Devils haunted by near-misses
ALBANY The Albany Devils missed the playoffs this season on a tiebreaker.
It wasn’t the tiebreakers that separate teams with similar records, rather it was the one that decides winners and losers after 65 minutes of even play. Finishing six points out of the playoffs, the Devils can easily look at their 12 losses in the paper-rocks-scissors shootouts and say, “If only we’d have won a few more of those.”
“It’s 12 games, and you can break it down, you win a third of them, you win half of them and we’re well on our way to playing in the playoffs,” coach Rick Kowalsky said.
“Those are all games that could have gone the other way. They’re all games you were in, were either tied up or were leading. We ended up one game below .500, but with those 12 shootout losses, we could be a lot closer to 35, 40 wins. It is kind of almost an asterisk beside that record.”
Albany’s 31-32-1-12 record was its best finish since the Devils came to town from Lowell, Mass. Their last year in Lowell was the only year the AHL Devils have made the playoffs in the last 13 seasons.
In one-goal games that ended in regulation, the Devils were 11-8 this season. In the 16 games that went beyond regulation, they lost once in overtime and were 3-12 in shootouts, setting an AHL record for shootout losses in a season.
Scoring, and not scoring
Of course, losing shootouts wasn’t the sole reason the Devils fell short of the playoffs again and had a horrible March and April (again). They had trouble scoring in regulation, too, averaging 2.54 goals per game.
Kowalsky is hopeful some of the young guns on the team can come into their own next season, and help raise that number.
“I think a lot of those guys, from a skills standpoint, you may, down the road, look to rely on offensively probably didn’t play much at the beginning of the year. You have [David] Wohlberg that didn’t play much, got boxed out. [Mike] Sislo was in and out of the lineup. He’s a guy that’s now really secured a spot in the top six, in my opinion. You’ve got [Phil] DeSimone, who didn’t play much, but had some ability. Joe Whitney — I don’t know if everybody remembers — Joe Whitney didn’t play in the first 10 games. Obviously, he’s made great strides, not just offensively, but as a player in general. I think he
really put himself on the map out of nowhere.
“There’s going to be changes, there are every year. You may have some new kids coming in, you look at signings. But we’ve struggled scoring for a couple years here. It’s good to see the likes of a guy like Joe come forward and have a big year. We’re going to have to rely on some young guys here to take it to the next level and provide some offense.”
A second-year winger, Whitney led the team in goals (26) and points (51) in 66 games. As a rookie last year, he led the team in assists (29) and points (44).
“I worked hard this past summer to get in good shape and work on my skills,” Whitney said. “It helps out, playing with good players, too. I was fortunate enough to put the puck in the net this year a little bit more than I did last year and improve in that area.”
With the NHL lockout pushing some younger players into the AHL for the first half of the season, Whitney sat six of the first eight games this season. When he got back in the lineup, he was on a mission to prove he should be an everyday guy.
“I’ve always had that mentality, being a small guy, to prove myself,” Whitney said. “I know there’s going to be people who doubt you or don’t believe in you, so I’m always out there trying to prove [myself to] those guys. But at the beginning of the year this year, that’s how it goes. I waited my turn. I knew when I got in there, I was going to make it count. That’s what I tried to do.”
However, the Devils’ next-highest goal-scorer was Bobby Butler, who was snatched off waivers mid-season after 16 goals in 37 games with Albany. Rookie Harri Pesonen was next with 14 in 64 games.
A scoring deficiency was apparent in the season’s last 18 games, when the Devils were 4-12-0-2 and were outscored, 63-36. In March and April, they were 9-13-0-3.
Last season, Albany was 5-13-1-2 in March and April, finishing 5-12-1-2 in their last 20 games. The previous season, the Devils were 10-10-0-2 in March and April, but swooned late to finish 3-8-0-2 in their last 13 games.
“Every year I’ve been here, the last month or two, we’ve struggled,” said alternate captain Tim Sestito. “That just shows how important the points are that you can get early in the year, when you can weather some storms late. We just didn’t have the push that we needed to make. We’re not going to blame schedules or anything, but we had a lot of three-in-threes. Those are games you have to win when you’re playing your third game on Sundays and you’ve got to stop losing streaks and extend winning streaks. It’s just something we didn’t have this year.”
After fifth-year defenseman Matt Corrente went down with a torn labrum after playing just 11 games, 12th-year captain Jay Leach, an Altamont native, was the only defenseman on the team with more than two full seasons as a pro.
Still, the defensive corps was one of the strengths of the Devils this season. No player embodied that more than rookie Corbin McPherson, who played 72 of the season’s 76 games, just one less than Steve Zalewski, who led the team with 73 games.
McPherson had two goals and five assists, but more importantly, used his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame and his reach to make it difficult for opposing players to find space near the goal and in the corners. He finished the season with a plus-eight rating.
“That’s huge for my confidence,” McPherson said of the playing time. “Initially, I came in and tried to earn a spot. I feel like I did that, then the coaches showed me that I did that. I feel like I just tried to do my best for the team and give us the best opportunity to win every night.”
He heads into the offseason looking to improve on his passing, his puck-handling and skating.
After finishing his collegiate season with Michigan, Jon Merrill joined Albany on an amateur tryout contract and played in the season’s last 12 games. He had a goal and seven assists, posting six points
(1-5-6) in his first four games.
“It’s a different life than college,” Merrill said. “Hockey’s no longer just something you do with school. It’s your job. That’s the biggest [adjustment], every day, treating it the same and getting into a routine, how hard everyone works on and off the ice to be the best player they can be.”
His plus-minus was a little low (minus-eight), but that’s something he’s got time to turn around.
Between the pipes
The Devils sent four goalies onto the ice at different times this season, getting the most work from Keith Kinkaid, a Union College product, and Jeff Frazee.
Kinkaid finished 21-17-6 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. He got a little more goal support than Frazee, who despite posting a 2.58 GAA and .916 save percentage, finished 8-14-5.
For a stretch in midseason, Kinkaid was the nearly-everyday goalie as he got hot for two five-game winning streaks and was 19-4-1 from Dec. 1 to Feb. 9. Throughout the season, he gave credit to the new goaltenders coach for Albany, Dave Caruso. The team had been without a full-time goaltending coach in its previous two seasons here.
“I saw a little more consistency in my game,” Kinkaid said. “It helps with the goalie coach, Dave Caruso. He was a tremendous help this year, and we were thankful to have him. He keeps you on task, always gives you something to work on each day, and I think that helped out tremendously.”
Maxime Clermont and Scott Wedgewood also saw some time in net for Albany, Clermont playing well in his lone appearance, though it was a shootout loss, and Wedgewood doing well some of the time, but posting a 3.47 GAA and .886 save percentage.
There’s always next season.
Fans get tired of hearing that, though. Some postseason play may cure all ills, but the already scant crowds in the Times Union Center may be getting tired of waiting.
There were definitely strides made this season. The team’s five-on-five play was good, though the power play was horrendous (11.3 percent, 29th in the AHL). The development on the blue line is promising, and the goalies look solid. Whitney is a young scorer who will spearhead what has to be a better offense next season.
Still, this was another late-season swan dive into a frozen pool. Kowalsky said the Devils have to find ways to break out of slumps like they’ve had at the end of the season, and they have to find ways to manage success and maintain it when they find it.
He’d like the chance to make them break through those barriers next season, though he knows a few years of frustration often lead to coaching changes.
“At the end of the day, a coach is measured in wins and losses, whether it’s justified or not,” he said. “I felt we were in a position this year that we let slip away. Absolutely, I have to take responsibility for that. Every year is a new year, there will be discussions whenever they’re ready, as far as whatever lies ahead for me.
“I was never, as a player or as a coach, a guy who is going to sit here and make excuses, and I won’t do that now. I’ve got to find a way to get these guys in the playoffs. It’s easy to sit here and say development or youth, they’re young. But you’ve just got to do it. I think a winning environment is healthy for kids to develop in. Whether changes have to be made in any department, you’ve got to find a way to do it. I want to win. Each year is no different than the prior year, just because I’ve been at it, now, eight years. I still feel I’ve developed as a coach. I learn from year to year, and this is going to be another learning experience, and I’ll hopefully have another opportunity to get back at it.”