It could have been so much different. Unfortunately it always seems to end up the same way for the Albany Devils. Another year, another season with out a playoff berth for the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. An unceremonious end to season number 20 of AHL pucks in downtown Albany, New York.
For the third year in a row, back in Albany, sixth time in seven years (between Albany and Lowell, dating back to 2006) and the 12th time in 13 seasons (dating back to when New Jersey was affiliated with the Albany River Rats) the AHL Devils affiliate will have missed the postseason. The last time a Devils AHL squad made the playoffs was during the 2009-10 campaign, when the John MacLean led Lowell Devils lost 4-1 to the Worcester Sharks in the first round. The last time a Devils affiliated team made the playoffs in Albany was the 1999-00 season, when the John Cunniff led team lost in the first round to the Rochester Americans 3-2. In fact, the last Devils affiliated team to advance in the playoffs was during the 1997-98 season, when the River Rats lost in six games against the Philadelphia Phantoms, in the Conference Finals.
It’s kind of astounding to fathom that from 1993 to 2000, the Devils top affiliate qualified for the playoffs, winning four division titles, a Calder Cup in 1994-95, best regular season record in 1994-95 and 1995-96, along with reaching the conference finals in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
So what went right, what went wrong and how do the Devils go about solving this debacle? Let’s count down.
5. Awe Shootouts
Yes shootouts are as much of a game of luck and skills competition as anything but a disastrous dozen in the skills session didn’t help. It was an AHL record 12 shootout losses, as the Devils went just 3-12 (as of this writing Albany has four contests remaining) on the season, prior to being eliminated. If they win half of those, they’re at least in a position to have a chance at the playoffs in the last weekend of the season.
4. Home Woes/Boardwalk Blues
While attendance figures actually sparked up for Albany, their play on home ice didn’t rise to that level. Last year the A-Devils were a solid 18-13-4-3 at the Times Union Center. Conversely the team is just 11-13-0-6 in Albany this year, with four home contests remaining. Additionally, the club went 1-1-0-2 at “home games” played at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. One could certainly make the argument that given their record at home that it wouldn’t have mattered but would Albany have garnered six-to-eight points if they’d played all 38 in Albany? We’ll never know.
3. The Lockout Giveth and the Lockout Taketh Away
When the season started, it seemed like the A-Devils would revel in having the NHL talents of Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson, Bobby Butler, Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby. What happened instead was a case of having too many players for too few spots. Players attempting to click and adjust to each other and the AHL game. Injuries to Eric Gelinas and Alexander Urbom didn’t help either and it resulted in a 2-4-0-0 October and didn’t really start to turn until early December.
In December, the Devils went on a tear, going 7-3-0-1, evening their overall mark at 11-11-1-6. It was a run that carried through January and saw Stephen Gionta and Gelinas return, Butler, Joe Whitney and Harri Pesonen fill it up with great frequency. Yet the end of the lockout, coupled with callups an injuries (which every team endures mind you), saw the Albany roster become razor thin at times and left thirsting for goal scoring options.
2. Lack of Scoring
During the 2011-12 campaign, Albany ranked 28th in the AHL in goals scored, with 190. This year, with four games remaining, the club has 184 tallies, ranking 22nd as of this writing. They also rank just 29th on the power play, at 11.1%. Their leading scorer Whitney, has 25 goals and 24 assists. Behind Whitney, Matt Anderson (13-30-43) and Steve Zalewski (11-29-40) are the only players on the current roster with over 40 points or even 30 points. There are only four others with double digits in goals, Butler (16), Pesonen (12), Mike Sislo (11) and Josefson (10). Tedenby, Phil DeSimone and Darcy Zajac all have nine with four games to play.
Albany never really rebounded with a scorer who could carry them, after Butler was lost on waivers to the Nashville Predators. Outside of Whitney, the consistency of finding the back of the net just wasn’t there and players who were supposed to develop and grow into those roles, didn’t step up as needed.
1. Management, Coaching, Etc.
Lately I’ve seen a lot of folks ridiculing head coach Rick Kowalsky. Yes the Albany Devils have missed the playoffs now in all three years of his stewardship. However, one would be hard pressed to fault Kowalsky for the Devils AHL affiliate missing the playoffs for 12 of the past 13 seasons. Are there some areas this team could be showing more improvement, especially on special teams? Sure. Figure this though, in Lowell, Kurt Kleinendorst missed the playoffs in his three seasons there but guided the Binghamton Senators to a Calder Cup title in 2010-11. Cunniff and his assistant Dennis “Red” Gendron, who led Albany to consecutive Conference Finals, had trouble getting the River Rats into the playoffs after the 2000 season. Robbie Ftorek, who led Albany to a Calder Cup title and consecutive seasons with the best record in the AHL, couldn’t bring them back to the promise land in 2 1/2 years back behind the River Rats bench. Save for a disastrous 14 win campaign by Bobby Carpenter in 2001-02, one would be hard pressed to blame the coaches or call into question their competency.
There is also blame to be laid at the feet of general manager Chris Lamoriello. Mind you, I’m sure he’s only working with the budget allotted to him by the big club in New Jersey and maybe they’re calling the shots more so than he but it just seems like there could be so much more done from a personnel standpoint. I could be wrong but even the New Jersey Devils were a stronger team and better served by having a solid and deep farm system in the 1990’s. I completely get that the parent club obviously comes first but I can’t help but feel that the AHL squad should constitute for something more than just a weigh station taxi squad.
Yes the AHL should be for development but how does one expect to develop a winning culture when this happens every year? Players like Patrik Elias, Steve Sullivan, Petr Sykora, Sergei Brylin, etc., played multiple seasons in Albany and turned out fine. Now they go up and down and shuttle around and you’re left with enigmas like Josefson and Tedenby.
Additionally, if there were no lockout, where was the scoring coming from on this team? Assuming Butler had made the NHL roster or had been claimed even earlier on waivers, really Pesonen was the only addition to create much offense. There were also chronically injured/ineffective veterans brought in or brought back, like Scott Parse, Chad Wiseman and Matt Corrente, whose roster spots could’ve been filled by some high profile “AHL ringers” to carry the club through injuries and callups. Plus I also believe that the organization really needs to reassess its goaltending situation. If you have two goaltenders at or around age 40 at the NHL level and despite injuries and struggles, you only feel confident enough to insert your AHL goalies for a sum total of 45 minutes, maybe its high time to reevaluate at that position.
Sure there were some bright spots. Whitney and his sniping. New Jersey also has some scoring potential in Reid Boucher as well. On the blue line, the Devils look stacked with Urbom, Jon Merrill, Gelinas, Dan Kelly, and even a big guy like Seth Hegleson. Plus scores of guys who you couldn’t fault for effort.
However, something needs to be fixed. Something needs to be done to get the organization back on sound footing.
Michael Gwizdala covers the New York Islanders for The Hockey Writers. Michael is also an Associate Producer at WNYT NewsChannel 13. Additionally, Michael was once a Media Relations intern for the AHL Albany River Rats. Michael is a graduate of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.