The Albany River Rats knew they had a number of quality players going into this season. They’ve needed all of them to successfully navigate through an unpredictable year.
A combination of recalls to Carolina and injuries to their own players has at times caused dire situations for the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate, but the organization nonetheless has high hopes for a long playoff run. The Rats, 41-27-3 on the season, are poised to officially clinch a postseason berth, needing just one point or a regulation loss by Norfolk over their final four games.
”We’re excited,” said Albany coach Jeff Daniels about the team’s current position and season as a whole. “Going into the year you never know what’s going to happen, but I’ve been very fortunate to work with this group.”
Anyone who follows the Hurricanes likely has some idea about the roster turnover experienced in Albany this season. Brandon Sutter only played a handful of AHL games before heading to Carolina for good in October. The team’s captain, Patrick Dwyer, packed his bags for good one month later. They’ve been without veteran defenseman Brett Carson since December, with starting goaltender and AHL All-Star Justin Peters only recently returning from a one-month stay in the big leagues.
Throw in extended NHL stints by Zach Boychuk and Jamie McBain, isolated call-ups for a handful of others and an injury crisis or two, and it’s been an interesting year to say the least.
”It’s been an adjustment,” said Daniels. “Going into this season we were happy with our depth, and we’ve had to use all of it.”
Even by AHL standards, the River Rats are a young team. Many of its key players for most of this season – Boychuk, McBain, Drayson Bowman and Chris Terry, to name a few – are on their first full professional season. Occasionally, the right circumstances could make that youth particularly evident.
”You can dress five or six veterans at a time, but we were going through stretches where we were only dressing one,” said Daniels.
“That’s the plight of a minor league coach,” said Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes’ vice president and assistant general manager. “Even if you have a good team to start, you might not have a good team as the season goes along based on injuries and call-ups.”
One of the team’s biggest challenges came in late February and extended throughout the month of March. With Peters already in Carolina helping to fill in for the injured Cam Ward, rookie backup Mike Murphy suffered an injury of his own. That led to the Hurricanes’ acquisition of Justin Pogge at the trade deadline, only he too became hurt in just his fourth game with the River Rats.
By that time, Carson, McBain and Jay Harrison were already in Carolina, leaving a makeshift defense in front of ECHL call-up Mike Morrison in goal.
“That situation was one for the decade for us and something we’d like to not repeat going forward,” said Karmanos.
While wins weren’t easy to come by during that stretch, the team managed to keep itself in the race and in good position to earn home ice in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“If you’re working with a fairly light lineup, it can be extremely difficult to keep your head above water,” Karmanos said. “I can’t stress enough how much credit goes to the coaching staff in terms of keeping it together and keeping players focused, especially with a young team where all this is new to them.”
Besides unexpectedly losing important players to the NHL, how to manage the emotions of those not selected to appear for Carolina has been difficult. With an unprecedented amount of depth at the minor league level, each recall made by the Hurricanes inevitably left a handful of others disappointed.
Fortunately, that has not had any long-term effects on their play. Jerome Samson, who ranks fourth in the AHL in scoring but has only appeared in six NHL games, is the poster boy for that level of professionalism.
”We explained it at the start of the year,” said Daniels. “Sometimes Carolina would be calling to see certain players and certain positions and it might not be your time, but it’s up to them not to get discouraged by that. If they did and it affected their play, I wouldn’t have been able to recommend them next time.”
”It’s something that we’re mindful of for sure, because every guy wants to get called up, as you would expect,” said Karmanos. “Frankly, there are a lot of guys that haven’t gotten call-ups who have played well enough to deserve them, and other guys who have deserved more time but we just haven’t had space for them. It’s a good problem to have.”
Barring a small miracle with the parent club, the tables will turn around April 10, a date that marks the final regular season game for both teams. Bowman, Boychuk, McBain, Harrison and Bryan Rodney should all return to Albany for the playoffs, giving the team a welcome influx of talented players who have shown they can play at the NHL level.
“You would think that experience would help them play even better than they were before at that level,” said Karmanos.
Carson, Dwyer and Sutter will not be re-joining the Rats, as they have either established themselves as NHL players or would be exposed to waivers.
While a team always wants to see its minor-league affiliate do well, these playoffs could be particularly important from a developmental standpoint with a number of young players set to play key roles. Additionally, many of Albany’s players will be fighting for NHL jobs next season in what promises to be a competitive training camp.
”A playoff run at any level is great experience,” said Karmanos. “As a group hopefully they can have success, because each one of those guys can continue to gain confidence if the team does well.”