Sports Scraps 2.0

From the Sports Desk: Hockey season is here

Note: This entry also appears in this week's print editions of Spotlight Newspapers. I just wanted to share it online since it involves one of my favorite sports. Also, I'm getting lazy. Go figure.

It’s early October. Are you ready for some hockey?

That’s right. It’s hockey season in the Capital District. And we haven’t even had our first hard freeze of the season (just a LOT of rain).

RPI played an exhibition game last weekend, while defending ECAC regular season champion Union played an intrasquad scrimmage. And this weekend, the Albany Devils and Adirondack Phantoms begin their American Hockey League seasons.

We’ll start with the local Division I college representatives, since Union and RPI both had far better seasons last year than either the Devils or the Phantoms.

Union has two serious questions it must answer as it enters the 2011-12 season. Can new head coach Rick Bennett continue Nate Leaman’s work in turning the Dutchmen into an ECAC power, and who will replace Keith Kinkaid (now a Devil) in goal?

Bennett has big shoes to fill behind the bench. Leaman took Union from a perennial cellar dweller to the pinnacle of the ECAC mountain, a top-10 national ranking and its first NCAA Tournament appearance before departing for Providence College in the spring. As Associate Head Coach the past four years, Bennett was Leaman’s second-in-command in all aspects including recruiting. That certainly favors a smooth transition, but you never know in the sports world.

Replacing Kinkaid is likely to be Bennett’s biggest challenge. Kinkaid was a workhorse in goal, posting a 25-10-3 record with a 1.99 goals against average and a .920 save percentage before bolting for the pro ranks with the New Jersey Devils organization.

Kinkaid’s potential replacements are mostly unproven. Sophomore Troy Grosenick leads the list of candidates mainly because he’s had a little collegiate experience (three games played, 2.12 GAA), but freshmen Colin Stevens – a Niskayuna native – and Dillon Pieri are also possibilities.

The good news for Union is that most of its offense is back from last year including leading scorer Kelly Zajac (younger brother of another Devil, Travis Zajac) and sophomore Daniel Carr, who scored a team-high 20 goals. So as long as the offense holds up its end, Union should be in the thick of the ECAC race.

RPI will also be in the hunt this year, though the Engineers face challenges of their own as they look to improve on last year’s 20-13-5 record and NCAA Tournament appearance. Seth Appert’s bunch will have to make up for the loss of three key players – goaltender Allen York and forwards Chase Polacek and Tyler Helfrich.

Unlike Union, RPI has a logical replacement for its departed goaltender as Bryce Merriam returns to Troy for his junior year. Merriam started five games in place of York last year, posting a 2-2-1 record and a 2.71 GAA. Merriam may not be at York’s level (York left for the pros after his junior year), but he should be a suitable replacement.

Replacing Polacek – a Hobey Baker Award candidate – and Helfrich will be more difficult for the Engineers. The duo combined for 35 goals and 51 assists last season. Their 35 goals represented 32 percent of RPI’s total output, and their 51 assists represented 28 percent of their team’s total of 186 assists in 2010-11.

RPI will need veterans such as Brock Higgs (nine goals, 12 assists in 2010-11), C.J. Lee (5-12) and Marty O’Grady (7-7) to take larger roles on offense. Freshmen such as Mark McGowan and Matt Neal – both of whom played significant roles on Canadian junior teams last year – will also be counted on to provide some scoring.

While the local college hockey teams are showing promise, area pro puck fans can only hope that the Albany Devils and Adirondack Phantoms can turn things around. The Devils and Phantoms battled each other for last place in the AHL’s East Division last year, with Adirondack pulling ahead of Albany on the final weekend to send the Devils into the basement.

The good news for both teams is that they are no longer in the same division with such AHL powers as Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Realignment following the Manitoba Moose’s move to Newfoundland (a result of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg) placed Albany and Adirondack into the new Northeast Division with Connecticut, Bridgeport and Springfield. The East Division retained Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Binghamton, Norfolk and Charlotte (aka the former Albany River Rats).

Realignment hasn’t had an influence on the schedules for either team. While Albany and Adirondack meet each other 10 times, they also play Syracuse 10 times each and Norfolk and Binghamton eight times each. Fortunately, that cuts down on the number of games Albany and Adirondack have to play against Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – two teams that the Devils and Phantoms had trouble with last year.

Though nothing has been made official as of Monday, Albany Devils fans should probably expect to see a pair of players with local ties in town when the team plays its home opener Saturday against Springfield – Kinkaid (likely as Jeff Frazee’s backup in goal) and defenseman Jay Leach (an Altamont native). Stephen Gionta, Steve Zalewski and Matt Anderson should also be suiting up for Albany.

Adirondack is bringing back several key players from last year’s team including goaltender Johan Backlund and defensemen Mike Matczak and Dan Jancevski. The thought in Glens Falls is if these guys could resuce the Phantoms from the basement of the East Division last year, they can move them into the playoffs this year.

Time will tell if Albany and Adirondack can move into playoff contention this year. But for now, it’s all about hockey returning to the ice and the hope that it brings.


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