Leach will be back, whether with Albany or not
The Albany Devils’ captain this year, 12th-year pro defenseman and Altamont native Jay Leach, really has no choice in the matter.
He has to play next season.
Otherwise, he would finish his career with 499 AHL games.
“I’ve got to get a game in,” Leach said with a laugh when informed of the stat after Sunday’s season finale. “I didn’t know that. It’s hard to keep track of all these stats with all these leagues and teams. I didn’t even know. Well, there’s always next year. I’m coming back. I’ll get that 500th.”
Where he plays that game will be determined sometime this summer.
Leach’s contract with the Devils is up and he is an unrestricted free agent. He very well may be re-signed by the Devils, but he very well may not.
The organization is loaded with defensemen. There are five players who are under contract with New Jersey on one-way deals (which means they get paid the same amount whether they are playing in the NHL or AHL, which also means they will be in the NHL). Then there is Adam Larsson, who has a two-way contract, but will be in New Jersey.
Marek Zidlicky and Peter Harrold are unrestricted free agents after this season, just like Leach and Matt Corrente, who missed most of the season with Albany due to a torn labrum. Dan Kelly is a restricted free agent.
Looking at the other defensemen under contract, Alexander Urbom, Brandon Burlon, Eric Gelinas and Harry Young will each be in the last year of their contract. Damon Severson must return to juniors because he does not meet the age restrictions for the AHL, and Reece Scarlett, who has not yet played a pro game, is now old enough to play in the AHL, so it will be interesting to see how he does in camp.
On AHL deals, rookies Corbin McPherson and Raman Hrabarenka were in Albany all season, Stefan Stepanov was added mid-winter, and both Jon Merrill and Seth Helgeson made good impressions after being late-season additions to the team.
So that’s six guys who are going to be in New Jersey, another two who would be if they are re-signed. Even if they’re not, that would leave two spots in the eight-D rotation in Newark. If New Jersey signed no one to fill them, but promoted from within, you’re looking at Urbom and one other being moved up. If those on AHL contracts remain in Albany, in addition to the ones on two-way contracts, without re-signing Leach, Corrente and Kelly, there are 10 D. Kelly being a restricted free agent, chances are he’ll be re-signed, making it 11.
That’s a lot of bodies.
Yeah, that could mean Young gets assigned to the ECHL for a while again. Still, lots of bodies. And then if the Devils wanted Leach, they’d be making room for a guy entering his 13th pro season.
The math isn’t lost on Leach.
“I’d like to play. I take it year by year, but I had a pretty good year, health-wise,” he said. “I do enjoy this organization. The Lamoriellos and I have had a good relationship over the years past. But at the same, I’m not an idiot, and there are 10 defensemen, young kids who need to play. I guess we’ll have that discussion in the next month or two, and they’re going to go one way or another way, but we’ll see. I’d like to come back. I really feel like there’s unfinished business, I think we still need to change a lot of the things ... it’s not a lot, but just little tweaks here and there that would really put us over the hump and get us into that winning, playoff mode.”
“A lot happens between right now and next year, but he’s a veteran guy and a local guy,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “He’s been banged up the last couple years, and I think we got a lot more out of him than we maybe anticipated. That’s not a knock on him, but he’s had some health issues. We’ve got a lot of D in the organization right now, and there’s some guys who are up for contracts, Jay being one of them. From a management standpoint, they’re going to have to sit down and really look at this and realize whether there’s room, do you sacrifice minutes for a young guy for an older guy. I think that’s the question in a lot of organizations, even at the NHL level, when you’re trying to develop kids. He was our captain and did a good job for us. With the amount of D we have in the organization, it’ll be interesting to see.”
Kowalsky said there’s no set ideal number of veterans to have on a team. Also, putting some of that leadership responsibility on guys who have been in the league four or five years has its benefits.
“I think the league has progressively gotten younger and younger,” Kowalsky said. “That’s a management decision. You want to have leaders in your room, but I don’t think they all have to be 10-year veterans. I think you can maybe start to look at putting some leadership on four- or five-year guys. I think that’s good. We had the Adam Henrique situation. We put a letter on him. I felt it would be good for his development. It as a decision we made organizationally. I think you may see some of that start to emerge. It’s going to be ... if we lose some of these veterans or don’t have some of them return, that leadership responsibility falls on maybe a four- or five-year guy. It’ll give them more responsibility and put a little more onus on them to provide leadership.”
Leach’s leadership has helped a young corps of defensemen develop this season, but Leach doesn’t like moral victories and looks at the record and lack of a playoff berth as a clear indication the Devils fell short again, regardless of player development.
“I think we’re improving. I don’t know if it’s improvement as fast as I’d like to see, but it’s improvement,” he said. “We were in it a little bit longer than years past. At the same time, I’m kind of a black-and-white guy, and I want to make the playoffs. So I’m not going to sit here and say we did all these great things. At the end of the day, I don’t think we got the job done. That’s OK to say. I think we have to confront that and come back here next year with the attitude to get the job done.”
Leach said one of the biggest parts of being a leader for these young players is simply setting an example of how to carry themselves and how to take care of themselves.
“I think, at the end of the day, we all look at everyone and they’re professionals. But I played with an 18-year-old kid tonight,” he said after playing in a defensive pairing with Severson on Sunday. “I know when I was 18, I was a freshman in college, and I looked like I was 18 and acted like I was 18. They need that [veterans to show the way]. They look to us, and you probably don’t even notice it. Personally, I don’t even notice it as much. Just doing what we do and showing them how to be a pro is important. You don’t need a lot — three or four guys who can kind of show the way.”
If Leach ends up in another city, it could add to his already extensive list of teams. He has worn the jerseys of 17 different pro teams. Four of those were in the ECHL (Mississippi Sea Wolves, Augusta Lynx, Long Beach Ice Dogs, Trenton Titans), eight were in the AHL (Springfield Falcons, Providence Bruins, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Norfolk Admirals, Portland Pirates, Lowell Devils, Worcester Sharks, Albany Devils) and five have been in the NHL (Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens, San Jose Sharks).
It makes the four years he played with the Providence College Friars seem like an eternity.
“I know Damon wouldn’t be here next year, but the other two guys will be,” Leach said. “They’re good players, so as an organization, I think the future can be pretty bright, in regards to defensemen. We’ve got a lot of bigger guys and guys ready to step in and take jobs. I think, overall, probably one of the strong points of the team would be defense.”
“Especially the guys who came in from college and juniors, they had some jump,” Albany alternate captain Tim Sestito said. “I’m sure they had some adrenaline because they’re playing in a big league, but they’re some skilled players. Some of our D were a nice infusion and helped some of the guys who played a lot. We have some goal scoring too, so it’s an exciting time to be in the Devils’ organization.”
McPherson played 72 games and showed a plus-eight rating. He was reliable on the back end from the beginning of the season.
“That’s huge for my confidence. Initially, I came in and tried to earn a spot,” McPherson said. “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’s been playing more physically in the second half of the season.
“[Playing with] an edge definitely helps, it upsets the other team, it takes them off their game, it elevates other players on my team,” he said. “I think it’s beneficial for the Albany Devils when I’m playing with an edge. It’s definitely within my comfort zone, but it’s a little bit out of it at the same time. It’s something I have to work on.
McPherson said he will work on being more consistent with his passes this summer, along with his puck handling and skating.
On his strengths: “Definitely using my size [6-foot-5, 215 pounds] and my reach to my advantage on the PK and in the defensive zone. I try to make it hard for forwards to get around me or get through me.”
On what the team needs to do to improve: “We just need to bring a tough attitude every game and want to win more than the other team does. We have the guys capable of doing that, we just have to put all the pieces together and play for 60 minutes every night.”
Merrill came in after finishing his collegiate season with Michigan and played the final 12 games of the season for Albany. In his first four games, he had six points (1-5-6).
“It’s been a good experience,” Merrill said. “Going back in the summer, to know what it takes to be a pro and how hard I have to work this summer. So I’m excited to get home, work hard and come back next year, ready to play.
“It’s a different life than college. Hockey’s no longer just something you do with school. It’s your job. That’s the biggest thing, 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.”
Helgeson proved pretty solid in back in the four games he played, spending the last weekend paired with McPherson. He’s the same size as McPherson, so that left little room for opponents to get through.
Second-year man Brandon Burlon was solid in back with a plus-nine rating over 53 games. Also in his second year, Gelinas added some physicality to his game, which paired with his offensive ability, rounds his game out nicely.
Kelly was a plus-10 on the season and provided some grit to the lineup in his third season.
Hrabarenka was in camp on an invitation, showed the coaches enough to earn an AHL contract and was thrown into a few situations maybe a bit too early. He improved through the season, though, and was at his best when the coaches were getting him to simplify his game instead of overextending him.
Stepanov spent his first month in Albany as a practice player, learning the system and giving the coaches a chance to see how he would fit into an AHL lineup. He eventually got one game, but he finished the season sidelined with an upper-body injury.