River Rats season review

By Grethe Kvernes

As anticipated in our season preview, the Albany River Rats simply were not strong enough to be competitive in the American Hockey League this year. The team finished the year with a record of 29 wins, 38 losses, seven overtime losses and six losses via the shootout. Their 71 points were good for seventh place in the East Division, marking the fifth straight year that the River Rats have missed out on the postseason.

Offensively, the River Rats were led by locked-out NHL veteran Dean McAmmond. The speedy forward, who missed most of last season with a back injury, played in all but one of the River Rats’ games and finished with 61 points. Rookie Zach Parise, the Devils’ first round draft pick in 2003, was not too far behind McAmmond, finishing with 58 points (18 goals, 40 assists) in 73 games. Parise lead the River Rats with six game-winning goals, including one over-time and two short-handed game winners. The 20-year-old Minnesota native also represented the River Rats at the AHL All-Star Classic, where he was voted a starter for the PlanetUSA team.

Second-year pro Ahren Nittel had a surprisingly good season. The OHL graduate had a disappointing rookie campaign where he appeared in 42 games, recording only seven points. This season started out ominously as Nittel was diagnosed with mononucleosis at the start of training camp. When he finally returned to action in December, Nittel quickly made up for lost time, scoring 25 goals in his next 50 games. Seventeen of Nittel’s goals were power play markers; only Rochester’s Thomas Vanek and Brad Boyes of Providence had more power play goals in the entire AHL. Nittel, who spent most of the season playing center, has a shot that is unquestionably NHL caliber. If he can stay healthy and continue to improve, he should be a force to reckon with in the future.

Second-year winger Aleksander Suglobov also managed to hit the 25-goal plateau, although it took him 70 games to get to that mark. The streaky winger was named AHL player of the week for the week ending December 12th after recording five goals and two assists in three games. However, throughout the season he also went through several stretches of uninspired and inconsistent play. Suglobov also went scoreless in all of his eight shootout attempts.

Missouri native Cam Janssen, did not find the back of the net much, scoring only one goal, but the rookie winger got to know most of the penalty boxes around the league quite well. With 337 penalty minutes, Janssen finished third in the AHL behind two East Division menaces: Binghamton’s Brian McGrattan (551 penalty minutes) and Hershey veteran Dennis Bonvie (357 penalty minutes). Janssen picked up 40 fighting majors, and his lengthy fight card includes well-known names such as Bonvie, McMorrow, Orr, Rullier and Godard. In addition to his pugilistic skills, Janssen can also energize the crowd with great hits, making him a big fan favorite in Albany. River Rats head coach Robbie Ftorek named Janssen the team’s most improved player this season, praising him for his hard work.

Rookies Ivan Khomutov and Aaron Voros, second-year players Tuomas Pihlman and Ilkka Pikkarainen and third-year pro Adrian Foster are the other young forwards who spent the majority of the season with the River Rats. Khomutov, who turned 20 in March, saw limited ice time for most of the season, but still managed to pot 6 goals and 11 assists. Voros started the year well, scoring eight goals in his first ten games. He went on to score three goals in the next 61 games. Pihlman saw his production decrease from his rookie season and was invisible for long stretches of the year. Pikkarainen was a non-factor for the first half of the season. However, like last year, his play was much better in the second half of the season. Foster, who has a long history of injuries, missed close to 30 games with various ailments this year and also saw his production decrease from last season.

Defensively, the River Rats had a tough year. Their 248 goals against was third worst in the AHL. Only Springfield (255 goals against) and Utah (265 goals against) had a worse defensive record. Injuries were the biggest culprit for the poor results. Combined, Albany’s top seven defensemen; David Hale, Ray Schultz, Bobby Allen, Alex Brooks, Krisjanis Redlihs, Matt DeMarchi and Teemu Kesa; missed close to 160 games, or two full seasons, from a combination of injuries, illness and suspensions. Steven Spencer and Phil Cole were recalled from the ECHL on several occasions, but even with them in the lineup, the River Rats could sometimes still only dress five defensemen.

An injury-depleted and inconsistent defense created lots of work for fourth year goaltenders Ari Ahonen and Scott Clemmensen. Clemmensen was a model of consistency, posting a .916 save percentage and a 2.78 goals against average. Ahonen went through a tough stretch around Christmas, but came back and played very well for most of the second half of the season. The Finnish netminder posted 16 wins, four shutouts, 44 penalty minutes (most of them stemming from his involvement in two brawls) and two assists to go along with a .910 save percentage.

Notes: After his collegiate college career ended in the Frozen Four semi-final where Minnesota was ousted by North Dakota, Albany signed two-time NCAA champion Barry Tallackson to an Amateur Tryout contract at the end of the season. Tallackson appeared in four games, registering a goal and an assist. Albany also signed New Jersey native and former Boston University defenseman Bryan Miller to an ATO. Miller appeared in eight games, recording two assists.

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