Albany River Rats coach Jeff Daniels has had to do his share of roster shuffling this season given injuries, NHL call-ups and — most recently — the NHL trade deadline and end of the the NCAA’s regular season. While Daniels has had to make due without recently promoted Justin Peters, Jamie McBain, Zach Boychuk and Bryan Rodney, he's also seen newcomers Zac Dalpe, Kyle Lawson, Oskar Osala and others enter the fold.
Canes Country had a chance to catch up with Daniels and get his thoughts on the newest River Rats, the success of some of his players at the NHL level and Albany’s push toward the postseason.
Canes Country: How are you feeling about the team heading in to the playoffs?
Jeff Daniels: We’re confident. We’re still in control on where we end up. We lost a little ground this weekend with three losses, but we’re still in control where we end up here. We have big test ahead of us this week with three road games and kind of see where we’re at.
CC: With the injuries in goal and Justin Peters getting called up, what’s your plan going forward? And would Peters be your goalie if and when he’s sent back to Albany for the end of the season?
JD: If it comes to that point, Justin will be our guy. But with him up and Justin Pogge hurt and [Mike] Murphy hurt, Mike Morrison is a veteran guy that’s under an American League contract and he’s our guy right now.
CC: What are your initial impressions of Kyle Lawson, who was recently signed after finishing his college career at Notre Dame?
JD: He’s been a smart player. There’s not a lot of flash to his game, but he keeps it simple and positionally sound. He really moves the puck. He’s just one of those quiet guys who can get the job done. You’re not going to see him go end to end with the puck, he’s just going to move the puck up. He’s been good positionally for us. He’s adjusting to the grind — all of a sudden he’s sometimes playing four games in five nights — and just the pace of things. There’s stuff he needs to work on and he knows that and that’s why he’s here.
CC: He’s a little smaller as far as height, but he’s pretty thick for his size.
JD: Yeah, he’s not that thick, but he’s solid out there on the ice. He’s not a big bruiser, but at the same time he can win those battles down low and, like I said, he thinks the game well.
CC: Obviously Lawson played against Zac Dalpe in the CCHA. Do you think it’s weird for those guys to go from competing to being teammates so quickly?
JD: I’m sure it is, but it’s no different from guys coming from junior where guys are used to battling each all year long and then all of a sudden now they’re teammates and all on the same side. It’s nothing new, but when you’re playing against each other you're enemies, and when you’re together you play on as a team.
CC: The consensus opinion is that Dalpe was one of the better players at conditioning camp this summer. Where is he at compared to when you saw him in the summer?
JD: Summer is a tough time to get a read on a player just based on that it’s more of a conditioning camp, and you don’t see them in game situations. But you could see the skill that he had in the summertime, the way he skated and shot the puck. He’s had a chance to play two games for us this weekend. He’s been good. He’s had a couple chances each game where the puck finds him. He’s a big centerman that we’ve been lacking a little bit down here. He’s a big body down the middle for us that also has that offensive upside.
CC: Does the organization see him as a center going forward? I know at Ohio State he started at wing and then moved to the middle. Do you see him staying there?
JD: I can’t project what [the organization] is thinking, but I know we’re using him at center right now because he’s a big body down the middle. But you think down the road you’ve got Eric Staal, Brandon Sutter and then hopefully Dalpe down the middle. That’s three pretty good centermen, all three have good size. We’ll see where he’s at. We’ll start him at center and that’s the game plan right now.
CC: Speaking of big guys, Oskar Osala’s a big guy. How has he adjusted to coming to Albany from Hershey?
JD: It’s an adjustment. He went from playing on probably the best team in the league and playing on the third and fourth line to all of a sudden he comes here, he’s playing on one of our top lines and his minutes have doubled. So it’s been an adjustment with that, getting used to the extra minutes. But he’s enjoyed that — all players want to play more. But to see the size that he has, see the way he protects the puck and finishes his checks, then on top of that he has the skill to make plays and score goals.
CC: Cedric McNicoll is another guy that came in at the deadline. Did you know much about him coming in and what are your impressions since he’s joined Albany?
JD: I did not know much about him [since] he played in Lake Erie and that’s a team we don’t play. He’s a smaller centerman with some offensive upside to his game. [He has an] ability to make plays and finish plays. It’s his first year in the league, so there’s an adjustment coming in from junior where you have a bigger role and all of a sudden he needs to make an adjustment to be a more all-around player, a solid two-way player. We’ll work on that — it’s no different than a lot of guys we’ve had this year.
CC: Are you surprised at all at how well Jamie McBain has played in his first few games in Carolina?
JD: I wouldn’t say shocked. You watch him down here every day and you knew it was just a matter of time before he got a chance to go up there and do what he’s doing now. He’s such a smart player. He’s very good with the puck, he can move the puck and passes the puck hard. He’s just another guy who’s in very good position, has a good stick and he can win those battles. Any time you have a defenseman who can make that good first pass and get you out of the zone it’s always a bonus. I know it’s a different level, but he was playing those type of minutes down here, so from a minute standpoint it wasn’t that much of an adjustment, but he’s obviously at a higher level now. It’s great to see him doing so well because he’s definitely deserved it given the way he’s played down here for us.
CC: Your defense has had a pretty big turnover of late and really all season. How does Casey Borer fit in to that, and has he taken on a bigger load and gotten his legs back under him?
JD: It’s been a process for him. Obviously with the call-ups and injuries, he’s kind of the veteran guy back there. He’s starting to find his game. He’s missed some time and he’s had some ups and downs, but he’s a very professional guy who keeps working and wants to get back to the level he was at last year. It’s starting to come around. He admits that he’s got to get better. And with our D the way it’s shaped up right now, he’s a got to be a veteran presence for us and take charge.
CC: Jerome Samson has had a couple brief call-ups and has had a big year for you. What does he need to do in your opinion to take a step forward and make it Carolina?
JD: Obviously he’s been our best player down here. What he’s worked on all year is to just be a better two-way player. When he gets up to Carolina, he might not get the chance to play on a top line, so he’s got to be very sound defensively but at the same time provide the offense that he can provide. He’s been working on stuff away from the puck — being more responsible defensively, working on quickness, doing things quicker, give-and-gos, and just using everybody on the ice. On this level, he’s very dominant with the puck. Just hopefully, in time, he gets his chance because he’s pretty much carried us all year with the way he’s played.
CC: I know you had to name your Clear Day Roster — were there ever any talks of Brandon Sutter maybe coming back down?
JD: He definitely can because he doesn’t have to clear waivers or anything to come down. But if you watch Brandon, he’s proven himself as an NHL player. That’s where he belongs. He started the year here with us to just kind of get his game going, and he’s proven up there that, right now, he’s a second line center. That’s where he needs to be — he’s an NHL player right now.
CC: With the team moving to Charlotte but talks of maybe another team coming to Albany, how have the fans up there been with your guys?
JD: It’s been fine. I haven’t personally noticed a change. They’ve always been very supportive of us. As players, they have no control on what’s going on. There’s talk of having another team coming here, and they definitely deserve a team in this area because of the support they do get. Hopefully everything works out where we can get down to Charlotte and everything will work out well there, and at the same there’s a good team coming to Albany to keep everybody happy here.