Culture change is not easy to deal with at any level of hockey, especially in the American Hockey League with its high rate of player turnover.
But for Albany Devils coach Rick Kowalsky, who has seen plenty of it in his six AHL seasons, the journey has paid off with a 102-point season and a Calder Cup second-round series against the Toronto Marlies.
Kowalsky has endured a stretch that included New Jersey cycling through five coaches, changes in systems and a new regime consisting of general manager Ray Shero and assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald that arrived this past summer.
"I think that process has changed over time," Kowalsky said as he prepared for Game 1 of the North Division Finals Wednesday in Toronto. "I don't want to say it has been tough, but different in that there have been a lot of NHL coaches and philosophies up top."
Albany's success this seasons is a reflection of the organization's return to its roots. New Jersey used a robust farm system that contributed to three Stanley Cup championships in nine seasons (1995-2003). Martin Brodeur, Sergei Brylin, Patrik Elias, John Madden, Brendan Morrison, Brian Rolston and Colin White were among the products of New Jersey's AHL pipeline.
New Jersey and its former AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats, even managed to win championships in 1995, something that had not happened since the Montreal Canadiens organization did so in 1977.
The pipeline continued to churn out top-notch prospects throughout the 1990s, but it eventually slowed, and a long drought began. Losing seasons soon followed in Albany, and the talent shortage eventually took its toll at the NHL level.
New Jersey AHL affiliates missed the Calder Cup playoffs for nine consecutive seasons (2001-2009). From 2001-2013, those affiliates reached the postseason twice and won two playoff games. Six AHL coaches came and went in that span. The losing eventually led to a 2006 split between New Jersey and the River Rats franchise, breaking up what had once been perhaps the top NHL-AHL affiliation in hockey.
But after four seasons apart, New Jersey brought its AHL affiliate back to Albany for the 2010-2011 season, Kowalsky's first.
Kowalsky, who was named AHL coach of the year in April, needed four seasons to reach the postseason, but in that time he began to produce talent for New Jersey.
As the talent progressed, winning has followed.
This season has been a return to the 1990s in Albany. The 102 points were the most for a New Jersey affiliate since 1997-98. They defeated the Utica Comets in four games in the first round, the organization's first AHL playoff series win since 1998.
Albany won 46 regular-season games, third-most in the AHL, and the most in an AHL season for a New Jersey affiliate since 1998-99. The success has solidified the relationship off the ice as well. New Jersey and Albany agreed to a three-year extension that will keep the affiliation in New York's state capital through the 2018-19.
This season, New Jersey dressed 24 players that had spent time in its farm system, including Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson and Andy Greene. New Jersey loaned defenseman Damon Severson to Albany to provide him with AHL playoff experience and the possibility of a long run. The playoff roster includes forwards Reid Boucher, Joseph Blandisi and Pavel Zacha, the sixth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.
Kowalsky credits San Jose Sharks coach and former Devils coach Peter DeBoer with changing the approach in Albany.
"The first guy to really change things in the sense that he wanted to make what was going on down here in Albany a little closer to what was going on in New Jersey was Pete DeBoer," Kowalsky said.
Kowalsky recalls DeBoer crediting Albany products Stephen Gionta, Peter Harrold and Steve Bernier as being key pieces of New Jersey's run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.
"[DeBoer] made a comment at training camp [the next season] that they couldn't have made that run without the impact those players had, which were big impacts. I think that's where it started to change."
The draft is the first step in any organization's move to produce home-grown talent. A strong crop of blueline prospects has been followed by an influx of drafted forwards.
However, New Jersey also has surrounded its prospects with a strong veteran core. Captain Rod Pelley has played 256 NHL games. Forward Brian O'Neill won a Calder Cup last season after being named the Les Cunningham Award winner the AHL's most valuable player. Defenseman Dan Kelly is an established, diligent leader. Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani and center Jim O'Brien have NHL backgrounds.
Goaltender Yann Danis provided strong goaltending all season as goaltending prospect Scott Wedgewood recovered from two separate serious injuries.
"You need good leaders in the [dressing] room," Kowalsky said. "We probably didn't have that enough my first couple years but certainly have it now, and that starts with Rod Pelley."
SECOND ROUND SET
The Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will play each other in the Atlantic Division Finals. In the Western Conference, the Pacific Division Finals will be a battle between the defending Calder Cup champion Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls. A Grand Rapids Griffins-Lake Erie Monsters series in the Central Division Finals rounds out the AHL's final eight teams.
AROUND THE AHL
The AHL had its third coaching change last week when the Colorado Avalanche fired San Antonio Rampage coach Dean Chynoweth…The Tampa Bay Lightning and Syracuse Crunch agreed to a six-year extension of their affiliation agreement.