River Rats Season Preview

By Mike Buskus

Albany Week in Review: Season Preview: 02-03

Every October, fans of minor league hockey teams hope for a better
season. This time, fans of the Albany River Rats know that they
will have a better year. It could not possibly be as bad as last season.
Setting records for futility, the Albany River Rats were dead last in
almost every meaningful statistic, including games won (14 of 80) and
points (52 out of a possible 160). It was so bad last year that bunches of
season ticket holders actually stopped going to games. (For the record,
last year’s “season recap” follows at the end of this preview report.)

Summer overhaul

Coaches got replaced. Kevan Constantine was dumped by the Devils after the
upstart Carolina Hurricanes ousted the Devils in the first round of the
Stanley Cup playoffs. During the only three home games in East Rutherford,
Brian Gionta practically assured himself a spot in the fall starting lineup
for the Devils. He was “third star” twice and “first star” once, ranking
himself up with Bobby Holik (defected to the Ranger$ for $9 million per
year) and Martin Brodeur as “best Devils” during the playoffs.

In came Pat Burns, a three-time NHL coach of the year. And, to the delight
of countless Albany fans, Bob Carpenter, who presided behind the Albany
bench during the worst campaign in the franchise’s nine-year history, was
promoted to NHL Assistant Coach for the Devils.

In his place, a fan favorite and respected (by players and media) veteran
member of the Devils’ organization: Dennis (“Red”) Gendron. A Devils’
scout the past two seasons, after several years as assistant to Albany
coach John Cunniff (who, sadly, died of cancer shortly after the end of
last season [see note below]), Gendron had already made a mark in Albany.
During the Olympic break in Japan when some NHL Olympians damaged their
hotel rooms, Gendron racked up an impressive nine-game winning streak as
acting coach of the Albany River Rats. Fans were virtually unanimous in
voicing approval of the coaching change, with a “red carpet” being rolled
out for Red Gendron to take over the Rats and turn them around.

Players got dumped. Long-time AHL veterans Sylvain Cloutier (captain) and
Richard Rochefort were not re-signed by the Devils. Evidently the judgment
was made that they were not really on the “prospect” list and the poor
performance of the team required a massive overhaul. Cloutier and
Rochefort were fan favorites and will be missed. Cloutier had the bad luck
to be injured early in the season and missed 20 games.

Stan Gron, who occasionally had a good scoring touch around the net, but
who also was a notorious “puck hog,” was not resigned. Joel Bouchard, a
capable two-way defenseman who complained that he was underpaid, went to
the money tree (New York Rangers) and wound up back in the AHL, with the
Hartford Wolf*Pack. Goaltender J.F. Damphousse went to Anaheim in the
Sykora-Freisen trade.

The three River Rats who, in the opinion of this writer, had the best
seasons last year in Albany (Steve Guolla; Brian Gionta; Christian
Berglund) competed for spots in New Jersey. Gionta and Guolla made the
roster and Berglund got sent back. This writer thought that Berglund plays
harder, more physically and drives to the net more than Andreas
Salomonsson, but with his youth and exemption from having to clear waivers,
Berglund got sent down at the last minute. (In the final roster numbers
crunch, veteran defenseman, Tommy Albelin, also was sent to Albany.)

Albany fans take pride in the fact that some of their players make the NHL
in general and the Devils in particular. Though they were only here a
short while (Guolla, all of last year; Gionta, up and down last year), the
work effort of those two was tremendous. On a team that otherwise was
lousy, the Berglund-Guolla-Gionta line was the reason some fans still went
to the games despite the team’s awful record.

The most astonishing thing of all was the return of Mike Jefferson, now
known as Mike Danton. After almost making the Devils’ roster last year,
but sustaining an injury of debatable severity in a pre-season game, Danton
(then called Mike Jefferson) refused to report to the Albany River Rats
and, instead, went out to the west coast to get another doctor’s opinion as
to his injury.

Jefferson got into a very public dispute last season with Devils’ General
Manager, Lou Lamoriello, asserting that he (Jefferson) would never play for
the Devils again. Other than getting paid some of his bonus money,
Jefferson languished the entire season out of the game. An off-season
reconciliation ensued and Lamoriello took Danton back, assuring him that he
would have a chance, but no guarantee, of making the Devils in training
camp. With the departure, via free agency to the Rangers, of Bobby Holik,
some “toughness” on the Devils disappeared. Danton apparently will have a
chance to play the agitator role, though his penchant for drawing the wrath
of referees and getting penalized places a question mark on his

New “veterans” for the Rats
“Veterans” were re-stocked. Starting with Ken Sutton, who spent most of
last year in Bridgeport after playing briefly for the New York Islanders,
the Devils went on their most ambitious (and well-received by fans)
investment spree ever. Evidently recognizing the obvious fact that a
roster full of prospects with limited “veteran” presence in general and
next to no “veteran” muscle on the blue line did not work, the Devils
substantially bolstered the defense corps. Sutton was signed with the
expectation that he would play in Albany and was named team captain before
training camp. His credentials are impressive, including winning the Eddie
Shore award (top AHL defenseman in 1999) and filling in capably during the
2001 Stanley Cup playoffs when Scott Niedermayer was recovering from the
Tie Domi elbow incident.

Sutton represents maturity and poise on the blue line, real experience in
the locker room and a good role model for younger players. He will be
joined by Ray Giroux (Lowell and Bridgeport recently) and Mike Matteucci
(Houston and Cleveland recently) for what looks to be the best defense for
the River Rats in four seasons. Much of the blame for the past three years
(52 points, following a pair of 70-point campaigns) can be traced directly
to the blue line. While there were legitimate reasons given for the trades
(two-for-one swaps; inability to protect players during the expansion
drafts, etc.), the fact of the matter is that the River Rats had been
decimated on the blue line in the past several years. Such promising
prospects as Josef Boumedienne (AHL All-Star at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
AHL All-Star Classic), Sascha Goc, Willie Mitchell, as well as Andre Lakos
got traded, with only temporary or stop-gap replacements.

This year, Giroux, Matteucci and Sutton can provide the tutelage for
blueliner prospects Daryl Andrews, Mikko Jokela, Joel Dezainde and Victor
Uchevatov. Add veteran Alex Brooks into the mix (he tangled with Worcester
IceCats’ sniper, Eric Boguniecki, Sunday night at a pre-season game, as a
result of which Boguniecki received a match penalty and will be suspended
for one game), and the River Rats’ blue line looks better than at any time
since the 1998-99 season in which the Rats played deep into the playoffs,
ultimately losing to the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Calder Cup champions,
in the conference finals.

The veteran acquisition binge did not stop on the blue line, either. Three
well-regarded veteran forwards were acquired. The trio, who played
together on a line and as the first-unit power play squad during the last
exhibition game, features Craig Darby in the middle (Philadelphia and
Quebec), with Joe Hulbig (Hamilton and Providence) on left wing and Dave
Roche (St. John and Bridgeport) on right wing. If that combination stays
together (it produced the game-winning goal, with three minutes left in
regulation on Sunday as the Rats won an exhibition game, 3-2, over
Worcester on Joe Hulbig’s goal), that might force opposing teams to play
their “checking line” against them, leaving some other Albany lines against
lesser defensive capabilities.

Things to come for the Rats?
Evidently, coach Red Gendron plans to focus on execution of the power play,
a sore spot in Albany in recent years. The first-team power play unit will
feature Ken Sutton and Ray Giroux at the points and the Hulbig-Darby-Roche
line up front. (In an ironic bit of numbering, Roche wears number 12, the
same number as former Rat, Richard Rochefort, so Rocky Rochefort jerseys
could double as Roche jerseys with a little red fabric stitched over the
last four letters.)

If the AHL referees parrot what the NHL referees preach, then “clutching
and grabbing” will be called, at least until Halloween. If so, and if the
Rats muster a decent power play, it could go a long way to helping avoid
the disastrous Octobers of the two years just past.

As for forward prospects, there will be plenty of opportunities. Christian
Berglund surely has the inside track for first call-up to New Jersey, since
he played there sporadically last season and features an aggressive,
hard-hitting style.

Others drafted as potential prospects, but with checkered careers in
Albany, include Max Birbraer, who missed most of last season with an
abdominal injury, and Mike Rupp (13G; 17A last season), as well as Jiri
Bicek (15G; 19A). Albany Week in Review believes that it would be a
long-shot for any of those three to play much for New Jersey this year,
unless they start strong and remain consistent scorers, something none of
those three have shown to date despite potential of all three.

Adrian Foster, a first rounder with a history of abdominal injuries, could
be a diamond in the rough. Only time will tell.

Goaltending will be solid. Top draft choice Ari Ahonen will be joined by
Scott Clemmensen, the Boston College NCAA champion whose BC Eagles won the
championship (along with Brian Gionta) on Albany ice at the “Frozen Four”
two years ago. Both goalies had statistically poor years last season, but
no knowledgeable observer would blame Ahonen or Clemmensen for the Rats’
problems, which were traceable to a sorely depleted blue line and a
complete lack of scoring on offense.

Personally, this writer will miss J.F. Damphousse, who had shown remarkable
poise and steadiness over several challenging seasons. However, there is
no room for three goaltenders in Albany. (With Corey Schwab, former River
Rat [1994-1995 Calder Cup champion], having played his way back into New
Jersey, after yeoman service in Toronto during Curtis Joseph’s injury last
season, the backup spot behind Brodeur is locked up for now.) However, the
future behind Brodeur could be Ahonen or Clemmensen and the expectation is
that Red Gendron will rotate goaltending responsibilities.

Death of John Cunniff
A great person, a truly knowledgeable hockey mind, a wonderful coach, and a
friend of all Albany hockey fans, died on May 9, 2002. John Cunniff, who
coached the Albany River Rats for five years (and brought the Rats to
playoffs in four of those years), and who was a special assignment scout
for the Devils thereafter, died after a long-term battle with cancer. The
proceeds of last Sunday’s AHL exhibition game will be donated in Cunniff’s
honor to a charitable foundation. (Fans can send money to the Cam Neely
Foundation at 30 Winter Street, 2nd Floor, Boston, MA 02108.)

John Cunniff earned the respect of every Albany fan, even when the team
struggled. As honest as they come, John Cunniff never once dodged a tough
question or made excuses. Nor did he blame the refs. Cunniff was always
on the money with his hockey analysis. He readily submitted himself to
fans’ questions at a pre-game “ask the coach” roundtable.

Countless NHL players owe their careers to John Cunniff, who was an
outstanding teacher. John Madden, the Selke trophy winner in his second
season with the New Jersey Devils, is one of those players whom Cunniff
helped on the way to the NHL. Madden went scoreless his first 20 games,
but Cunniff kept telling “Mad Dog” that, given all the scoring chances he
was getting, goals would finally come. They did, and Madden set a
franchise record (98 points) his second (and final) year in Albany.

Always stressing the basics, Cunniff knew, respected and implemented the
defensive style of the New Jersey Devils, the organization with which he
was associated for almost two decades. Cunniff set a standard for hockey
coaches to emulate, of treating fans, players, opposing teams, media and
referees alike with respect. One of the last things he did was bring his
Salt Lake City Olympic Silver Medal to Pepsi Arena, so Albany fans could
see it.

John Cunniff had class and character and he will be missed. He always bent
over backward to do the right thing. When Rob Skrlac and Garrett Burnett
fought at center ice during the pre-game skate at a playoff game against
Philadelphia in 1999, Phantoms’ coach, Bill Barber was somewhere in the
locker room, but did not make an appearance. John Cunniff ran out onto the
ice to separate the pugilists all by himself.

For two seasons, Cunniff’s son, David, was a role player on the River Rats,
essentially a checking forward. David was never given any special
treatment, nor more ice time than he earned. This writer remembers talking
to David Cunniff (dressed in street clothes) the very next home game after
David’s first and only short-handed goal (on the road in
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton). Cunniff the coach benched Cunniff the son because
in the opinion of the coach, another player deserved to play that night.
John Cunniff’s work ethic, though, plainly was inherited by his son, David,
who recently was tabbed as an assistant coach for the Cleveland

So, John Cunniff, we mourn your passing. Albany Week in Review recognizes
your distinguished contributions to the game, to the Devils’ organization,
and to the Albany River Rats. The team will honor Cunniff in a ceremony
before the home-opener this Saturday.

To summarize, fans are anxiously awaiting the upcoming season, if for no
other reason than to purge their memories of last year’s forgettable
performances. Similar optimistic predictions have been made the last three
years, only to be disproven by the facts. But, hope springs eternal, and
Albany River Rats fans are sure, this time, that the Rats will be better.
Management made the investment in excellent “veterans” for a backbone
around which the prospects can be molded. With Red Gendron behind the
bench, fans are excited for the season to begin.

Albany 2002-2002 season in review.

[Editor’s note: this end-of-season review was largely written in May and
June of 2002, with minor revisions in October to reflect certain
developments, such as to Mike Jefferson (Danton) and the knowledge of the
Devils’ final roster selections. The commentary and recommendations,
however, remained as written over the summer. This 2001-2002 River Rats’
season recap was not previously posted on the Internet.]

By most measures, it was a bad season. By some yardsticks, it was an awful

For only the second time in its nine year existence as the American Hockey
League affiliate of the New Jersey Devils  but also for the second year in
a row  the Albany River Rats failed to qualify for post-season play. In
the estimation of some of the media who covered the team, the River Rats
were all but mathematically eliminated by the unofficial mid-point of the
season, the AHL All-Star Classic. (At the event to honor the best of the
league, the Rats for the second straight year had but one player selected,
Jiri Bicek, who also represented the team two years earlier.)

The River Rats set a number of franchise records, none of them of the type
that players would “write home about.” The team ended with only 52 points
out of a possible 160, with only 14 wins. Eleven of the victories came at
home; only 3 were earned out of 40 games on the road.

The team finished dead last in many categories: wins (14, 6 fewer than
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the next worst team), points (52, 4 fewer than WBS),
winning percentage (.325), goals scored (172, a new AHL record of 11 fewer
than the previous record-holder, the 99 Adirondack Red Wings),
goals-allowed versus goals-scored differential (-99), fewest “first goals”
in a game (25), lowest winning percentage when scoring first (28%), fewest
overtime wins (2, in 26 extra-session contests), fewest average penalty
minutes per game (15.5), fewest minor penalties (369), worst head-to-head
record against other teams (defeating only one of twenty opponents in the
season series, Manchester; tying only two opponents in that category,
Portland and Philadelphia; losing campaigns to 17 opponents), goals-for per
game (2.15), shots-for per contest (25.46), shots allowed per game

Special teams were anything but special. The power play was in the bottom
quartile at home (21st out of 27 teams, at 14.2%), but abysmal on the road
(dead last, at 10.1%) and spared the ignominy of worst overall only because
the Rochester Americans’ laughable 10.4% power play was worse than Albany’s
12.3% man-up unit.

Penalty killing was 21st at home, at 81.8%, below the league average of
83.9. On the road, the Rats’ mediocre killing rate of 78.8% (second-worst
in the league) helped explain why Albany only won 3 of 40 contests away
from the Pepsi Arena this season. Overall, the Rats were 26th in the PK
department, stopping 80.3 percent of opposing power plays.

What went wrong?
Of the 52 River Rats games that this writer attended this season (37 of 40
home games; 15 road games), several themes (none good) were repeated time
and again. Territorial possession with the puck was awful. Much more time
was spent in the defensive zone than on the attack or at center ice. The
team was, by a wide margin, the wimpiest, least physical team ever fielded
in franchise history. While no team should be burdened with constantly
killing penalties, the team was so far removed from being physical or
intimidating that other teams had no reason to respect or fear the

Scoring was a season-long problem for the Rats. Other than the one bright
spot of the campaign  the Steve Guolla line  the Rats never had
consistent offensive production. The line anchored by Guolla and featuring
whichever two of the three promising prospects was not then in New Jersey
(Brian Gionta, Christian Berglund, or Andreas Salomonsson) or, if two of
those three were in the NHL, then Jiri Bicek, the River Rats had no
offensive line that could be counted on for goals.

The defense was very young, and error prone. While a handful of rookie
blueliners got plenty of ice time, they simply did not have the situation
where a veteran D-man was paired with a young back-liner. The team started
with few veterans on defense and three of them (Josef Boumedienne; Sascha
Goc; Andre Lakos) got traded away in mid-season.

Coaching was inexperienced. Head-coach Bob Carpenter was in his first
season running the show. Assistants Geordie Kinnear (defense) and Chris
Terreri (goaltending) were in their first year as assistant coaches.

What went right?

If there were any silver linings in the clouds on the Albany horizon, they
were in two areas: goaltending and a few forward prospects.

Considering how badly the defense wound up “hanging their goaltenders out
to dry” on a nightly basis, the netminding was really remarkably good.
Indeed, the statistics, such as goals-allowed, save percentage and the like
do not do justice to any of the three Albany netminders. Ari Ahonen, Scott
Clemmensen and Jean-Francois Damphousse were far better than their numbers
would indicate. On many nights, these goaltenders kept the River Rats in
the game but never got the offensive production to carry the day.

Steve Guolla. Unbelievable effort and an inspiration from start to finish.
Signed as a free-agent several weeks into the season, the veteran (San
Jose, Atlanta, Tampa Bay) quickly became the first-line center. A one-time
AHL MVP, with the Kentucky Thoroughblades, Guolla was the center that
forwards Brian Gionta and Christian Berglund used to develop into real NHL

Brian Gionta. Don’t measure him by size. Take a look at his “heart” and
energy. Although he only played in 37 games with the Rats, since he spent
half the year in New Jersey, Gionta played with an enthusiasm and skill not
seen since the days of Steve Sullivan. Ready, willing and able to go
through traffic in front of the net and to fight for pucks in the corner,
Gionta has blazing speed and the on-ice vision characteristic of older,
seasoned veterans. Of course, his Boston College championship, won at the
“Frozen Four” on Albany ice a year ago, did not hurt. The only real
question in the minds of Albany fans was how long we would keep him, before
he inevitably graduated to the NHL.

This writer had Devils’ playoff tickets again during the 2002 playoffs and
believes that Gionta was, along with Bobby Holik and Martin Brodeur, one of
the three best Devils in New Jersey’s abbreviated post-season. He was
“third star” in two of the Devils’ three post-season home games and “first
star” the other time. Gionta probably played his last game in an AHL

Christian Berglund. “Bergy” has good speed and skating and passing skills.
“Finishing” around the net could use some improvement, but the energy level
from this rookie was terrific.
The Albany River Rats’ front office, led by Garen Szablewski, deserves
credit for actually increasing ticket sales (by almost 10%) to 3,867 per
game, despite poor on-ice performance and accurate (if negative) media

What needs to be done?

If this were a National Hockey League team, the coach (Bob Carpenter) would
have been shown the door. But it is not, and Devils’ general manager, Lou
Lamoriello, has been both loyal and patient with his staff at the
minor-league level. (Editorial note: Carpenter was promoted to Assistant
Coach with the Devils and Dennis Gendron assigned as Rats’ coach; see main
story above.)

However, apart from any coaching change for the River Rats, at a minimum an
“attitude change” should be ordered. Players need to finish their checks.
Hitting was done less often, with less intensity and by fewer players than
at any time in Albany River Rats’ franchise history. The “trap” was more
like Swiss cheese as players stood around and watched opposing players
carrying the puck up the ice unimpeded.

Coach Carpenter said early in the season that he would bench players for
getting bad penalties. OK, a lot of coaches say that. Some even do it.
But few bench bosses intimidated their players as much, with the result,
predictable or otherwise, that penalties for charging or boarding were
almost non-existent the entire season. But, then again, crunching the
plexiglass was so rare, also, that whenever it happened it was news and
reported as such.

Road warriors. Albany did not have them this past season. For a team that
once bragged (with justification) at being one of the strongest road teams
in the league (as recently as three years ago), the River Rats were simply
awful on the road. This writer attended 15 road games and saw Albany win
only one of those games. The team did not play 60-minute games and, in
overtime, was not very good at the 65-minute opportunities.

Veterans. The River Rats needed them. Albany, with the exception of Steve
Guolla, did not have them, or at least did not have enough productive
veterans. Names like Eric Bertrand, Sascha Lakovic, and Steve Brule were
often mentioned. As in, “wish we had them now.” (Editor’s note: see main
story above, where veterans indeed were added.)

Offense from second and third lines was not dependable. Individual players
had occasionally good games, or even good weeks (Mike Rupp was chosen AHL
player of the week in a week in which the Rats did not even win a game).
However, the team’s success or lack of it hinged almost entirely on the
production of the Steve Guolla line.
Mike Jefferson. Missing in action. While the merits of the Jefferson
versus Lamoriello saga were played out more in the press than anywhere else
(see, especially Rich Chere’s reporting for the Newark Star Ledger),
the truth of the matter is that Jefferson, or some similar energetic player
obtained in exchange for him in a trade, would have greatly bolstered the
wimpy Albany defense.

While Albany Week in Review has gone on record in stating that Jefferson
was wrong in escalating his disagreements with Lamoriello to the papers
(following a dispute over pay and a suspension following an abdominal
injury at the end of training camp and Jefferson’s decision to get a
medical second opinion), that dispute apparently was headed to NHL
arbitration as a result of a grievance filed by the players association on
Jefferson’s behalf.

While GM Lamoriello presumably intended to teach Jefferson a lesson by not
caving in to any of the rookie’s demands as to salary or reimbursement for
medical expenses, the absence from Albany of what could have been a dynamic
scoring line (Jefferson almost made the Devils’ in training camp) surely
hurt the River Rats. Others given ice time in his absence did not step up
their play.

Individual grades

There is inevitably some subjectivity in grading players. However, some
“benchmarks”, such as year-over-year improvement (i.e., a comparison with
last year’s statistics) and intra-season improvement, as well as
consideration of the tendency of the player to get recognition from the
“paid” media in the post-game “three stars” helps leaven the possible bias
of the writer.


If an “A+” is reserved for extraordinary performance, outstanding effort
and consistent dedication game in and game out, then only one Albany River
Rat this past season earned that accolade: Steve Guolla. Ironically out of
work at the start of training came, he signed a one-year free agent
contract with the Devils several weeks into the season. Immediately, he
fit in.

Not since the second (and last) year that John Madden wore an Albany River
Rats’ jersey has one player so consistently dominated games and monopolized
the “three stars” of the game. A proven scorer himself in a prior
incarnation with the Kentucky Thoroughblades, Guolla unselfishly served as
a “set-up man” for wingers Brian Gionta and Christian Berglund, the wingers
most often on his line when they were in Albany.

Guolla, a capable face-off artist, was the most consistent back-checker on
the team, playing a defensive, two-way forward role that would do John
Madden proud. His passing and set-ups reminded this writer of several
years back when Peter Zezel played for Albany. The Devils apparently
recognized Guolla’s skills and work ethic, since he joined the taxi squad
in New Jersey during the abbreviated playoffs against Carolina, though he
did not play.

With the departure of Sergei Nemchinov and Stephane Richer, Guolla deserved
(and got) a serious look during training camp. He is every bit as good
defensively as Jay Pandolfo. Guolla, however, brings much better
“finishing” skills and would have decent scoring contributions on a third
line for the Devils. For his outstanding season in Albany (25G; 35A; 60
points in 68 games) on a team that was awful by any objective standards,
Guolla deserves serious NHL consideration for next season, if not with the
Devils, then surely somewhere in the NHL.

A grades

There were a few (unfortunately, all too few) players deserving of “A”
grades this past season in Albany. Fortunately for them, but unfortunately
for the Albany River Rats, both of them may well be wearing New Jersey
Devils’ jerseys in October and for the foreseeable future. These two
players are Brian Gionta and Christian Berglund.

Both Berglund and Gionta bring tremendous energy to the game. Berglund, at
times, was over the top in terms of energy, drawing an inordinate number of
roughing penalties in pure retaliation for hits, borderline or otherwise.
If he persists at the NHL level in what was a tendency of his in Albany to
yap at the referees in protesting calls, then he will get his full share of
penalty minutes and then some. But, that may be simply a matter of
maturing, for Colin White, in his Albany days, had the same problem.

Berglund and Gionta are both gifted skaters, though Gionta would win a foot
race four times out of five. Both are small (Gionta is very small), but
size is not a problem for either of them. Both of them are hard-driving,
types and each charges the net for scoring chances. Both have decent
“finishing” skills, though, in the opinion of this writer, Gionta gets more
scoring chances based on his quickness and generating more turnovers at
center ice.

By the numbers, both of them had an excellent rookie campaign in Albany,
each of them spending a fair amount of time with the Devils as well. Bergy
bagged 47 points (21G; 26A) in 60 games and was near the top of the rookie
scoring chart, certainly near the top of the league in terms of points per
game. Gionta was pure energy every time he took the ice. Not since Steve
Sullivan have Albany fans seen as much energy, pound for pound, from an
Albany River Rat.

Oh, if only Albany could have had another scoring line to match the
Guolla-Berglund-Gionta line! Alas, the team was not so lucky.

B+ players

There were a handful of players that had very good seasons. At the top of
this list were second-year defenseman, Daryl Andrews and all three
goaltenders, Ari Ahonen, J.F. Damphousse, and Scott Clemmensen. As stated
at the beginning of this report, any attempt to judge the goaltenders based
purely on statistics would do a great disservice to them. Considering the
number of scoring chances they faced, to say nothing of the league-worst
number of shots on goal per game (35.94), Ahonen, Damphousse and Clemmensen
performed quite capably, despite the absence of wins or other conventional
measures of success. Truthfully, the inability of the River Rats to
generate any offense (they set the AHL record of fewest goals, 172) was a
huge factor in the inability to win games.

Daryl Andrews was a pleasant surprise in his second year on defense. Here,
he made the most of opportunity. Early in the season, the Devils traded
Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne to Tampa Bay in exchange for Andrei
Zyuzin. After a brief cameo appearance in Albany, Zyuzin went to East
Rutherford and did not return to Albany. In mid-season, Andre Lakos was
traded to Dallas, in exchange for Vareri Kamensky. The upshot of those
trades was an enormous amount of ice time for Andrews, as well as for
Albany rookie blueliners. Andrews made the most of the opportunity.

Andrews matured into a solid, capable defenseman. Though he does not often
join the rush, he is steady in his own end. He passing and skating are
dependable and he is physical and smart in the corners. His numbers (3G;
10A; -16 in 69 games) were pretty good by the standards of this year’s
River Rats. (Everybody was in the red in the plus/minus numbers, and most
were far below Andrews on that scale.) Daryl Andrews had comparatively few
turnovers and made good, sensible decisions with the puck. In the opinion
of this writer, he was the most improved player on the team from the prior

The three goaltenders earned “B+” grades even through that may seem a
little high based on goals-against (Ahonen: 3.02; Clemmensen, 3.29;
Damphousse: 3.42) or save percentage (Ahonen: .914; Clemmensen: .908;
Damphousse: .902). However, this is where those stats are misleading.
Game in and game out, these goalies faced more quality scoring chances than
any other goaltenders in the nine-year history of the Albany River Rats.
The defense, by and large, was so young and inexperienced that opposing
teams “out-chanced” the River Rats in almost every single game, often by a
wide margin, sometimes by multiples of two or three. In that environment,
the steadiness and composure of the goalies was remarkable.

Sadly, for the second straight year, none of these goaltenders saw any
playoff action. If the truisms about playoff hockey being different from
the regular season has any meaning, then these goaltenders were deprived of
an important experience in the learning process.

B grades

There were a handful of “B” grades, given out more on the basis of effort
by the players than results. Joel Bouchard, the best skater among the
Albany defenseman, and the one with the most experience including a number
of NHL games, was solid on a regular basis. Though he reportedly was
unhappy with his salary, he was signed as a free agent at the beginning of
the season. Scouts who saw him had to be impressed with his ability. His
“-30” on the plus/minus scale may reflect an occasional tendency to favor
taking offensive scoring chances, but also reflects the fact that he was
often paired with a rookie.

Richard Rochefort, in his fifth season with the River Rats, and an
alternate captain, was consistent and steady throughout the year. His 28
points (15G; 13A) in 59 games were decent, but not spectacular.

C grades

A handful of players had just average performance. They never truly
stepped up to contribute, offensively or defensively. While it is quite
possible that their relatively run-of-the-mill performance this year says
as much about the entire team’s poor performance as their own, there is no
doubt that the lack of a winning environment hurt the motivation of these

Mike Rupp is a case in point. Lacking consistency from game to game, there
were nights when Rupp was one of the best players on the ice. During one
week, he was chosen as the AHL player of the week. A strong skater and an
adequate finisher around the net, Rupp improved his face-off skills this
season. However, he did not seem hungry enough in the corners or on the
boards and defensively was apparently not playing up to his ability on a
consistent basis.

Jiri Bicek is another case in point. Other than Brian Gionta, Bicek was
the fasted skater on the team. However, unlike Gionta’s nose for the net,
Bicek would consistently head up the right wing into the corner, would
usually get bumped off the puck and scoring chances would evaporate. A lot
of unfulfilled potential with him, but after five years, he may have
dropped off the “prospect” list.
Sylvain Cloutier. Although for the second straight season, the captain
scored the first goal of the team (in 2001 he also scored the last goal of
the season), an early knee injury sidelined him for 20 games. He never
regained his old effectiveness as a menacing checker, though his effort was
always admirable. (In the off-season he signed a free-agent deal with the
Houston Aeros.)

Max Birbraer. Started strong. Stopped by an abdominal injury. He
literally only played half the season, 40 out of 80 games.
D grades

Jason Lehoux. Though he was the most improved rookie a year ago from first
half to second half, his second season saw a decline in points (from 15 in
52 games) to 10 in 67 games. His biggest strength is his fighting skills.
Not yet a well-rounded player.

Brett Clouthier. Another “role player” in the assignment of checking
forward. Four goals, no assists in 62 games. Nothing very memorable.

Victor Uchevatov. The youngest defenseman (just turned 19 in October of
2002), his development was stunted in his rookie campaign by the absence of
veteran defensemen with which to partner on the ice. Still learning to
read plays and may develop into an excellent defenseman, but too soon to
F grades

Stan Gron. Worst “puck hog” ever to wear an Albany uniform. Awful skating
the puck in his defensive zone. Terribly prone to turnovers. Stubbornly
insists on “splitting the D” when teammates are available for a pass. Only
real strength is if he is free in front of the net, where he is an adequate
“finisher”, but those opportunities are too few to outweigh his many

Bob Carpenter. Maybe it is unfair to give a failing grade to a first-year
coach, but Carpenter did nothing to redeem himself in the minds of fans or
observers. Maybe the benchmarks against which he was measured (Robbie
Ftorek; John Cunniff) are tough to match. Admittedly, Carpenter was
handicapped by an extraordinarily “green” blue line, of very, very
inexperienced defensemen.

However, Carpenter did not seem too imaginative and failed to inspire even
a power play that looked respectable.

Most critically, Carpenter, with his heavy emphasis on not being called for
penalties, fielded a team that was the wimpiest, least intimidating ever to
wear a River Rats’ jersey. He not only did not encourage his players to
finish their checks, he benched players that did and (in the process) got
an occasional boarding or charging penalty.

And, while it surely is no measure of the quality of a coach, Carpenter
left a lot to be desired in terms of fan friendliness. He followed the
“bunker mentality” approach of avoiding the fans except at a number of
booster club events. His accessibility to the fans was at the complete
opposite end of the spectrum from Robbie Ftorek and John Cunniff.
Carpenter seemed to view the fans as a necessary evil, to be avoided,
rather than a ticket-paying customers with some stake in the operation.
Many fans complained over the summer to the River Rats’ front office that
they would not renew their season tickets if Carpenter returned as head

Here and there.

In a sad note, long-time River Rats’ head coach, John Cunniff, died of
cancer on Thursday, April 9, 2002.