AHL: River Rats season preview

By Grethe Kvernes


The Albany River Rats, the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey
Devils, are coming off the three worst seasons in the ten-year history of the
franchise. In the 2001-02 season, the Rats finished dead last in the league,
recording only 14 wins. In fact, the Rats have only won 69 of their last 240
games, and have failed to reach the playoffs since being ousted in the first
round in the 2000-01 season.


This year could be the turning point for the young team. A
number of players from last year’s team are returning, and second year head
coach Dennis “Red” Gendron and his coaching staff will have a lot of new talent
to work with as the Devils signed a number of prospects this off-season. All of
these new players will probably spend time in Albany at some point during the



Moving on and moving up


The Rats parted ways with a few players in the off-season.
Ken Sutton, last year’s Rats captain, signed with a team in the German elite
league. Right-winger Max Birbaer and defenseman Daryl Andrews signed with the
Florida Panthers, and enforcer Jason Lehoux, who racked up over 400 penalty
minutes in his three seasons in Albany, signed with the Vancouver Canucks.


A few Rats players also graduated as they have secured spots
on the Devils roster. Stanley Cup hero Mike Rupp enjoyed a good training camp
and pre-season, and looks to have become a permanent fixture with the Devils.
Blueliner Ray Giroux and wingers Christian Berglund and Jiri Bicek are, for the
time being, holding onto the last few spots on the Devils roster.





Finnish netminder Ari Ahonen, the Devils first round
pick (27th overall) in 1999, did not have a particularly good season
last year. After posting impressive numbers in his first season in North
America, Ahonen slumped to a mediocre 3.04 goals against average and a .898
save percentage in his sophomore season behind a struggling Rats team. A team
that is, at least on paper, much stronger than the past few seasons, should
help Ahonen regain his form. For the third year in a row, Ahonen will be
sharing time in net with former Boston College standout Scott Clemmensen.
In light of the team in front of him, Clemmensen put up very good numbers last
year, sporting a 2.65 goals against average and a .910 save percentage.





Returning veterans Alex Brooks and Mike Matteucci should get
help from several returning defense prospects, as well as some talented new
faces this year.

Young Russian prospect Victor Uchevatov, who is still
only 20 years old, is back for his third professional season with the Rats. The
towering, 6’4”, 225-pound Uchevatov is joined by two other returning prospects,
Latvian Krisjanis Redlihs, and Canadian Phil Cole. Cole spent
most of last season playing in the ECHL.


The players who have received the most attention over the
summer and into the preseason, however, are three new blueliners out of the
American college ranks. The first two, Matt DeMarchi and Paul Martin,
join the Rats from the University of Minnesota. Both players are Minnesota
natives, and were part of the Minnesota team that won back-to-back NCAA
championships. DeMarchi is a gritty stay-at-home defenseman who is Minnesota’s
all-time leader in career penalty minutes (473). Martin, who left college after
his junior year, is a smooth skating offensive defenseman who accumulated 97
points in his three seasons at Minnesota.


Rounding out the trio of former collegians is Colorado
native David Hale. Hale, the Devils first round pick (22nd
overall) in the 2000 entry draft, spent the last three seasons playing for the
Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota. The physical defenseman, who
suffers from a rare kidney ailment known as IgA Nephropathy, also gave up his
last year of college eligibility to turn pro.





To boost their lackluster offense, the Rats brought in
bite-sized winger Steve Kariya from Vancouver Canucks affiliate Manitoba Moose
halfway through the 2002-03 season. Kariya proved a valuable addition,
averaging exactly a point per game since his arrival in Albany. Kariya is back
for another season, and so is veteran center Craig Darby, who recorded 74
points in 76 games last year. The Rats will continue to rely on this dynamic
duo, along with veteran forwards Joe Hulbig, Greg Crozier and defensive
forwards Scott Cameron and Chris Hartsburg, but expect a number
of new faces to appear on the scoreboard.


Much has been written about Adrian Foster since the
6’1”, 200-pound center was a surprise first round pick by the Devils in 2001,
but few have actually seen Foster in action on the ice. Troubled by nagging
abdominal injuries, the talented center has not played a full season of hockey
since 1997-98, when he amassed an amazing 80 points in 36 games, playing on the
same midget team in Calgary as Atlanta Thrashers All-Star Dany Heatley. Foster
looks to have finally put his injury woes behind him, and should see plenty of
icetime in Albany.


After years of sporting small, speedy wingers such as
Christian Berglund, Jiri Bicek and Brian Gionta, this year’s wingers are bigger
and far more imposing. Russian right-wing Alexander Suglobov turned many
heads with his play for the Devils in the pre-season, but with no immediate
openings on the Devils Stanley Cup winning roster, the 6’1”, 190 pound Russian
will start the season in Albany. Fellow Russian Maxim Balmochnykh is not
new to North America. Originally drafted by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in
1997, the 6’1”, 210-pound right-winger played junior hockey in Canada before
spending some time with the Ducks and their AHL affiliate. In the last
off-season, Balmochnykh was part of the trade that brought Jeff Friesen and
Oleg Tverdovsky to the Devils. After spending the past year in Russia,
Balmochnykh is ready to display his technical skills in Albany.


From Finland hails 6’2”, 210-pound left wing Tuomas
. Pihlman, 21, spent the past four seasons with the Finnish elite
club Jyvaskyla, and more than tripled his offensive output in the last season,
prompting the Devils to bring him to North America.


Joining Pihlman on the opposite wing is fellow Finn Ilkka
. Pikkarainen (6’2”, 190 pounds) was the Devils seventh pick,
218th overall in the 2002 entry draft. Pikkarainen, now reunited
with his former teammate, Rats goalie Ahonen, plays a physical, high impact,
high-energy game that could easily make him a fan favorite.


Rounding out list of fresh new faces in Albany is Ontario
native Ahren Nittel. Nittel joins the Rats after finishing his junior
hockey career with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. The 6’3”,
225-pound Nittel is a bruising power forward that blossomed after being traded
from his original team, the Windsor Spitfires, to Oshawa midway through the
2002-03 season.



Season ahead


The Rats seemingly have an unusual wealth of players to
choose from on defense and on either wing. The Rats defense sports a good
combination of veterans, returning youngsters and talented new prospects. Both
the left and right wing should be fairly competitive. The team’s goaltending is
relatively experienced, and should be solid. If there is one relative weakness
on the roster, it may be the depth at center.


Center Stephen Guolla has been rehabilitating from back
surgery for almost a year. With Guolla out of the lineup, Darby is the Rats top
center. Foster, while still relatively unproven at the professional level,
should be a clear number two. Behind this duo, there is a drop off in skill
level in terms of offensive potential. However, as long as Darby and Foster
stay healthy, and with the possibility of Guolla eventually returning, there is
every reason to believe that the Rats will be able to live up to their
potential, and that hockey season will stretch beyond April in Albany this


The Rats open their eleventh season on the road October 11th
against the Springfield Falcons. The home opener at the Pepsi Arena in downtown
Albany is set for a 4pm Columbus Day matinee against division rival Norfolk