Three days after being ousted from the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, the Albany Devils cleaned out their lockers Monday and parted ways for the summer.
Three days was not nearly long enough for them to forget the disappointment of their playoff loss, and they still prefaced many answers to the media’s questions with that disappointment, but they will eventually be able to give more consideration to the fact they put together the best season a Devils’ AHL team has had since 1998-99, when they were 46-26-6-2 and affiliated with the Albany River Rats.
“After we settle down for a couple days, there’s going to be a lot of positives,” Albany Devils general manager Chris Lamoriello said. “Certainly, the type of year that we had, getting into the playoffs, playing Games 1 and 2 here, playing in front of the crowd we played in front of both nights, seeing the excitement and feeling the excitement that they had. Definitely, there’ll be a lot of positives for us to look back on.”
The Devils finished with their best record in the eight seasons since New Jersey bought an AHL franchise. They finished 40-23-5-9 for 93 points, going 24-7-2-1 in the Times Union Center, and were second in the Northeast Division, fifth in the Eastern Conference and 10th in the AHL. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, their last year in Lowell, Mass.
Perhaps more noteworthy, the Devils were 11-6-2-3 in March and April, claiming 27 of the 44 points available to them down the stretch. This was a vast improvement from their first three seasons in Albany. In 2010-11, they were 10-10-0-2 in the final two months, including a stretch of 3-8-0-2 to close. In 2011-12, they were 5-13-1-2 in the final two months, going 4-13-1-2 in their last 20 games. Last season, they were 9-13-0-3, and 4-12-0-2 in the last 18.
This season, the Devils were 10-3-2-1 in their last 16 games, closing the season with five straight wins to secure the No. 5 seed.
“I think the growth you saw over the year, certainly the march we made to get into the playoffs in a very competitive division and conference, it was nice to see the kids and the coaches be rewarded,” Lamoriello said.
The players have credited the team’s chemistry this season as a big reason for the success, and they’ve credited the leadership of captain Rod Pelley and assistant Tim Sestito. Mike Sislo, Chris McKelvie and Dan Kelly split time wearing the other “A” throughout the season, and veteran Cam Janssen once again brought his passion and enthusiasm to the team.
“As captain, I’m very proud of the group of guys in the room, the way they handled themselves on and off the ice, the way they responded, the character they brought to the rink every day,” Pelley said. “As a leader and as a captain, it made my job so easy. The credit should go to all the guys in that room, as well as to the coaching staff, who gave us the freedom to take care of our own issues.
“But I think the biggest thing, it was a learning experience for me, too, and it was fun. The culture of the room was fun. I was just talking to the coach, and we can’t really believe the season’s over. It doesn’t feel like it. In past years, this time of the year, you’re pretty drained, but I’m ready for camp to start.”
Pelley, Sislo and Janssen are now unrestricted free agents. More than a dozen of the players who suited up for Albany this season did so in the last season of their contract.
Winning, though, isn’t the primary purpose of minor-league teams. It helps that purpose, though, which is to develop young prospects.
The Albany Devils saw growth up and down their young roster. The team’s leading scorer for the past three seasons, left wing Joe Whitney, had to show consistency while being keyed on by opponents more than he had in seasons past. He finished with a team-high and career-high 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists).
Centerman Kelly Zajac, a Union College product playing his first full season with Albany, led the team in assists and was second in points (12-32-44). Having his previous season cut short early by injury, this counted as his rookie year.
He said what he wanted to prove, coming into the season, was “just being able to play in this league and be consistent, game in and game out.”
To that point, he had six goals and 16 assists in 34 home games, as well as six goals and 16 assists in 33 away games.
A third-year right wing, Sislo was challenged by Kowalsky to be more of a scoring threat, and he responded with a team-high 23 goals, along with 18 assists and 41 points. Sislo also played 14 games with New Jersey this season.
Rookie defenseman Seth Helgeson played all but one game (he was a healthy scratch in the regular-season finale), finished the season with a plus-12 rating and was paired much of the season with second-year man Corbin McPherson, who had a team-best plus-16 through 69 games.
In goal, Union College product Keith Kinkaid won a career-best 24 games, finishing 24-13-5 with a 2.29 goals-against average, .912 save percentage and five shutouts. Rookie Scott Wedgewood was 16-14-3 with a 2.39 GAA and .899 save percentage.
Kinkaid had wanted a chance to show he could be a reliable playoff goalie, as well, and he did that in the Devils’ four-game loss in the first-round best-of-five series against St. John’s, finishing 1-3, but with a 2.26 GAA and .932 save percentage.
The next challenge for the Devils will be to come back in training camp in the summer and start trying to find that same chemistry with what will surely be a slightly different lineup. Some of these players will likely be playing with New Jersey next season, some may sign elsewhere.
The season that they put together, though, has many of the Devils already looking forward to training camp, and Kowalsky thinks they have laid a foundation for future success.
“The one thing that’s constant is change,” Kowalsky said. “No matter whether you win it all or don’t get into the playoffs, it’s going to change, and that’s the tough part of it. But I think the foundation and potentially the opportunity to bring some veteran guys back . . . with being this young, you’re going to expect to have a large amount of those guys [back], then it’s just a matter plugging some holes of some of the guys we do lose.
“The one thing I will say, yesterday was my first day off, and I was already thinking about next year. I’ve had three of four players say to me, ‘I can’t wait for training camp.’ That’s a real source of pride for me, individually, but I think, as a team, to know guys are anxious to get back already, even though it just ended, I think that’s a testament to the group and the way the year has gone.”