Saturday, January 9, 2010

Rick Wamsley Takes the Helm in Peoria


In an effort to promote the American Hockey League and their quality players, The Voice of Sport will look at teams in the AHL every Saturday throughout the season. The teams in the AHL play an exciting brand of hockey and with a mix of veterans and NHL draft picks; the league is a great place to watch some tremendous hockey at a reasonable price. This week's team - the Peoria Rivermen...

When a coaching change happens in professional sports, it is usually because a team has struggled during the season and the management is looking for a fresh start. For teams in the AHL, sometimes the team struggling is their NHL affiliate, as is the case with the Rivermen. With the firing of Andy Murray in St. Louis, Peoria Head Coach Davis Payne found himself the new interim coach with the Blues, leaving the Rivermen in search of a new bench boss. Taking over the helm in Peoria is former NHL goaltender, Rick Wamsley.

A native of Simcoe Ontario, Wamsley played 12 seasons in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs. This is his first time as a Head Coach but he has worked as a goaltending coach in Columbus and as an assistant in St. Louis. He takes over a team that sits third in the Western Conference's West Division, with a 20-13-1-3 win/loss record, four points behind the first place Texas Stars. Playing in the 9,524 seat Carver Arena in Peoria Illinois, the Rivermen are 19th in the AHL on the penalty kill but have excelled on the power play, rolling along at 22%, second in the league.

Every goaltender will tell you, a good defence is extremely important and a good defenceman can be your best friend. The Rivermen have a great D-man in Jonas Junland. Selected in the third round of the 2006 draft (64th overall), the 22 year old from Linkoping Sweden leads the team in scoring with 9 goals and 19 assists. He is also a plus 11 through 37 games this season. Junland played in 70 games for the Rivermen last season, accumulating 31 points in his first year of hockey in North America.

Among the forwards, the Rivermen’s top scorer is 20-year-old Lars Eller. Born in Rodovre Denmark, the Blues selected Eller in the first round of the 2007 entry draft, 13th overall. The strong skating center has played in 29 games this season and is tied with Junland for the team scoring lead with 28 points (6 goals and 22 assists). Eller has suited up for the Blues in five games this season, scoring his only NHL goal on the power play against Calgary on November 5th, 2009.

Ben Bishop and Hannu Toivonen have shared the goaltending duties in Peoria this season; Bishop has played in 20 games, Toivonen in 17. Bishop is a towering presence in net; at 6’7, the former University of Maine star from Denver Colorado was a third round pick of the Blues in 2005. In his twenty games this season, Bishop is 12-6-2 with a 2.60 goals against average and .906 save percentage. He also spent time with the Blues last season, playing in six games and posting a 1-1-1 record.

Toivonen, a native of Kalvola Finland, was a first round pick in the 2002 entry draft, selected 29th overall by the Boston Bruins. During the 2005-06 season with the Bruins, he played in 20 games for Boston and had a respectable 2.63 goals against average. In his career, he has appeared in 61 games at the NHL level with Boston and St. Louis; he became expendable in Boston with their acquisition of Tukka Rask from Toronto in the Andrew Raycroft trade. This season with the Rivermen, Toivonen has an 8-8-1 record with a 2.69 goals against average and .912 save percentage.

Coming off a 5-1 victory over the struggling Toronto Marlies on Friday evening, the Rivermen travel to Chicago on Saturday to battle the sixth place Wolves. Sunday, they return home to take on another division rival the Milwaukee Admirals, a team they are only two points behind in the standings. Seven of their next eight games are against teams within their division, so winning is paramount and the first place Texas Stars have struggled of late, leaving the West Division lead up for grabs.

Unlike most coaching changes, the pressure on Wamsley is not to improve a struggling team, but to keep a good team on the right track and into the playoffs for a second year in a row. With his first win under his belt Friday evening and seeing his team score four power play goals against Toronto, things are looking good in Peoria for the Rivermen.

Next week’s team, the L.A. Kings affiliate - the Manchester Monarchs. Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by jim.cassady on Flickr.com

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