Earning the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the top head coach in the American Hockey League is quite the accomplishment. Winning it twice is a special feat. Take the award home in consecutive seasons and you’re in rare company.
Since the award was established in 1967-68, three coaches have earned the award twice: Bob McCammon with the Maine Mariners and Bill Dineen and Robbie Ftorek in consecutive seasons with the Adirondack Red Wings and Albany River Rats respectively.
In Devils AHL history, the aforementioned Ftorek took home the hardware in 1994-95 and 1995-96, Tom McVie did so with the 1988-89 Utica Devils and of course Rick Kowalsky was named top bench boss with the Albany Devils in 2015-16.
The 2015-16 A-Devils went 46-20-0-8 with 102 points and a .671 win percentage before bowing out in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs. It was a ledger worthy of earning “Killer” the distinction of the league’s best coach.
— Albany Devils (@AlbanyDevils) December 7, 2016
Fast-forward to the present and some may wonder if Kowalsky shouldn’t be in line for the award for the second time in as many seasons.
A Level of Consistency
As was the case last season, the Devils are right around where they were in the North Division standings. Through 33 contests, Albany is second, behind the Syracuse Crunch, at 19-13-0-1, good for 39 points and a .591 win percentage. At this time last season, the A-Devils were 22-8-3 with a .667 win percentage.
Where playoff teams like the Toronto Marlies and Utica Comets have experienced a dropoff this season, Albany has not.
Thriving Through Change and Adversity
Before the season started, the A-Devils lost their top eight point leaders from the previous campaign. Injuries and lack of production in New Jersey have added to the challenge of keeping the group on track. Forward Nick Lappin was called up after six games. Boston College products Miles Wood and Steven Santini have only played 14 and 15 games at Albany respectively, being up and down and up again.
On the injury front, key free agent signee Carter Camper and fellow forward Ryan Kujawinski had missed 25 contests before recently returning to the lineup. Forward Joseph Blandisi has also missed nine games this season. Perhaps the biggest loss came when goalie Scott Wedgewood was sidelined for virtually the entire season and needed shoulder surgery after only playing 10 games.
On the Rebound
After dropping five of its first six contests to start December, Kowalsky’s bunch has righted the ship into the new year. Albany has earned victories in four of its past five games, including three in a row against Toronto, Hartford and Bridgeport. Those wins have kept the Devils neck and neck with the Crunch and ahead of the St. John’s IceCaps, with whom they battle Wednesday evening.
Clark Donatelli’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins boast a league-best .726 win percentage. Within the division, first-year Crunch bench boss Benoit Groulx has his club in first place after the team finished fourth and out of the postseason last year. Todd Nelson’s Grand Rapids Griffins are in first place in the Central Division. Mike Stothers and his Ontario Reign have the highest winning percentage in the Western Conference at .696.
Scott Gordon’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms and their .710 win percentage are looking the best they have since the club was based in Philadelphia. Also in the Atlantic Division, first-year Providence Bruins head coach and his red-hot squad have posted a .682 win percentage.
Whether or not Kowalsky wins the award again, he has his A-Devils in the mix and is once again putting himself in the conversation for the honor.
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.