THIS IS IT, the final Albany Devils blog of the season
It was another frustrating finish for the Albany Devils this season. they finished with their best record since coming to Albany from Lowell, Mass., before the 2010-11 season, but missed the playoffs for the third straight year, this time by just six points.
As has been the case in the last couple seasons, March and April were tough months for Albany. This season, the Devils were 9-13-0-3. They finished 4-12-0-2 in their last 18 games, two of those wins coming after they had already been eliminated from postseason contention.
Last season, Albany was 5-13-1-2 in March and April, finishing 4-13-1-2 in their last 20 games and falling from seventh place in the Eastern Conference to 14th. The season before — their first back in Albany — they were 10-10-0-2 in March and April, but faltered with a 3-8-0-2 stretch in their last 13 games.
“Every year I’ve been here, the last month or two, we’ve struggled,” said Albany 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.”
Since coming to Albany, the Devils are 94-108-8-22. Their last three seasons in Lowell, they weren’t much better at 99-110-13-18.
The trouble this season started with one of the league’s worst power plays. The Devils converted 36 of 319 power plays, a clip of 11.3 percent (better only than Hamilton’s 10.7 percent, with 32 goals in 298 tries). They also allowed 12 shorthanded goals, tied for second most in the league.
A few more power play goals and the Devils may not have been in so many games that went past regulation. Albany went into overtime 16 times. They won no games in overtime, but lost only once in the five-minute four-on-four period. So 15 times, they went to a shootout. They won three of those, losing an AHL record 12 shootouts.
“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,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said Sunday night after a 4-2 season-ending loss to the Adirondack Phantoms. “They’re still points. Now, when there are that many of them, obviously, it’s something you’re going to remember, but those are all games that could have 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.”
“The shootout losses, the power play. I think, overall, inability to score — I think the power play sometimes gives you confidence in five-on-five,” Kowalsky added on Monday morning between exit interviews with the players. “I thought our five-on-five play, over the course of the year, definitely before the last, maybe month, was right around even or plus-one as far as goal differential, so that was a bright spot.
“I think not being able to get out of some of those slumps [was part of the problem]. You’re going to have tough stretches in the schedule. I use the cliché of peaks and valleys. We certainly had stretches where we played well and put together some streaks. I think this team was not only troubled with some of the adversity and figuring out how to get out of some of those stretches, but I think we are still trying to figure out our success, too, and realizing that, ’Hey, things aren’t just going our way, we’re doing something right,’ and sticking with it. I think that combination of those two things is something we all need to look at.”
The likely addition of defenseman Jon Merrill and winger Reid Boucher next season — both of whom finished this season with Albany — could give the power play a boost. They were both thrown into the man-advantage situations in their first games with Albany.
Still, what the Devils need is someone who is both tough enough to stand up in front of the net and skillful enough to pot any rebounds that show up.
“Well we’ve tweaked it all year,” Kowalsky said. “We changed different set-ups. We probably went with three or four different set-ups. I think the biggest thing is net presence, which is something we had throughout the season, at times. But getting a guy that is committed to stand there and has the size and the grit to stand there, but also has the skill to bury some of those rebounds. I think we struggled with that. Then the quarterback up top. You need that guy. It was inconsistent this year. You’ve got some young kids coming in here, two of them right away in Merrill and Boucher, who made an impact immediately on the power play. I think it can be a personnel thing, but there are a few things, and I think those two, a net presence and a quarterback are the keys to a good power play.”
Kowalsky knows when a team struggles over a stretch of a few years, the coach is usually the first one blamed and the first one replaced. Whether or not he’s the reason for their late-season swoons or their inability to make the playoffs, it’s conceivable the Devils organization goes a different direction next season.
“Absolutely. At the end of the day, a coach is measured in wins and losses, whether it’s justified or not,” Kowalsky 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. I want to win, too. 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.”
But, it hasn’t been all bad.
“I think our five-on-five play, when we were on our game ... I had about three or four coaches — and I’m not a real social guy when it comes to coaches — there’s a few guys I know in the league and that I say hi to, but I’m not a guy who will race down before the game and talk about things. But I had three coaches approach me about how our team plays and how they liked how our team plays,” Kowalsky said. “It’s a good feeling when other teams, when your peers respect you. I think our five-on-five play, when we played that up-tempo paced game and got into our forecheck — and you guys saw enough hockey — it was definitely the bright spot.
“I think a lot of those [young] 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.”
Whitney led the team in goals (26) and points (51) in his second year as a pro. Last season, he led them in assists (29) and points (44).
Whitney took a little pleasure from the last weekend of the season, when the Devils beat Connecticut and Norfolk on Friday and Saturday, playing a large role in both teams missing the playoffs.
“It was disappointing we didn’t get in the playoffs. Last year, we were close at the same time with 20 games left and had a chance to get in,” Whitney said. “The same thing this year, we couldn’t get it done, so that’s disappointing. I thought we had a good team this year, and guys battled hard. We had a lot of lineup changes throughout he year with guys up and down, but I thought we did a good job of sticking together and battling to the last weekend.”
His younger brother Steven played for Norfolk at the end of the season. When Norfolk lost Sunday in Providence and was officially eliminated, the brothers had a short phone conversation.
“I talked to him briefly,” he said. “They kind of blew it there. It’s a tough weekend. We played spoiler this weekend.”