Player development in the American Hockey League can be uneven and halting even for a reigning coach of the year.
That experience is something Albany Devils coach Rick Kowalsky and his players are going through early.
After a 5-0-0-0 start to their season, the Devils have gone 1-4-0-0. Their latest setback was a 4-0 road shutout loss to the Hershey Bears last Saturday. Three first-period Hershey goals in a 3:36 span knocked rookie goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood out of the game.
Easing Blackwood, a second-round pick (No. 42) in the 2015 NHL Draft, through the experience was a job for Kowalsky. Blackwood, 19, is 2-1-0 with a 3.38 goals-against average and .902 save percentage through his first four pro games.
"[Blackwood] has been solid for us," Kowalsky said. "This is a growing experience."
Steering Blackwood and other young Albany prospects through turbulence is all part of the process for Kowalsky, who is in his seventh season behind an AHL bench after winning the A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the league's outstanding coach in 2015-16. Kowalsky guided Albany to 46 regular-season wins, the best record for a New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate since 1999, before taking the Toronto Marlies to seven games in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
Kowalsky battled an ever-changing roster last season, and he is up against that reality again. Albany skated against Hershey without reliable defenseman Vojtech Mozik, who was on recall with New Jersey before being returned to Albany on Tuesday. Forward Nick Lappin is also with New Jersey and has been limited to three AHL games, while veteran forward Carter Camper and defenseman Karl Stollery are injured.
Even before the losses of Lappin and Mozik, Kowalsky had plenty of upheaval to handle. His top-eight scorers from last season are gone, and New Jersey management rebuilt the Albany defense substantially in the offseason.
But Kowalsky has plenty of reason for optimism. The AHL's emphasis on development means that young players can take on significant roles quickly.
Some of Kowalsky's other players have stepped up. Rookie forward John Quenneville, the No. 30 pick in the 2014 draft, is tied for first on Albany in scoring with six points (four goals, two assists) in 10 games and has "NHL skill" in Kowalsky's words.
Forward Blake Pietila has three goals in his first 10 games after scoring 10 goals in 58 games last season as a rookie. Defenseman Brandon Gormley, who was selected No. 13 by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2010, is something of a reclamation project at 24 years old. Rookie defenseman Steven Santini, a 2013 second-round selection (No. 42), found an opportunity with Mozik in New Jersey.
The AHL schedule rarely relents for very long. A visit from the Bears on Friday awaits Albany, beginning a stretch of eight games in 16 days. But this stretch means opportunity awaits.
"It's not really an excuse," Kowalsky said of his shifting lineup. "It's life in the [AHL]. We've got to find a way. At the end of the day, that is an opportunity for other guys to step up."
ON THE BRINK
Charles Hudon of the St. John's IceCaps has a league-leading eight goals. The 22-year-old forward, a fifth-round selection (No. 122) by the Montreal Canadiens in 2012, has emerged as a top recall option and played his first three NHL games in 2015-16.
Bakersfield Condors forward Taylor Beck won the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award for the period ending Sunday. He had three goals and five assists in three games, including four points (one goals, three assists) in a 5-3 win against the Texas Stars last Saturday and is with the Edmonton Oilers.
Rochester Americans forward Cole Schneider and forward Brendan Leipsic of Toronto each have 15 points to lead the AHL. … Jake Guentzel of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins has the AHL lead among rookies with 12 points (five goals, seven assists). … Providence Bruins goaltender Zane McIntyre is still with the Boston Bruins, but his 0.44 GAA and .977 save percentage are best in the league. … The Stockton Heat's 4.63 goals per game are most in the league. … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is third in goals per game (3.70) and first in goals-against per game (1.50). … San Jose Barracuda forward Nikolay Goldobin, the No. 27 selection in 2015 by the San Jose Sharks, has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in six games.
GAME TO WATCH
Toronto at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Nov. 11) -- The top two teams in the league play each other for the first time this season when the Marlies visit Mohegan Sun Arena. The Penguins' 17 points lead the AHL, two points ahead of the Marlies.
ON THE MOVE
The Florida Panthers acquiring defenseman Dylan McIlrath in a trade with the New York Rangers on Tuesday means veteran defenseman Jakub Kindl will return to the Springfield. Defenseman Steve Kampfer went to the Rangers, who assigned him to the Hartford Wolf Pack… The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster received a shake-up with the recall of defensemen Steve Oleksy and Chad Ruhwedel to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton added defenseman David Warsofsky and forward Tom Sestito. … Injuries to the Los Angeles Kings have created goaltending problems for the Ontario Reign, but they received help with the assignment of goaltender Jack Campbell. … The Nashville Predators sent goaltender Marek Mazenec and forward Kevin Fiala to the Milwaukee Admirals, and recalled goaltender Juuse Saros and forward Pontus Aberg on Tuesday.
AROUND THE AHL
Pennsylvania rivals Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are emerging as the cream of the Atlantic Division. Hershey has points in eight consecutive games (6-0-2-0) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton also an eight-game point streak (7-0-1-0). … The Tucson Roadrunners hold first place in the Pacific Division thanks to a seven-game point streak (6-0-1-0). … With five consecutive losses, the defending Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters are 3-7-0-0 and last in the Central Division. … The Charlotte Checkers and Manitoba Moose each have four-game win streaks.