The Devils and Rats have not gone overboard, and will not face the situation of being forced to sit a veteran every game to avoid the veteran player ceiling. Indeed, as of the moment, with Captain Sylvain Cloutier still out with a knee injury, the Rats have only five “veterans” on the roster.

The transactions which bolstered the River Rats started on October 21, when the Devils signed Gardiner and Guolla. They were placed on waivers, and after getting no takers from NHL clubs, were assigned to Albany. Both were in the starting lineup on Friday as the River Rats visited Rochester. Bouchard was signed on October 25 and cleared waivers the next day, making him eligible to play at home on Saturday, which he did.

Albany coach Bob Carpenter was enthusiastic about the signings, pointing out that it will make the team more competitive. The Rats’ bench boss pointed out that most of the other AHL clubs have a large contingent of veterans and teams that are top-heavy with rookies would be at a competitive disadvantage.

New “veteran” River Rats

The new Albany River Rats bring a lot of experience with them.

Bruce Gardiner was St. Louis’ 6th choice, 131st overall, in the 1991 entry draft. He brings 305 NHL games worth of experience with him, including over three seasons with Ottawa, where he was a respected face-off artist. Gardiner is regarded as a “two-way” forward, who should handily fit in with the New Jersey Devils’ philosophy.

Gardiner was immediately put to work on a line with Mike Rupp and Stanislv Gron. In a pair of games, Gardiner is even on plus/minus and has one assist. He has registered three shots on goal and has won his fair share of face-offs.

A Colgate graduate, Gardiner was a teammate of Steve Guolla’s with the Prince Edward Island Senators. He played with Ottawa from 1996 through 2000, accumulating 22 goals and 32 assists in 191 games with the NHL Senators.

Gardiner was traded to Tampa Bay in November of 1999 and was selected by Columbus in the expansion draft in 2000.

Steve Guolla is no stranger to the Pepsi Arena or Albany fans. The Michigan State graduate was Ottawa’s first choice and third overall in the 1994 supplemental draft. Guolla played for the Prince Edward Island Senators in 1995-96, where he tallied better than a point a game, racking up 80 points (32G; 48A) in 72 games.

But for Albany fans who cannot remember that far back, they surely recall the teal green jersey of the visiting Kentucky Thoroughblades. Playing parts of three seasons in Lexington, Kentucky, Guolla was an All-Star. He won the Les Cunningham award for league MVP in 1997-98, where he accumulated 100 points (37G; 63A) in only 69 games, an impressive productivity of a point-and-a-half per game.

Guolla’s jersey was the only one retired by the Kentucky Thoroughblades during its five years of existence in the AHL. Guolla moved up to San Jose, where he played 64 games in a Sharks’ jersey, with 16 goals and 11 assists.

Steve was traded to Tampa Bay in August of 1999. He played 46 games with the Lightning, with 6 goals and 10 assists. He was claimed on waivers by Atlanta on March 1, 2000, and saw action in 83 games with the Thrashers in the past two seasons. He accumulated 16 goals and 25 assists with the Thrashers. He was signed by the Devils as a free agent.

Joel Bouchard knows his new teammates. As a member of the Saint John Flames, courtesy of Calgary’s 7th choice, 129th overall, in the 1992 entry draft, Bouchard played against both Gardiner and Guolla when those forwards suited up for PEI in 1995-1996.

After playing 126 games with the Calgary Flames, Bouchard went to Nashville in the 1998 expansion draft. He briefly played for Dallas and then Phoenix.

Bouchard brings 276 NHL games worth of experience to the table, a veteran presence that will bolster the River Rats’ blue line.

The week in review

The Albany River Rats played a pair of games in the past week, and showed substantial signs of improvement, even though they gained only one point in the standings, from a 2-2 tie on Saturday against Bridgeport.

On the road Friday in Rochester, the Rats fell behind by two goals in the first period, but later tied the game thanks to a pair of third-period goals. However, the Amerks went on to win, 5-3, including an empty-net tally.

The “musical chairs” continues in goal. J.F. Damphousse started in net in Rochester, and played capably through 30:40 of the game. However, he suffered from an apparent bout of food poisoning and suddenly left the game at that time. Frederic Henry took over, and played capably, but got tagged with the loss.

The positives for the Rats on Friday included a pair of impressive goals by second-year forward, Mike Rupp, which earned him “second star” from the Rochester media. Rupp’s first goal was a sprint up left wing after taking a pass off the boards from Sascha Goc. Rupp went towards the net, then unloaded a shot inside the far right post to beat veteran goaltender, Mika Noronen.

Rupp’s other tally featured him leaving defenseman, Doug Houda, in the dust at the blue line.

On the negative side, Albany continues to be out-shot and out-chanced by opponents. At the Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial on Friday night, the Amerks out-shot the Rats, 32-24, and held Albany to 5 shots in the first period and 6 in the middle frame.

Rookie Brian Gionta had his “home” debut in Rochester. The native of Greece (suburban Rochester) was greeted by dozens and dozens of family and friends. His grandparents were proudly parked right behind the visitors bench and displayed signs to encourage him.

Gionta had a good outing, with a sensible assist on what became Steve Guolla’s first goal in an Albany uniform. Gionta grabbed the puck at center ice and started an odd-man rush. He could have taken a low-percentage shot from the right side, but dished off to speedy winger Jiri Bicek. Bicek, recently returned on waivers from New Jersey to Albany, made a bee-line down the slot, drawing the goaltender’s attention. At the last moment, Bicek passed to Guolla, who capitalized on his chance from the left side.

The public address announcer’s signal of an assist for Gionta drew enthusiastic applause. Even Amerks’ fans were moved to cheer, having been reminded in the morning paper that one of their native sons was returning home.

The next night, back in Albany, the River Rats entertained the first-place Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders. It became a duel of goaltenders, with Ari Ahonen for Albany trading saves (almost twice as many) with Rick DiPietro. The 2-2 tie showed sharp goaltending by both teams, but Ahonen had more of a test, having to face 45 shots, versus just 20 for the Sound Tigers’ netminder.

Yet again, Mike Rupp was the man on the spot. He got the Rats’ first goal, which was his third goal in two nights. Taking a position near the right side of the net on a power play, Rupp buried a rebound that resulted from a point shot by Richard Rochefort. Rupp added an assist on the only other Albany goal, setting up Stan Gron.

The only negative on Rupp’s week was a pair of roughing penalties Saturday which even he admitted were unnecessary. The Rats spent a lot of the night killing penalties, with seven minors to only three (one of them a goaltender, delay-of-game) for Bridgeport.

For his efforts and earning three of Albany’s five goals, Mike Rupp is awarded Albany Week in Review’s River Rat player of the week award. (This is a new designation, starting with this week’s column.)

Other news

Phil Janack, of the [Schenectady, New York] Daily Gazette, reported that the New Jersey Devils have approved, in principle, the concept of honoring Geordie Kinnear by hanging his number four from the rafters at Pepsi Arena in Albany.

Janack, who had prematurely reported last spring that the Rats would “retire” Kinnear’s jersey number, explained in his Sunday column, “AHL Notes,” that Devils’ General Manager, Lou Lamoriello, had not been consulted in advance last spring when the River Rats disclosed their intent to retire Kinnear’s jersey.

According to the Daily Gazette, the Devils — who themselves have not retired any NHL jerseys — have determined that “honoring” jerseys, by hanging them, but without taking the number out of service, is appropriate, but formally “retiring” them is not part of their current thinking.

Albany Week in Review agrees wholeheartedly that Kinnear should be honored. The current assistant coach of the River Rats, Kinnear set a number of franchise records in terms of games played, penalty minutes and number of times (four) selected for the AHL All-Star Classic.

The Albany River Rats’ Booster Club announced that President, John Gustin, has resigned due to time conflicts with professional and personal obligations. Vice-President Jeanne Carras has taken over as President, effective immediately.

Albany Week in Review commends President Gustin for distinguished service spanning several years. His leadership and enthusiasm was unflagging even when the River Rats had less than their customary success in the standings. Gustin deserves special commendation for his diplomacy as President. Devils’ General Manager, Lou Lamoriello, returned Gustin’s phone calls. Fans and booster club members of other AHL teams recognized him at AHL All-Star Classics.

Gustin and the Albany River Rats Booster Club have carried the torch for fans for nine years. Albany Week in Review salutes Gustin for a job well done and wishes incoming President Jeanne Carras much success in taking over the time-consuming and challenging responsibilities that go with the office.