By Christopher Forman and Kevin Zalaznik | AHL On The Beat Archive
No one quite knew where to place the Albany Devils in the preseason rankings. Although Head Coach Rick Kowalsky was back behind the bench and much of the leadership was the same, there were still a lot of new faces–in the front office and on the ice–at the beginning of the 2015-16 season.
So it was a bit surprising when the Devils had a 12-4-3-0 record at the end of November. Thanks to an additional eight wins since then, Albany has cemented itself as one of the teams to beat in the AHL.
As of January 4, the team is second in the North Division and third in the Eastern Conference at 20-8-3-0 (.694). They are undefeated at home in their last eight outings and have won four consecutive games overall.
There isn’t an exact formula in hockey to guarantee wins, but the Devils have established themselves as a team that can get out front early and shut down late. Albany has scored first 19 times, going 16-1-2-0, and it is 16-0-1-0 when leading after the second period.
“It’s a commitment to defend hard and compete,” said captain Rod Pelley. “That’s one of our foundation points. We talked about it all year long. We want to defend hard and control the puck. If you do that you’re going to have more opportunities to win hockey games.
“It’s just a commitment to block shots and all those little details that it takes to win when you have a lead or a tight game. Guys have to sacrifice themselves and they’ve done that.”
That work shot blocking has helped the Devils’ defense rank near the top with a 2.10 goals-against average and a 24.90 shots-against average. This season, the Devils are 17-0-1-0 when allowing two or fewer goals.
Yann Danis and Scott Wedgewood have been a force in net. Danis is third in the AHL with 15 wins, boasting a 15-5-3 record with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage. Wedgewood, who missed the start of the season with an ankle injury, is on a three-game winning streak, posting a 1.67 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage, stopping 81 of 86 shots.
This current roster isn’t a team Albany has quite seen before. The roster has a bevy of championship experience and features players who have earned the AHL’s highest honors. Both Jim O’Brien and Brian O’Neill have won Calder Cups. Marc-Andrew Gragnani helped lead SC Bern to the Swiss Cup, Vojtech Mozik won a Czech Extraliga Championship and Max Novak won an NCAA Championship with Union College.
O’Neill was the AHL’s MVP in 2015, Danis was the league’s top netminder in 2012 and Gragnani was honored as the top defenseman in 2011.
Call ups to the New Jersey Devils haven’t hindered the team yet and it continues to find ways to battle through injuries.
“We’re still trying to find the right chemistry now that we have some options here with some of these guys, but it’s going to make for a competitive balance,” Kowalsky said. “It is fun, we can continually tinker with [the lines]. That’s the beauty of it. Fully healthy we have three lines that are capable of scoring goals. That’s depth we’ve never had here. That’s something that certainly makes us more of a weapon offensively as a team.”
While the veteran leadership on the team has been brought to a new level, the Devils have also seen their youth quickly adjust to the AHL level and contribute in a variety of ways. Joseph Blandisi has showed off the playmaking skills and devastating shot that made him the winner of the Leo Lalonde Memorial Trophy in the OHL last season, producing a league-leading 52 goals and finishing fourth with 112 points.
Matt Lorito has carried over his success from a brief stint in Albany at the end of last season. He has surpassed Mike Sislo for the team lead for points. In 29 outings, Lorito has registered 25 points, including seven goals and a team-high 18 helpers.
Defenseman Vojtech Mozik, in his first year playing in North America, leads the team with a +16 rating.
Fellow first year players Blake Coleman, Ryan Kujawinksi, Blake Pietila and Novak have also played important two-way roles on the team and continue to improve as the season goes a long. They have given the team great roster flexibility.
For the Devils to extend their success, they will need their youth to continue to progress and adapt to the AHL level. If they do, the Devils could have one of the most dynamic forward units in the league.
“If young players are willing to learn and willing to sacrifice and jump on board, to soak it in and work hard there’s going to be success,” Pelley said. “They are good, talented and to their credit they are hardworking and they do soak things in. They bring energy; every team is looking for energy and good young legs. They are learning as they go. Some of the older guys are here to help them as they go with the coaching staff. We mesh well together.”
Despite their early success, the same mantra can be heard from coaches and every player on the roster. To a man, the words around the locker room have been “hard work,” “compete,” and “sacrifice.”