Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Amerks Don Stevens chats about building a winning organization

Reprinted with permission from

Don Stevens has been "The Voice of the Rochester Americans" for 28 years. He has seen the Amerks win eight division championships (none since 2005, though) three conference championships (1996, 1999, 2000) and two Calder Cups (1987, 1996) since his career began in 1986.

Yesterday the veteran broadcaster was kind enough to take a moment to chat about the future of the Buffalo Sabres and the Rochester Americans.

Prior to our conversation, word was getting out that the Sabres were inking defensemen Andre Benoit (COL) to a one-year contract. The move helps solidify the Buffalo depth chart while also affecting the roster in Rochester.

With five veteran NHL defensemen now with the big club, only two spots remain and Stevens thinks Mark Pysyk is probably first in line to land one of those spots. "I'll say he's probably the first one to [get the nod] followed by Rasmus Ristoainen and Chad Ruhwedel not far behind. You never know, but [the Sabres] would need to sign a couple of defensemen before he'll miss out."

Pysyk started the season with Buffalo last year but ended up in Rochester and was a strong influence on the team. In addition to his solid, shutdown role on the top-pairing, Stevens says, "he's a tremendous individual off-ice. He's mature and fun-loving. Just very happy to be playing the game of hockey."

When Pysyk remained in Rochester after the Olympic break last season, despite the coaching staff looking favorably upon his performance in Buffalo, he took it all in stride saying, “I definitely think I need to work on my consistency. I don’t think I’ve outgrown [the AHL] at all. It’s still a battle out there for me.”

"He's smart enough to know," remarked Stevens, "that he's got a long career ahead of him. He doesn't need to rush [his development] too much. He can settle in for the long haul which will make him an outstanding player for the future."

Rushing a  player's development is where the Sabres found themselves at the start of the 2013-14 season. At one point they had six rookies on the team including four teenagers. It proved to be a recipe for disaster.

They struggled mightily out of the gate and the environment was becoming toxic. It was a situation that lead to the firing of long-time GM Darcy Regier and his head coach Ron Rolston.

Two of those teenagers on the team were fellow 2012 first round picks Mikhail Grigorenko (#12 overall) and Zemgus Girgensons (#14.) Stevens juxtaposes their different developmental paths.

"I often use the Grigorenko/Girgensons example as the way you need to develop players," he said.

"Grigorenko's game suffered when he went to the NHL [right away]. He wasn't playing much and he just wasn't in a positive situation."

Girgensons was completely different.

"He came in (to Rochester,)" continued Stevens, "and he gained playing time as time went on. All of a sudden, over the course of the season he just came on like gang-busters. He just flew up the depth chart."

"He was able to come into his own at his own speed," he said of Girgensons, "wasn't pushed into a negative situation."

When former Hockey Ops President Pat LaFontaine reset the organization by sending young players back to their respective leagues, only two stuck with the team--Pysyk and Girgensons--and only Girgensons played the entire season in Buffalo.

The Buffalo Sabres are the envy of the National Hockey League when it comes to the sheer number of prospects that they've either recently drafted or will draft next season.

A month ago I chatted with Kris Baker of who aptly pointed out that 70% of the future Sabres roster could be compiled of their own 1st and 2nd round picks.

But, all those picks (some 17 first and second rounders from 2012 to, eventually, 2015) will mean nothing if they're not developed properly.

Stevens talked about a well-developed group of players who came together during the 2004-05 Amerks season. That core group of young players were all in Rochester at the same time and at the same developmental level, plying their trade during the NHL lockout.

"It shows how important it is to have a good team at this level," he said. "That team was incredible and look how far the Buffalo Sabres advanced after that team graduated from [the AHL to the NHL].

Of note:  That core group had only one player picked in the first round, Thomas Vanek (2003, #5 overall.)

One can debate the overall merits and ranking of that group of players, but one cannot deny that a full year of being in a winning environment was instrumental to the success they had at the NHL level--either as a team or individually.

"The organization needs to develop winners," said Stevens. "You've got to develop these players level-per-level. The more time the kids get at this level, the better off their going to be."

He continued, "In order to win you must have winners on your team. It's a lot easier to turn players into winners at this level than it is to take them to the next level under all the pressure [of the NHL] and then try to figure out how to become a winner. If they're winners here, eventually they'll be winners there."

The Amerks are still looking for that winning formula to get past the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs, but they're trending in the right direction. And although players like Pysyk, Johan Larsson, and possibly Ristolainen may end up on the big club, solid prospects are in the pipeline ready to take their place.

Three other 2012 draft picks are ready to begin their pro career as d-men, Jake McCabe (#44) and Brady Austin (#193) along with forward Justin Kea (#73) are set to make their debuts in Rochester this season.

Up-front rookie forwards Jordan Samuels-Thomas and William Carrier, both of whom were traded for, will be joining the Amerks as well.

Rochester will also see the return of Grigorenko and Joel Armia (2011, #16) and over the course of the next couple of seasons and beyond, the Amerks will see a bevy of first and second round picks skate through. It sets the Amerks up nicely moving forward, something that's got Stevens pretty excited.

After he watched as 13 first and second round picks hit the ice at the First Niagara Center for Development Camp, Stevens said, "I think the chances of [this organization] being much more successful are advancing exponentially. I think the chances of this team, especially at this level, improving over the next few years is great."

It's something that's long overdue. That 2004-05 team was the last team to make their mark in the AHL. Turmoil set in afterwards as the Florida Panthers shared Rochester with the Sabres for two seasons before Buffalo moved their operations to Portland, Maine.

Sabres owner Terry Pegula made the organization whole again in 2011 when he purchased the Amerks, yet the team was still struggling with stability. In 2012 the NHL had another lockout only to begin play in January. Then in February, 2013 long-time Sabres head-coach Lindy Ruff was dismissed, Rolston was promoted and Rochester assistant head coach Chadd Cassidy became the head coach.

All of this instability hindered the developmental pipeline.

With one full season under their belts, Cassidy and his coaching staff will return for this season looking to build upon their limited successes. And player development coach Randy Cunneyworth, the head coach of Regier's core back in 2004, looks to be on board as well, although nothing is official.

After loading up on draft picks and trading for prospects, the next phase of the rebuild--player development level-per-level-- is in full swing. It's something that's been long overdue in Rochester.

But Stevens thinks it should be well worth the wait. "It's outstanding," he said. "The steps forward that we're taking are incredible. Although it's not showing yet, I really feel that this thing is going to bust loose at some point and it will become such a strong organization both on and off the ice."

It's a belief that Sabres fans should take to heart as we prepare ourselves to lug through another trying season in Buffalo.

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