A look at the Albany Devils' defensemen
There will be a couple new faces and a bunch of familiar ones along the blue line Saturday when the puck drops on the season opener for the Albany Devils against Manchester (at Albany’s Times Union Center at 5:05 p.m.).
The Devils are likely to carry a long roster into the game, however, it probably won’t be long before they at least loan one of their three healthy goalies to an ECHL squad. They have four, but Maxime Clermont is injured and rehabbing in New Jersey. A full injury report will be posted tomorrow.
That leaves Jeff Frazee, Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood in Albany for the moment. Right wing Bryan Haczyk and defenseman Eric Baier were sent to Trenton of the ECHL, but that is all the movement there has been so far.
The rest of the roster is likely to stick around at least a little while, which means nine defensemen, eight of which are healthy (Eric Gelinas is out indefinitely, more on that tomorrow).
Returning to Albany from last year’s squad are Jay Leach, Alexander Urbom, Brandon Burlon, Matthew Corrente and Dan Kelly. Corbin McPherson played nine games with Albany last year after finishing his collegiate career at Colgate.
Complete newcomers to Albany are Adam Larsson, who played his entire rookie season last year with New Jersey, and Raman Hrabarenka, a Belarusian who turned a tryout contract into an AHL contract over the course of his first couple weeks in Newark.
“Guys look good. Larsson’s new, Raman’s new, and then we have the crew we’ve had for the last few years,” said Leach, an Altamont native who is entering his 12th professional season. “Like every year, you think you’re awesome. Everyone thinks they’ve got the team going into it. I’m comfortable with what we have, but at the same time, it’s a long season and I know how it goes. I think we’ll just evaluate on a week-to-week basis, and hopefully, we’ll get some success and string some wins together.”
Leach has been working on a bum wheel the last couple seasons, but took the time last season to get knee surgery and feels it has extended his career a few seasons.
He hasn’t had any setbacks with his now-healthy knee, and aside from the normal aches, he’s physically fit for duty.
“I think as you get older, you’re not as quick as you were when you were 25 or 26, but physically and from a pain standpoint, I’m not prohibited from doing anything,” he said. “It’s been pretty good. I get the aches and pains anybody has, but at the end of the day, nothing is limiting me like it did last year and the year before. It’s pretty encouraging.”
He’ll be one of the veteran guys in back who can help the Devils’ youth through the long season.
The two newcomers to the roster come from different ends of the spectrum — Larsson coming from the NHL and Hrabarenka from juniors. Leach said he doesn’t approach Larsson as an NHL’er or superstar, but just as another teammate.
“First of all, he’s a terrific kid, and he wants to play hockey,” he said. “That helps. He’s come down here, he works hard, he’s a good guy. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a team, he’s part of the team, and that’s it. People can focus on labels and leagues and all that, but at the end of the day, it’s just hockey. Right now, this is the best league in North America.”
The 19-year-old played 65 games with New Jersey last season, totaling two goals, 16 assists and a minus-seven rating. He also saw action in five postseason games, recording one goal.
One of at least three young Devils who would have been on the NHL roster this season, Larsson has taken the same approach as the others and is just glad he gets a chance to keep playing and keep developing.
“I’m glad I can play here,” he said. “When you’re still young, you don’t want to stop trying to be better. It’s a great opportunity for us to come down here and have a leader-type of role. I think it’s good for us in the long run. And it’s good guys on this team, so I’m glad to be here.”
He played in two exhibition games and had a pair of assists. He paired with Gelinas in one of those games and Burlon in the other.
“I think the most difference between the NHL and here, I think the pace here is quicker,” Larsson said. “Maybe sometimes the older guys are just in the right spot. It’s more like 100 percent hockey here. It’s fun, a lot of fun.”
“I think it’s going to be an adjustment,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “I think a lot of guys come down here and they think it might be easier, when it’s actually harder. You’re just not quite as positionally sound, you’re seeing some more random forechecks as a defenseman than you’re maybe used to. I think I’ve seen a little bit of that in him. But even though he’s a young kid, he’s an intelligent hockey player.
“The main focus for him is he’s just got to keep it simple and not try to do more than he would up there. One, because it’s going to make him a better player down here, but he doesn’t want to pick up bad habits or go up there doing something different that’s going to affect his play up there. I think it’s just a matter of seeing different things than he did in the NHL and maybe not having as quite much support as he would. The biggest thing is just keeping it simple.”
To be honest, I had never heard of Raman Hrabarenka before he signed his tryout contract.
“I don’t think anybody did,” Leach said. “He rolled in here, he’s 20 years old and a big kid. You think a big kid like that, when he’s 20 years old, could maybe be a little awkward. But he skates very well, he’s got nice hands, and I think he’s surprised a lot of people. As of right now, he looks pretty good. We’ll see how it goes. It’s a long season and a long career, but he’s got the potential to be a pretty good defenseman.”
Hrabarenka played the last two seasons in the QMJHL with short stints playing for Belarus. He’s 6-foot-4 and listed as 235 pounds, though he said 230, but you get the idea. He’s a big guy.
Two seasons ago, he played 50 games with Cape Breton and had a goal and seven assists. Last season, he had a goal and five assists in 30 games with Cape Breton, then three goals and 11 assists in 27 games with Drummondville. In three preseason games with the Devils, he had three assists and scored a power-play goal from the right wing while skating on a 3-on-2.
But asked to describe what kind of D he tries to be, his answer jives pretty soundly with what the Devils want.
“The first thing is to play defensively,” he said. “Solid D, have a good pass. Be physical and have a good shot. If I will get the chance, I will try to make a good play offensively, but the first thing is to play a good defensive game.
“We play pretty much the same system as Drummondville, where I played before. I talked to the coaches, I talk to the guys and everybody explains things and helps me.”
Like Larsson, Hrabarenka has had to adjust to the pace of the game at the AHL level.
“It’s just the physical part, the speed. Everything is faster,” he said. “It wasn’t easy at all. It’s never easy. It was hard, but it was good for me.”
Looking at the other defensemen from the bottom of last year’s stat list to the top, McPherson had an assist and a minus-four in his brief time here. To be fair, a minus-four in the last month the Devils had isn’t horrible. It was a month to forget as they dropped out of playoff contention.
Leach had two assists and a minus-10 in the 21 games of his surgery-shortened season. He returned late in the season and was still strengthening the repaired knee.
Kelly had two goals and four assists in 54 games, turning in a plus-six rating and 93 penalty minutes, along with one broken nose.
Corrente had two goals and six assists through 39 games with a minus-nine and 73 PIM. He played in just one preseason game, the 6-3 loss to Binghamton.
Burlon booked a goal and eight assists in 57 games with a minus-five. He played in three preseason games, notching a power-play goal and three assists.
Urbom had two goals and 10 assists in 50 games with a minus-three. He showed a lot of improvement from his rookie season and was more reliable in his own zone.
Gelinas led all rookie defensemen in the AHL in goals with 16, tying for the lead among all defensemen with Clay Wilson of Abbotsford and T.J. Brennan of Rochester. He also had 21 assists in his 75 games and an even plus-minus rating. His 37 points was fourth on the team.
Not among the returning defensemen, but returning nonetheless, is Harry Young. Young converted to left wing this season for a couple reasons.
First off, the Devils are deep at D, and he wasn’t able to hold on to a roster spot here last season. Secondly, the Devils still want to utilize his size and his fists, and the front line needed a little more beef on it this season.
“We lost some size up front and we gained a lot of D,” Young said. “The D corps here is real strong, so I think they just thought it was best for the team and best for best for me to try my hand up front. I love it so far.
“It’s a defense-first mentality here, that’s where it all starts. This D corps is huge with a lot of skilled guys back there, and it was just tough battling for a spot back there. But they felt like they needed some size up front, and I’m ready to fill that role.”
He said he’s played just a little bit in forward positions, but really, hardly any. The coaches are walking him through it, though, and the other forwards are chipping in to bring him along.
The biggest adjustment for Young is learning to flip the game around.
“I’m used to the play coming at me instead of me going at the play. It’s a little bit different, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “You just get out there, you get to forecheck, you get to hit more, you get to stand in front of the net.”
In his three preseason games, he had one fight, against former Albany River Rat Zack FitzGerald, who is now with the Adirondack Phantoms.
“He’s a big, tough kid,” Young said. “It was a good scrap. That’s what I’m looking to do this year, just get out there and be a presence for the boys, and protect my team when necessary.”
That will continue to be a useful part of Young’s game. Two seasons ago with Albany, he played 52 games and totaled 142 PIM.
It’s a little easier to stomach losing a player for five minutes when it’s a forward, too. As a defenseman, his turn in the box meant longer shifts for the other five defensemen. It’s an easier task for 11 forwards when necessary.
“I think that played another key part in my moving up front,” he said. “It’s hard to go down to five D for five minutes when you have a defenseman going to the box every other game. So I think, up front, it’s a lot easier to share the load.”
Young is approaching the move as if it’s a long-term change with no designs on coming back to the blue line down the road.
“I think I’m in it for the long haul,” he said. “We’re at least going to give it a good shot. This isn’t going to happen overnight, of course, so we’ll be patient with it and see where it goes.”