There is no getting around his team’s troubles this season, Albany River Rats defenseman Matt DeMarchi says.
Eastern Conference power Philadelphia had laid consecutive losses – 5-3 and 6-1 – on the River Rats in a two-game series in Philadelphia earlier in the month.
After the second loss, DeMarchi spoke, his voice even-toned.
“Some guys, a lot of guys, are [peeved] that we’re in the position that we’re in. It’s very frustrating. I’ve been frustrated, been a victim of that [frustration] too.”
This spring will be the fourth consecutive one without a taste of the Calder Cup Playoffs for the River Rats.
Which means that for DeMarchi, this spring will be quite a bit different than last year’s, when he spent a bit of it in Buffalo at the 2003 NCAA Frozen Four Championship.
There, his University of Minnesota team grabbed its second consecutive NCAA championship. DeMarchi’s first-period goal in the championship game against New Hampshire sent the Golden Gophers on their way to a 5-1 win.
DeMarchi’s senior year finished up with him being named to the all-tournament team.
The 22-year-old from Bemidji, Minn., enjoyed a successful four years at Minnesota. The stacked Gophers reached the Frozen Four twice in his time there – one of the championships taking place in St. Paul – and he played alongside New Jersey rookie defenseman Paul Martin.
His defense partner for a portion of his Gophers career, Calgary’s Jordan Leopold, took home a Hobey Baker Award.
But his rookie pro season in the AHL has been something different for DeMarchi, a rangy 6-2, 187 pounds.
“It’s disappointing. You come from such a great team into a different position where you have to build.”
The effort to rebuild has been there this season, but the River Rats still sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. A coaching change has been tried, with Robbie Ftorek replacing Red Gendron. Chris Terreri, Geordie Kinnear and Gates Orlando make up a very deep coaching staff. Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson spends time in Albany, working with the New Jersey organization’s young defensemen.
DeMarchi has not been exempt from the long season’s disappointments.
“I struggled at first, of course. Everyone takes their bumps and bruises as they come into a new experience.”
However frustrated DeMarchi has been at various points this season, his on-ice emotions have remained steady.
He only has 68 penalty minutes in 43 games with the River Rats this season. Those numbers are a far cry from his college numbers. DeMarchi left Minnesota as the school’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 473.
“In college, we had roles. [Playing physically] was my role. If that’s what it took for us to win, I was happy to do that.”
“Now that I’m [in Albany], they want me to play a different role.”
Albany has been a pipeline to New Jersey during the 11-year partnership between the two clubs. Beyond the likes of Patrik Elias, John Madden and Sergei Brylin, a slew of former River Rats now play in the NHL after being packaged in deals by the Devils over the years.
Developing players in Albany for roles with the Devils down the road has long been an objective in the New Jersey organization. Players are tailored to roles within the organization, and the by-product of that over the past decade has been three Stanley Cups and a Calder Cup.
But Ftorek stepping behind the Albany bench has brought something of a change to the River Rats’ style. Mostly relying on the trap under Gendron’s watch, Ftorek has stressed puck possession since taking over in February.
“He always tells us to create plays. He doesn’t want us to dump the puck in. He wants us to just get the puck, make a play and not give it to [the opposition]. You win games if you have the puck. It’s puck possession, that’s what it boils down to.”
For sure, the River Rats still steadfastly cling to the trap, a system that has been the centerpiece of the organization’s success over the past decade.
DeMarchi dismisses critics of the trap.
“Everybody complains because it’s the trap. They say it’s boring to play against.”
But it works, DeMarchi stresses.
“You wait for [opponents] to make mistakes. You’re always in the right position and ready to capitalize off their mistakes and create opportunities.”
For the rest of the season, DeMarchi is putting wins and losses aside and trying to build on his season. For all of the River Rats’ troubles, DeMarchi has enjoyed some perks in his first pro season.
“You have to try to look at it as an opportunity, [being] down here with Geordie Kinnear and [Devils special assignment coach] Larry Robinson, who comes down to help. It’s tremendous trying to learn from those guys. If you have a question you can ask them anything at any time. That’s the beauty of being down here.”