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Really, really big Albany Devils preview

There was a bit of turnover during the offseason, and the Albany Devils started the 2013-14 season on Sunday without 21 players who suited up for them last year.

Of those 21, five are now with New Jersey, four have been sent to the ECHL or the junior ranks.

Another 12 have parted completely with the organization, and seven of those 12 played 28 games or more for Albany last season.

Defenseman Jay Leach, an Altamont native, along with forwards Chad Wiseman, Scott Parse, Jean-Sebastien Berube and Bryan Haczyk are not on any active roster.

Right wing Matt Anderson is playing with Moscow Spartak in the KHL. Defenseman Stefan Stepanov also went to the KHL, where he is with Moscow Oblast Atlant. Centermen Steve Zalewski and Phil DeSimone landed in the SM-liiga, Zalewski with Lukko Rauma and DeSimone with Kokerit Helsinki. Goalie Jeff Frazee is in the Italy-A league with Valpellice.

Still in the AHL are right wing Bobby Butler (San Antonio Rampage) and defenseman Matt Corrente (Charlotte Checkers).

Frazee played in 28 games for the Devils last season and made a brief NHL debut with New Jersey. Zalewski played more games than any other Albany Devil (73), and Anderson (67) wasn’t far behind him. Leach played in 60, DeSimone in 44, Butler in 37 and Wiseman in 36.

There are a lot of years of experience also lost in that group of players, leaving this season’s Albany Devils with probably the youngest team head coach Rick Kowalsky has had.

He enters his fourth season as an AHL skipper, having a three-year record of 94-108-30. Last season was the team’s best under Kowalsky, as they were 31-32-13, recording their fewest regulation losses under him. The 13 losses past regulation kept the team from making the postseason, as they finished six points out of the last berth.

“We had a good year last year, actually,” right wing Joe Whitney said. “There were a lot of good things that came out of it. We didn’t get in the playoffs, obviously, but there were times we were a playoff team, and there were times we weren’t even close. But I think the preparation and work ethic every day in practice and the focus coming to the rink every day can play a role in those tight games where you lose by one or you don’t win the shootout. Those extra points add up. The way it looks [this season], the guys are ready to go, and we’re focused. It’s up to the guys in the room to keep focused and hold each other accountable and really take it seriously, getting into the playoffs this year. It’s something we want to do.”

Though the team lost quite a bit of experience, it gained a little of that back in the return of Rod Pelley to the organization. He is in his eighth pro season and will wear the captain's 'C.' Last year, he was with the Norfolk Admirals for 60 games, finishing with three goals, seven assists and a minus-16 rating (the worst plus-minus rating of his career). In his 151 previous AHL games, he was a plus-five with 34 goals and 36 assists. It was his first full season in the league since the 2008-09 campaign with the Lowell Devils. He spent the next two seasons as a regular in Newark before being traded to Anaheim.

Only two other Albany Devils have more than three seasons under their belt. Assistant captain Tim Sestito enters his ninth pro season after playing 67 games with Albany last year, compiling seven goals, 16 assists and a minus-seven. Cam Janssen returns to Albany to begin his 10th season, having played 36 games here last season, chipping in a goal, four assists, a minus-two and 65 penalty minutes.

Five rookies grace the roster, though five of them got at least a little playing time with Albany or New Jersey late last season. The one who did not is defenseman Reece Scarlett, who played 67 games in the WHL last year with Swift Current, showing nine goals, 40 assists and a plus-14 (his first plus-rating in five seasons with the club).

Left wing Stefan Matteau did not play with Albany last season, but he suited up for 17 games with New Jersey, scoring a goal and handing out two assists with a minus-one. He played 35 games in the QMJHL, recording 18 goals and 10 assists. The other rookie forward is right wing Reid Boucher, who played 11 games with Albany last season, booking three goals, two assists and a minus-one.

Joining Scarlett for their first full pro year on the blue line are Jon Merrill and Seth Helgeson. Merrill had a goal and seven assists with a minus-eight in 12 games with Albany last season, and Helgeson turned in a plus-two in four games.

“I’m excited to work with some of these prospects who have a legitimate chance of playing in the NHL,” Kowalsky said. “There’s a process here, and they need to develop, but there’s a really good group of young players coming in. There’s some fresh faces we’ve brought in, as well. Any time you start a new season, you’re excited about it. Spending the last three and a half weeks getting to know some these guys and seeing where they may fit in is certainly something to get excited about.”

He said he feels there is a good mix of experience, youthful energy and guys who have been around three seasons or so who have a solid grasp of what is expected of them.

“This group, everything has been positive,” Kowalsky said. “This is probably the youngest team I’ve had in four years. That said, Rod Pelley, just the person he is and the way he plays demands a lot of respect. Tim Sestito’s been a leader for us in years past. These guys are older guys because of their experience. Now you look at the [Dan] Kellys and [Mike] Sislos and [Darcy] Zajacs, some of these guys who have been around three or four years. It’s their turn. They’re not at the mid-point of their career, but they’re getting there, and we’re going to challenge them to be leaders in that room, as well. Even though we’re younger, I don’t want to use that as an excuse. We’ve got some team speed, and I think that youthful energy will make some of our older guys feel a little bit younger. We’re going to expect some things out of some guys who are three- or four-year veterans.”

Don’t forget Whitney.

Whitney has led the team in points his first two seasons. As a rookie, he also led in assists (29, with 15 goals). Last season, he led in goals (26, with 25 assists). He had 0.61 points per game as a rookie and 0.77 last season, and he said he’s ready to step into a leadership role.

“We have leadership and experience, then you look at guys like me and Darce [Darcy Zajac], Sislo and [Harri] Pesonen who have been here a couple years,” Whitney said. “We’re getting a little bit older and more experienced. Then you have the younger guys like Reid [Boucher] and [Stefan] Matteau and those guys that we’re bringing in. I think it’s going to be really important that we set the tone for those younger guys and show them the way we do things around here and start building a winning culture. It’s contagious, once you start it.”

Whitney’s first two seasons on an AHL contract earned him a two-way, two-year deal with New Jersey. He said, though, the new contract is nice, but it doesn’t add any motivation for him. He is as motivated as he was in his first two seasons.

“Not really. It’s kind of the same thing. It might make it a little easier to go up, if that does happen, but it’s the same game and the same mindset going in,” he said. “Just work as hard as you can, and get better every day, contribute and help the team win. That’s the main goal, and the way I look at it, everything else will take care of itself if you’re doing the right things and working as hard as you can.”

The second half of Whitney’s sophomore season was when he really turned it on, and Kowalsky said the next step for the Boston College product is to have that kind of play from Day 1.

“I think the biggest thing with Joe is, in the second half of the season, he played almost like he had a chip on his shoulder. He had the ability, at times, not necessarily take games over, but every time he was on the ice, he made things happen,” Kowalsky said. “I’ve talked to him about that. The biggest thing is going to be for him do that consistently, night in and night out. He’s into his third year here. He knows the league, he knows the buildings, he knows the opponents. He’s going to be a guy now that is circled and on everybody’s radar. He’s going to play against the top D and, potentially, a checking line. So he’s got to find a way to continue to do what he’s done, knowing it may be more challenging.”

“It’s just more of a mental thing,” Whitney said. “I talk to myself, mentally, a lot, in my head. I’m just telling myself things to build confidence. I think the biggest thing is just preparing and working hard. You know, once you step on the ice, you’re ready to go and there’s no doubt or regret. You just have some fun and go, go, go. It’s a credit to the coaching staff for giving me that confidence and giving me things to improve on, but also telling me, ‘Hey, you’re doing great, keep it going,’ or ‘try this, try that.’ They’ve done a great job, and I really appreciate everything they’ve done. That’s kind of where it came from in the second half of last year. You get that confidence, and you just keep going with it.”

Whitney scored a power-play goal and had an assist in the first game of the season, Sunday’s 4-3 loss to Hartford. He was skating a line with Reid Boucher and recently acquired centerman Scott Timmins, and he got the second assist on Timmins’ goal, a deflection on a point shot by Merrill.

Merrill, by the way, assisted on all three Devils goals. David Wohlberg scored, and Pesonen had an assist. The Devils were 1-for-3 on the power play and 3-for-4 on the penalty kill. Goalie Keith Kinkaid made 18 saves on 22 shots.

It’s too early to start thinking about on-ice chemistry, as the Devils have hardly a week on the ice together since the last of them was sent down from New Jersey, but they have the beginnings of some chemistry.

“Off the ice, I think the chemistry is getting better. It’s gotten better every year I’ve been here,” Whitney said last week. “We’ve still got some of the core guys, you bring in some new guys who are character guys, and when we put it all together, if we work hard and really focus on it, I think we can have a really good team this year. I think that’s just as important as chemistry on the ice, is chemistry off the ice.”

“Chemistry-wise, Boucher and Whitney have done some things together,” Kowalsky said. “We’re still going to tinker with it. I think, lineup-wise, we’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts with some centermen who can play the wing, and even though we don’t have a lot of natural centermen, if we need to move a Sestito or a Pelley over, we can do that. We’re going to look at how things work on the penalty kill and PP.”

Let’s look at the forwards, first. The first goal of the season came from Timmins, who played last season with San Antonio, turning in 11 goals, 13 assists and a minus-three. He also played five games in the NHL with the Florida Panthers. He, Pelley and Matteau are the only players truly new to Albany.

The Zajac brothers, Darcy and Kelly, both centermen, return. Kelly is in his second pro year, having played 14 games with Albany last season (2-2-4, plus-two) and 15 with Trenton (6-10-16, minus-three). Darcy enters his fourth season after playing 67 games with Albany last season (9-8-16, plus-one, 86 PIM).

Also at center, Wohlberg enters his second season. He had four goals, five assists and a plus-one in 36 games last season.

At left wing, Mike Hoeffel enters his third season after playing 52 games with Albany last season. He had five goals and five assists, and most importantly, a plus-one. This one year after he was minus-11 as a rookie.

Sislo, a right wing, had 13 goals and 13 assists with a plus-one in 61 games last year. He also is entering his third pro season.

Pesonen begins his second North American pro season after turning in 14 goals and 17 assists with a plus-seven last season in 64 games. He also played four games with New Jersey.

Chris McKelvie, an assistant captain, is in his fourth pro season. He played 47 games with Albany last season, adding four goals, 10 assists, a minus-four and 71 PIM.

Back on the blueline, the seven defensemen Albany is carrying average 22.6 years old, but there are a few of them who can offer some guidance to the youngsters coming in.

Chief among them is Dan Kelly, who enters his fourth season and booked a plus-10 last season in 47 games with Albany. He also had two goals and six assists in a season that was shortened by injury.

Eric Gelinas starts his third year, having played 57 games last season (6-16-22, plus-one). As a rookie, he tied for the lead among AHL defensemen with 16 goals.

Also entering his third year is Brandon Burlon, who played in 53 games last season (1-16-17) and improved to a plus-nine rating from his rookie minus-five.

After Zalewski’s 73 games played last season, the most active Devil was Corbin McPherson, who suited up for 72 games with Albany as a rookie. He carries his two goals, five assists and plus-eight rating from last year into his second pro season.

“Some of these guys, they’re not old by any means, but from an experience standpoint, we have guys who have been with us three or four years,” Kowalsky said. “They’re going to be relied on to maybe evolve into more of a leadership role. Then you insert guys like Helgeson and Merrill and some of these younger kids who have good camps and we have a bit of a book on because they played a few games with us last season. We’ve talked about the defense having a lot of depth, and it was a competitive camp, and all of them had a pretty good camp. It’ll be exciting to see how it plays out, and they’re all great kids who have been working hard. There’s a lot of potential and competition that’s going to be there on the back end.”

In goal, Scott Wedgewood begins his second pro season with Albany, joining third-year man Kinkaid. Wedgewood appeared in five games with Albany last season, going 2-2-0 with a 3.47 goals-against average and .886 save percentage. In 48 games with Trenton of the ECHL, he was 20-22-5 with a 3.22 GAA and .900 save percentage.

Kinkaid, a Union College product, was 21-17-6 last season, appearing in 45 games with a 2.72 GAA and .905 save percentage. He improved in each of those stats from his rookie season.

The Devils started the season 0-1-0, but they get five days to shake it off and prepare for their home opener on Saturday at 5:05 p.m. against the Utica Comets. They then host the Adirondack Phantoms on Monday at 2 p.m. Getting a few points from those games and starting the momentum rolling in the right direction is crucial.

“Our start is important. We’ve started slow pretty much every year,” Kowalsky said. “We can look at shootouts, but I think specialty teams, getting out on that right away [is important]. There’s going to be some growing pains with some young kids in here. What I do like is there’s not too many guys who are unfamiliar with the system. We implemented a new system down here last year, I think it took a solid 15 to 20 games before everybody was on the same page. Merrill, Boucher, Helgeson all got a little taste of it and we got it on the table for them last year, and Pete DeBoer did a good job up there of implementing systems right from Day 1. So they’ve been getting a steady diet of this. Obviously, a guy like Timmins comes in, and there’s going to be a bit of a process there. But we’re excited that everybody is pretty much on the same page at the start of the season, whereas last year, we were still in the process of doing that and we didn’t have an NHL camp to lead us into our American League camp.”

Kowalsky added that as much fun as it was to work with a handful of players last year who would have been in the NHL if it weren’t for the lockout, it’s nice to get back to normal this year.

“From a coaching standpoint, last year was a learning experience that, hopefully, doesn’t happen a lot,” he said. “Dealing in managing that many players and having a guy like Adam Henrique back down here, who went from being a regular for us to being a Calder Trophy candidate to being back down here. It was fun, and it was nice working with those guys, but no, it’ll be nice to get back to a normal schedule, a normal season. We’re excited about some of these young guys and working with them. From what we’ve seen so far, everything’s been positive, attitudes, energy, and we’re going to look to be a fast team. We have to use that youth to our advantage.”

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