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Wamsley readying Rivermen for playoff push

by Ryan Richards || AHL On The Beat Archive 

For more than 30 years, Rick Wamsley has been immersed in professional hockey.

His 12-year goaltending career ended during the 1992-93 season, and it immediately evolved into his first coaching position with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Since then he has been a scout, a goaltending coach and an assistant coach for National Hockey League teams, but it wasn’t until early January that he assumed his greatest responsibility thus far: head coach of the Peoria Rivermen.

“The first few [games] were a whirlwind,” said Wamsley, who coached the Rivermen against the Chicago Wolves the same night he took over. “I was trying to get an idea of how to handle everything, from pre-scouts to who we were playing. But it feels much more comfortable now.”

Wamsley, 50, was named interim head coach of the Peoria Rivermen on Jan. 2, after Andy Murray was fired in St. Louis and Davis Payne was called on to replace him. Wamsley, who was serving as an assistant/goaltending coach with the Blues, became the 16th head coach in the 28-year history of the Rivermen and fourth in their five seasons in the American Hockey League.

In the first 15 games with Wamsley at the helm, the Rivermen posted a 5-7-0-3 record, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Seven of those games were decided by a single goal and four of them went past regulation. They have outshot the opposition in seven of their past 10 contests but posted a 3-5-2 record over that time.

“We’re coming off a stretch where we feel we didn’t get rewarded for how hard we played,” said Wamsley. “But we know we have to do better than that.”

While a coach is often measured on wins and losses, Kevin McDonald, general manger of the Rivermen, is pleased with Wamsley’s early progress and long-term potential.

“He’s come in and done a really good job with these guys and had a plan in place,” said McDonald. “He knows what it takes to get to the NHL. He can help all the guys get there, whether it’s a veteran player trying to get an extended look, or a young prospect like [Aaron] Palushaj or Anthony Peluso who haven’t played a game yet.”

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Even though Wamsley’s “plan” is still in its infancy, its cornerstone preaches professionalism and presentation. Practice often consists of working on all aspects of playing without the puck.

“I like a team that’s on time and looks like they’re well coached,” said Wamsley. “But it’s an evolving thing with any young coach and I’m sure if I do this a long time it will look a bit different down the road than it does from now.”

As for right now, the players are buying into Wamsley’s approach.

“He’s definitely come in and kept things under wraps,” said Derek Armstrong, veteran center for the Rivermen. “He’s a hard working kind of guy and is very knowledgeable of the game and now guys are starting to come together and play better because of it.”

Armstrong may be one of those players too. He’s notched seven points (6g, 1a) in his eight games under Wamsley. But someone who has played 17 seasons and has been through a coaching change before (he was with the Los Angeles Kings when Murray was fired in 2006) knows how to handle a drastic midseason change.

“I try not to focus on who is behind the bench,” said Armstrong. “I just try and go out there and play hockey and pass on my knowledge to the younger guys.”

Although Wamsley’s early winning-percentage is below .500, there is still time for the Rivermen to work their way through the tightest division in the AHL, the West. Nine of their next 10 games are against West Division foes, and Wamsley is confident they can right the ship by season’s end to make a playoff push.

“Everyone is going to have to step up in a certain way and accept their role,” said Wamsley. “There’s going to be more pressure on our scorers to step up and our defense just the same because we don’t score very many goals.”

In their five wins under Wamsley, Peoria has looked unstoppable, averaging 4.6 goals per game with their power play clicking at 43 percent (9-for-21). However, in their 10 losses, the Rivermen have looked drastically different, scoring only 1.5 GPG with a power play at just 15 percent (6-for-39).

Numbers are numbers, results are something different.

“We’ve felt like we’ve been playing better than the results have shown,” said Wamsley. “But we know it’s a results based business and we have to do better. We have to win.”