In the Albany Devils’ dressing room after Wednesday’s practice, the word “fun” kep popping up whle reporters talked to goalie Keith Kinkaid.
Working through his first pro camp after leading Union College to the NCAA tournament as a sophomore for the first time in its Division-I history, Kinkaid is all smiles.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “I think I’m having a good camp. It’s been fun, and it’s an exciting time in my life right now. I’m just hoping to make the best of it.”
Kinkaid is one of three goalies still on the roster in Albany with Jeff Frazee and Maxime Clermont, but he is expected to join Frazee on the opening-day roster.
The Devils will open the 2011-12 season Saturday night at 7 against Springfield, then will host Bridgeport on Sunday at 4 p.m. Both teams are new divisional opponents for Albany in the Northeast Division, along with Adirondack and Connecticut.
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Expect Frazee and Kinkaid to both get a start over the weekend. The rookie will be getting a chance to apply all he has learned in camp, having spent a good portion of his time in Newark, where he was able to work alongside Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg.
“They introduced themselves to me in camp. They’re good guys,” Kinkaid said. “Out on the ice, they’d give me helpful tips I can use for my game. I’ve just taken all the information in, and I’ll use it.”
He has done well in the preseason, making 30 saves on 31 shots in an AHL win over Connecticut on Sept. 27 and stopping all 10 shots he faced from the New York Rangers in over 31 minutes of work in an NHL preseason game in Albany on Sept. 21.
Getting the start in an NHL preseason game and facing that level of competition was an eye-opener, Kinkaid said. Performing as well as he did, especially against the Rangers — Kinkaid is a native of Farmingville on Long Island — was special.
“I was just hoping I could back up, even if I didn’t get any playing time. To get playing time was so fun. I know a few people from Union came down and watched the game,” he said. “It was even better that I shut out the Rangers in my half, and that we beat them to shut up all of my friends from home.”
Albany coach Rick Kowalsky named a trio of young players who have stood out to him during training camp, and along with defenseman Eric Gelinas and forward Mike Sislo, Kinkaid was an easy choice.
“He played half a game here, and he played a really good game up at Trinity [College, vs. Connecticut],” Kowalsky said. “He made 30 saves on 31 shots. I like his demeanor. He’s confident, he anticipates well.”
In front of Kinkaid is a corps of defensemen that is deep and has a bit of experience at this and the next level.
Their game could be enhanced by a new system put in place by the Albany Devils this year.
“I think this system is made for defensemen who can move the puck, make smart decisions and join the play, get up the ice,” defenseman Jay Leach said. “I think we have the defensemen who can do that. Saying that, there’s still always going to be three forwards out there and two ‘D,’ so we’ve got to work together, and hopefully, we will.”
Leach, an Albany Academy graduate and Altamont native, has worn the jerseys of 16 different teams over his 10-year career. He was traded to New Jersey by San Jose midseason in the 10th year, and decided to stay with the organization for his 11th.
That’s a lot of ice that has passed under his skates, making him one of the first guys in the room a young player may go to for advice or for stories about the old days.
“A lot of them look at me and say, ‘What were you thinking? Sixteen teams in 10 years,’ ” Leach said. “They ask questions as the year goes on about different situations. Something small will come up and they’ll ask about it, because I maybe had that experience somewhere else. They like to know what it was like playing before the lockout.
“Any hockey players like to know what other guys are doing, and I like to lend that knowledge as best as I can. But more than anything, it’s about setting an example and coming to work every day.”
Leach has known many of the defensemen in the room for at least a while now, but is just getting to know Mike Banwell, the rookie from the University of Maine, and he likes what he has seen.
Gelinas jumped out at Kowalsky in the exhibition games as one young defenseman who has improved.
“I knew he could shoot the puck, I knew he’s lanky with reach, but he’s really impressed me in the exhibition games,” he said. “I knew he’s really good with the puck, but young guys under pressure, you know, sometimes once you get into a game … practice is totally different. He’s shown good poise and is patient. I really like his decision-making.”
The blueliners as a group have Kowalsky feeling pretty good about the start of the season. Looking at the improvement of the younger defensemen, combined with veterans, it all gives the coach increased confidence in that back line.
“You look one through eight, and they’re all guys who can handle the puck, move the puck and skate,” Kowalsky said, “which is a lot different look from what we finished with last year.”
Even though the Devils in Albany have had only a couple of weeks — or in some cases a couple of days — practicing together, they seem to be on the same page.
“The communication is there already [with the defensemen],” Kinkaid said. “They run a good system here. It’s really defensive, but it’s going to work out for the whole team.”
Sislo played three games with Albany after finishing up his collegiate career with Maine. To Kowalsky, his camp is the perfect example of how the younger Devils have matured.
“There’s guys like Sislo, who came in last year right out of college, was probably a little bit nervous,” Kowalsky said. “He looks a lot more comfortable.”
Matt Anderson, Albany’s All-Star last season, once again provides some punch up front.
Anderson led the team in points with 23 goals and 32 assists. Leading goal scorer Adam Henrique (25-25-50) still is in Newark.
Chad Wiseman recorded his 16 goals and 28 assists (third on the team in points on the season) in just 48 games. He booked 10 goals and eight assists in the last 18 games, sparked by his four goals in the span of 9:03 on March 9 against Bridgeport.
That was one of the high points for the 11th-year man. Wiseman said he hopes the lower points the Devils endured can serve as a learning experience.
“Hopefully, guys will learn from last year and realize it was a long season, and it was a pretty miserable season,” he said. “I don’t think anybody wants to go through that again, so hopefully, it was a good learning experience. The atmosphere we’re creating now, hopefully, will bring a good start to this season and good habits.”
Focus has got to be one of those good habits, as he said the team has to cope with distractions (like recalls by the busload) better than it did last season.
“Guys have to realize there’s one goal at hand,” he said. “Everyone here wants to get called up, but we’re here to win hockey games. The more we win, the better it looks for each of us as individuals and the more opportunities there will be for guys down the road.”
Another focus has to be avoiding penalties and strengthening specialty teams. Last season, the Devils were last on the penalty kill (77.1 percent) and next to last on the power play (13.6 percent). They also were the most penalized team in the league with 1,927 penalty minutes, 178 more than the next-highest total.
That’s something Kowalsky said has already been a coaching point. In Albany’s shortened preseason game against Portland in West Springfield, the Devils got through two periods without taking a penalty.
“We almost wish we would have played that third period in Springfield, because we didn’t have a penalty up to that point,” Kowalsky said. “Even though the ice got bad, we were like, ‘We might get through a game without a penalty.’ It’s something we have addressed.
“You don’t want to dwell on last year. You want to move on, but the undisciplined penalties, the parade to the penalty box, and, obviously, the specialty teams were all issues for us last year. Out of the exhibitions, in all three of those things, it looks like there’s been an improvement.”
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