The Greatest

10 greatest players to come through the Albany Devils, River Rats

10 greatest players to come through the Albany Devils, River Rats
Zach Parise was an AHL All-Star when a year-long lockout made him wait for his expected NHL breakthrough. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Albany Devils fans will take in Thursday night’s Calder Cup playoff opener knowing that their city’s AHL days are numbered. With New Jersey moving its top development base to Binghamton, and with no immediate replacement lined up for New York’s capital city, those fans will lack a local pro team for the first time in a quarter-century next autumn.

Over the past 24 seasons, two editions of the River Rats, and then the A-Devils, have given the league a steady presence in Albany. As of 2016-17, only Springfield, Hershey, Rochester and Providence had housed an AHL franchise for longer with no intervening hiatuses.

While the odds for an eventual return are sketchy, anything is possible. After all, the River Rats replaced a previous Devils partner from Utica, N.Y., which finally regained an AHL team via the Comets 20 years later.

But once this playoff run ends, and for the foreseeable future, the Albany hockey legacy will live through an assortment of alumni in the NHL, especially in New Jersey and North Carolina. The Rats swapped parent clubs with Lowell in 2006, then moved to Charlotte in 2010, giving way to the Devils. Several household name have since stuck in the Garden State or gone on to leave an imprint with other organizations.

The most prominent players to polish their development in Albany to date are as follows.

10. Johnny Boychuk
In the River Rats’ first season as both a Hurricanes and Avalanche affiliate, Albany was Boychuk’s third of five AHL stops in as many years. He dressed for all 80 games in 2006-07, then moved with his fellow Colorado prospects to Cleveland.

He finally nailed a regular NHL roster spot with Boston in 2009-10, and has since been a steady top- or middle-tier blueliner at that level. Through eight seasons with the Bruins and Islanders, Boychuk has never finished with a negative plus-minus rating.

9. Jay Pandolfo
Though he never duplicated his AHL production rate in The Show (his career high there was a pair of 27-point seasons), Pandolfo garnered due recognition as the first layer of defense. Besides being named New Jersey’s unsung hero on five occasions, he earned consideration for the 2007 Selke Trophy.

And Pandolfo did enjoy one surge in scoring output at a crucial time, tallying 12 playoff points en route to his second Stanley Cup title in 2003.

8. Steve Sullivan
A member of the River Rats’ 1995 Calder Cup-winning team in his first pro season, Sullivan was an NHL mainstay by 1997.

A key contributor for five-plus seasons apiece in Chicago and Nashville, Sullivan would log 1,011 games in 17 seasons, finishing back in New Jersey in 2013. In between, he earned the 2009 Masterton Trophy on the heels of a 41-game, 32-point campaign and after missing all of 2007-08.

7. Brian Gionta
Gionta split his first professional season between Albany and New Jersey, then returned to the River Rats for a portion of the 2004-05 lockout year. When the NHL returned, he surged to a career-best 48 goals and 89 points.

Numbers-wise, he has not been quite as spectacular since, only once reaching 60 points within the last 11 years. But he has captained the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres, and he just passed the four-figure plateau in NHL career games.

6. Brendan Morrison
Morrison played the bulk of his first pro season in Albany, then most of the next two in New Jersey before being swapped to Vancouver. There, he constituted one-third of the West Coast Express line with Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund for five seasons.

For three of those years, the troika constituted the Canucks’ top three producers. Morrison eventually went into the shadow of the Sedin twins, then went on a relatively uneventful nomadic journey through five other cities.

5. Adam Henrique
As a rookie in 2010-11, Henrique led Albany with 25 goals and added 25 helpers for the club’s second-best point total. He would only see slivers of AHL action afterward on a conditioning stint in 2011-12 and during the season-shortening lockout of 2012-13.

The following year, in his first full NHL campaign, he led a plebeian Devils team with 25 goals. He has since tied Kyle Palmieri for New Jersey’s lead with 30 strikes last season, then tied Taylor Hall for second with 20 this year.

4. Brian Rolston
Rolston only needed 35 development twirls in parts of two seasons before graduating from the River Rats in the winter of 1995. He was an instant regular in the Devils’ lineup for that lockout-shortened regular season, and saw action in six playoff tilts as part of New Jersey’s first championship run.

He went on to sport four other crests in 16 seasons, dressing for a cumulative 1,256 NHL games. Production-wise, he peaked with a pair of time-leading campaigns in 2005-06 and 2006-07 with the Minnesota Wild.

3. Petr Sykora
Sykora put in his 50th and final AHL appearance during the 1997-98 season. The next season, as a 22-year-old, he led New Jersey across the board with a 29-43-72 scoring log.

He went on to figure prominently in three runs to the Stanley Cup Final. He led the champion Devils with nine goals in the 2000 playoffs, then posted 22 points in 2001. With Anaheim, he logged 13 playoff points en route to a final series meeting with his old mates.

By career’s end, Sykora had won a second Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and returned to New Jersey for a surprise run to the fourth round in 2012. He would ultimately log 721 points in 1,017 NHL games with six different franchises.

2. Patrik Elias
A year-plus into retirement, Elias is the New Jersey franchise’s runaway all-time leader in every scoring category. And only Ken Daneyko and Martin Brodeur have sported the Devils emblem on more occasions.

A veteran of 134 AHL games, all with the Rats, Elias led New Jersey in both regular-season and postseason point production in his second NHL-exclusive campaign. His 20 playoff points tied Jason Arnott as part of the 2000 Stanley Cup triumph.

Elias repeated that feat with career highs of 96 and 23 points, leading the 2000-01 Devils to first place in the Eastern Conference and a return trip to the final. He would finish first on the team’s regular-season leaderboard six more times, generally taking back seats only to the likes of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrique and Jaromir Jagr.

1. Zach Parise
After he signed out of the University of North Dakota in 2004, a season-long lockout pushed off Parise’s NHL debut by a year. He passed that time by placing second on the River Rats leaderboard with 40 helpers and 58 points.

In the dozen years since, he has led either New Jersey or Minnesota in points five times, assists twice and goals on seven occasions. The exceptions have been his rookie campaign and years in which he missed 12 games or more.

Not to mention, Parise participated in the last two Olympics to include professional players, captaining Team USA in the 2014 Sochi Games.

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Al Daniel

2 comments

  1. Kev. 20 April, 2017 at 23:46 Reply

    Nice write up, hockey loving Albanians can appreciate the talent that called our town home and whom moved on to great NHL careers. Although the Devils will be departing many hold out home someone might eventually try and bring the AHL Rangers home to New York State in Albany, right up the river which connects both cities. Be even great if the team was the Albany River Rats the AHL affiliate of NY Rangers hockey. Albany could continue the tradition of developing NHL talent.

    • Al Daniel
      Al Daniel 21 April, 2017 at 10:22 Reply

      Well, if Hartford is ever fortunate enough to regain the Whalers, the Wolf Pack will have to move somewhere, won’t they?

      And how ironic would it be to have the Baby Blueshirts in Albany and the Baby Devils in Binghamton after it was the reverse two decades ago?

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