The grace period has now passed in the AHL season, with teams now starting to form identities and the excuse of “it’s early in the season yet” starting to become less acceptable for struggling squads.
This also means it’s time for the AHL coach hot seat watch. Bench bosses from underperforming squads have to start trying to get things together to ensure that they will have a job through 2012-13 and the years to come.
Right now, one name on the hot seat list is Albany Devils head coach Rick Kowalsky.
Kowalsky in his third season as the Devils’ head coach and was hired after spending four seasons with Trenton in the ECHL. In his tenure, the Devils failed to make the playoffs in his first two seasons behind the bench. They were last in the Eastern Conference in 2010-11 with a 32-42-1-5 record and eighth in the East Division.
Things didn’t improve last year, as Albany was 14th in the conference and fifth in the Northeast Division with a 31-34-6-5 record. This meant the franchise had yet to make the Calder Cup Playoffs since becoming the Devils prior to the start of Kowalsky’s first year in Albany.
Now, the Devils are off to another slow start. They sit last in the conference and division with a 3-5-0-3 record.
Arguably, it isn’t supposed to be this way. Albany was supposed to have help from New Jersey due to the lockout, but some of those players have underperformed. Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique has just three goals in 11 games, while Bobby Butler, looking for a comeback season after signing with the Devils from the Ottawa Senators, has two points in 10 games.
The offense is scoring just two goals per game and has scored just one goal in three of the Devils’ first 11 games. Albany has been shutout in three of its five losses as well. In 2011-12, the Devils scored 2.5 goals per game.
On defense, Eric Gelinas, the team’s leading defensive scorer with 37 points in 2011-12, has yet to suit up after being hit in the mouth with a puck. However, the Devils are surrendering 2.54 goals per game and have given up at least three goals in five games already.
Adam Larsson has been able to give the blue line a boost with five points, but it’s just not enough overall.
Also under Kowalsky’s watch, Keith Kinkaid has a losing record in goal, posting a 1-4-1 mark. His goals-against average (2.32) and save percentage (.920) are solid, but he has to have a better record if he is going to be New Jersey’s future netminder.
Kinkaid’s backup, Jeff Frazee, is 2-1-2 with a 1.94 GAA and .917 save percentage. However, he is far from dependable, as he is looking for his first winning season since the 2008-09 campaign when the Devils were based in Lowell.
The special teams are not much better from where they were last year. Albany’s power play, which was 29th in the league in 2011-12, is currently last in the AHL with a four percent success rate. The penalty kill is looking stronger so far, but not by much. It is 16th with an 82 percent success rate, but last year, it was 28th at 80 percent.
Let’s look at some more numbers from the season to date.
The Devils have yet to win consecutive games this year and have gone to a shootout three times, losing all of them. Furthermore, they have dropped leads five times, including allowing three second-period goals in a matchup with the Connecticut Whale. On opening night, the Devils were up 1-0 against the Manchester Monarchs, but surrendered two first-period goals to give Manchester all the offense it needed on its way to a win.
On Monday, Albany went up 2-1 against the Norfolk Admirals before allowing the Ads to score three straight goals, two of which were power-play goals. Albany managed to tie the game and take Norfolk to a shootout, but couldn’t complete the comeback.
Albany had some solid returning talent this year. In addition to Gelinas, Joe Whitney, last year’s leading scorer, is in his second pro season. He currently has three points in five games. Third-year pro Steve Zalewski, who tallied 41 points last year, is experienced, but is struggling with three points through nine games.
Sure, Kowalsky cannot be blamed for Gelinas’ injury or the fact that Mattias Tedenby has missed time with an illness. However, with plenty of experienced talent, the buck has to stop somewhere. This team is more than capable of putting together a winning streak and scoring more goals than it is at this time.
Furthermore, Albany has not had a team in the playoffs since 2010. The franchise made the postseason when it was still known as the River Rats, but that team was swept out of the East Division Finals. Kowalsky has yet to change that, and if things keep going like this, the Devils will once again be on the outside looking in come April.
Also, while getting to a shootout is better than losing in regulation, the Devils have to find ways to start scoring and convert one point into two. If nothing else, an extra shootout win can improve their place in the standings, possibly making a difference between sneaking into the playoffs and missing out, or giving them a higher spot in a conference standings tiebreaker.
While it may no longer be acceptable to say “it’s early in the season; give them time,” that doesn’t mean Devils fans and management shouldn’t demand results. There are some young players on the Devils, but the team is not completely inexperienced either. If the wins don’t start coming, it may be time to look into replacing Kowalsky.
For now, it’s safe to assume his seat is warm, but there is nothing stopping it from catching on fire.