A lot happened after the Albany Devils closed up shop last season.
After finishing the season last in the Northeast Division at 31-34-6-5, going 4-13-1-2 in the last 20 games to get there and being outscored, 65-43, in that span of time, some of the players stuck around.
They skated in Albany for a couple of weeks before heading to Newark as the parent club New Jersey Devils made their way through the playoffs and eventually to the Stanley Cup finals.
The whole NHL postseason helped reshape the year-end feel from the top of the organization on down. It’s momentum the Devils hope to carry into their season-opener Saturday at 5:05 p.m. at the Times Union Center against the Manchester Monarchs.
“It was just an incredible experience all the way around,” Albany right wing Matt Anderson said. “It’s something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure. It puts things in perspective, what we’re doing here, how close we are to being able to do bigger things in the hockey world. I’m not trying to look too far ahead, but it keeps it fresh in your mind as to how close some of us are to moving on. It was a great experience.
“Things did end on a sour note [in Albany], but some of us were able to stick around after and gain some experience and see the success the [New Jersey] Devils had. I think we brought that mentality back here, as opposed to maybe that last 15 or 20 games. Because we were continuing to work out and train for six or eight weeks after the season was over. I think that mentality we were able to build after the season was over has definitely made its way into the dressing room.”
Now with the NHL lockout, it’s more than just that mentality that has made its way to the dressing room in the Times Union Center. Several young players who would normally be playing with New Jersey are in Albany instead, sent here to play and continue their development despite the work stoppage at the top level of the game.
Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique, who is no stranger to the Albany fans who watched the centerman post 50 points (25 goals, 25 assists) as an AHL rookie two seasons ago, is here. As is Adam Larsson, a defenseman who went straight to the NHL for his rookie season last year. Jacob Josefson, a centerman whose potential has been obvious every time he’s hit the ice, though those times have been fewer than hoped for with a couple of injuries over the past two seasons, is also in Albany.
Then there’s guys like right wing Bobby Butler, who played last year with Ottawa, and right wing Scott Parse, who is returning to action after hip problems sidelined him for most of two seasons with Los Angeles. Both of these forwards would have had a shot to make New Jersey’s roster if the NHL were operational, but Albany fans will get to watch them instead, for now.
And this sprinkling of top-level talent is seasoning every team in the AHL this season.
“The league will be a very good league,” Albany defenseman and Altamont native Jay Leach said. “There’ll be a lot of young, talented players, almost like the influx of young, talented players that came to the NHL six or seven years ago and made that league that much faster. Guys had to kind of catch up. I think you’ll see that here. You’ve got the influx of some talented young men, eager to play hockey, and that’ll make the entire game around the league that much better.”
The Devils will carry a large roster into the opener. They have yet to cut down to two goalies and have three healthy netminders still in Albany — Jeff Frazee, Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood. They also have nine defensemen, eight of them healthy, and 20 forwards, 16 of them healthy.
For head coach Rick Kowalsky, the talent he sees in practice every morning is pretty exciting as he draws up his lineup for Saturday. He also, though, has to prepare for a day when the NHL and NHL Players Association finally sign a new collective bargaining agreement and bring hockey back to the NHL. A day when some of these guys are taken away from him and returned to Newark.
“There’s certainly some combinations,” he said. “At times, we’ve had some trouble putting one power-play unit together, but I think I’ve got three right now.
“It’s different, but it’s fun. You get excited, but we’ve also got to find some chemistry among these guys. It is going to change, who knows when, but it will eventually change. Part of that, as coaches, you have to make sure everybody’s prepared. You may have guys taking on different roles as a result. I think the guys are on board and are anxious to be a part of a team that should be able to play well and get an opportunity to play with some good players.”
The Devils will show a slightly different system when they take the ice Saturday, some of the players calling it more a tweak than an outright change. It’s meant to gain more puck possession and pace.
They will debut against the AHL affiliate of the Stanley Cup champion-Los Angeles Kings, so some of the players on both teams were playing against each other not so long ago for hockey’s greatest prize.
“It’s great that we start with that matchup,” Kowalsky said. “You’re going to have some guys that were on the ice against each other just a few short months ago. Again, it’s just a sign of how deep this league’s going to be this year.”
Henrique was one of those guys, turning heads in the playoffs with game-winning and series-clinching goals. He’d been in postseason situations before with his juniors team, the Windsor Spitfires, but never something like this.
“That’s a whole different level of hockey,” Henrique said. “My experience playing Game 1 of the playoffs in Florida was . . . the play was just at a different level. Everyone steps up their game, and it’s every night, too. You’re playing every other night, and everybody’s bringing their ‘A’ game. You don’t want to fall behind the eight-ball, so everybody’s giving it everything they’ve got, and it’s something I noticed right away.”
He was called up early in the season to fill in for injured Travis Zajac, and he turned that opportunity into a rookie season to remember with 16 goals and 35 assists, garnering mention among the league’s top rookies.
“It was a great season for me. I feel like my game came a long way from playing up there,” he said. “I learned a lot from the players up there, watching what they do on and off the ice. Just little things like that. Then learning from the staff up there, gaining their trust throughout the season, showing them I can play here every day and they can trust me in any situation. I want to be one of those guys where the guys on the team look to me for a big play or the coach will put me in for the last minute of play or in pressure situations. I feel like my came a long way and is moving in the right direction. Hopefully, it’ll keep going that way for a while.”
If it does, and if it does for all the players who are making the most of their time in the AHL while the NHL figures out how to share billions of dollars, the expectation is talent will be contagious.
“It’s an instinct. Guys push themselves,” Leach said. “You’ve got a few guys that are used to playing at a certain pace, they bring that culture and mentality down here, it’s just going to raise the bar for everyone and everyone will be playing at a higher level than they would be if those players weren’t here.”