San Antonio -- It doesn’t happen often when players at the minor league level return to a team after a year or two absence skating for another club.
There are many factors out of the player's control, mainly trades, waivers, affiliation changes, call-ups, contracts and retirements to name a few. But sometimes, a player can make a comeback at the AHL level.
Last year, Rocco Grimaldi did just that, returning to San Antonio via a Colorado-Florida trade that brought the California native back to the Alamo City in exchange for disgruntled goaltender, Reto Berra. Grimaldi responded to the deal with an upbeat, mostly positive season here, happy to be back in Texas after bouncing from Miami to Portland, Maine on the occasional call-ups with the Panthers.
“Not too many direct flights from Miami to Portland,” I remember him telling me.
Grimaldi rewarded the Avalanche’s confidence in his abilities with a team-leading 32 goals, the first time in eight seasons a Rampage player had notched 30 in a season since Brett MacLean did it in 2009-10.
Former captain, Nolan Yonkman, changed NHL teams but didn’t depart San Antonio when the AHL veteran blueliner signed with the Florida Panthers after beginning his Rampage career when the team was connected with Phoenix. The 6-6 gentle giant, who was top notch off the ice in the community as well as a bruiser on the frozen pond, has been playing in Sweden the last two years.
As the 2017-18 season opens Saturday night, the Rampage put out the welcome mat for yet another rare sub-NHL prodigal son when Andrew Agozzino laces up the skates in his return to San Antonio. Agozzino arrived with the Avalanche affiliation two years ago, only to sign with the St. Louis organization last year and play against the Rampage with the Chicago Wolves.
“The familiarity with the organization, San Antonio and Colorado and all the staff and everyone definitely helped (to get him back). It’s good to come into camp – in Denver you know everybody and the players and coaches and trainers so it definitely makes a difference.”
This isn’t the first time in his career Agozzino, a proven scorer who’s presence makes a big difference in the Rampage post-season hopes this season, has returned to his hockey roots.
The 26-year old left winger played his junior career with the Niagara Ice Dogs close to his home in Kleinburg, Ontario from 2007-2012, where he amassed 159 goals and 306 total points in those five seasons. “It was definitely a perfect situation.”
Andrew’s folks, Sylvia and Charlie Agozzino, were just over an hour away, which gave their talented son enough breathing room to have a break from parental oversight. “It was far enough where I was experiencing new things and close enough where my parents and family could come to pretty much every home game every weekend.”
Agozzino did get a call-up by the St. Louis Blues organization in 2010 for a couple games with their AHL affiliate at the time, the Peoria Rivermen, where he skated with future NHL veterans Ben Bishop, Ian Cole and Lars Eller.
Undrafted out of juniors, the Avalanche signed the 5-10 free agent and sent him to the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland and he responded with a 20-goal rookie campaign and he added 32 assists. Agozzino followed the club to San Antonio in 2015 with the affiliate change and was on an early season tear when the injury bug bit and limited his AHL action to 41 games, with a nice nine-game stint in Denver with the big club. The cagey shooter nabbed 12 goals and 17 assists in those contests but signed with the Blues in the off-season as his Avalanche contract expired.
The Blues assigned him to Chicago to play for San Antonio’s longtime IHL and AHL rival Wolves and he did well again, with 18-36-54 in 71 contests, which included an extended weekend back in San Antonio.
“I was talking up how great San Antonio was to the guys and they were asking me where to go for dinner. Had a chance to catch up with some former teammates before and after the games so it was a fun weekend to be back.”
Agozzino has enjoyed his five pro seasons, especially those 10 NHL contests where he’s picked up three assists, but the best thing about his year with the Wolves – winning.
“I got a taste for winning for the first time last year (in Chicago). There’s no feeling like it.”
A perennial playoff participant, the Wolves ran into the Grand Rapids Griffin buzzsaw and eventual Calder Cup Champions in the Western Conference semi-finals, losing in six games. Agozzino went 3-3-6 in his first 10 postseason contests and he wants to see that level of success here, where the Rampage have missed the playoffs four of the last five years.
“The goal here is to win. We’re all here to develop and make it to the NHL, but at the same time, the best way to do that is to win. My focus is to come here, have a great season with the team.”
After his one-year Colorado sabbatical, Agozzino inked a new deal with the Avs – so he’s gone from the St. Louis organization to Colorado back to St. Louis and now back to Colorado. Does he see a pattern here?
“It just happened that way. There’s no real reason to it,” said Agozzino about bouncing around like a loose puck in the corner between the two NHL organizations.
And coming back to San Antonio? Was his return orchestrated by him or the team?
“It’s got to be a little bit of both,” Agozzino said. Perhaps the Avs are more likely to issue a call to send in the cavalry from Texas?
“Anyone who signs with any team, that’s their hope, to get an opportunity (callup). It doesn’t matter where you’re playing, you want to play in the NHL and that’s the goal for anyone down here.”
While he’s here, Agozzino has a chance to reach an impressive milestone – 100 goals in the AHL. He needs three more coming into the new season in a league where his name has been scribbled onto 337 scorecards, and he's added 151 assists for 248 points. Not a bad total at all and greatly appreciated by the scoring-starved Rampage. His 97 goals?
“The AHL is a hard league. People who watch it understand how difficult it is to play in it. It’s definitely an accomplishment.”
Rampage fans can only hope Andrew Agozzino’s Alamo City return translates into late April hockey.