Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Rochester Amerks preview as they get ready to hit the ice tonight.

Reprinted with permission from

The Rochester Americans kick off their season at home tonight vs. the Adirondack Flames in what will be a pretty important year for both Rochester and the Buffalo Sabres. An AHL club is almost always the main feeder for the parent club and over the next few seasons the Amerks will be an integral link to any future successes of the Sabres.

Names like Nicholas Baptiste, JT Compher, Justin Bailey, Anthony Florentino and Brendan Lemieux will more than likely be passing through Rochester on their way to the NHL over the course of the next few seasons and they'll take their place within the mix of draft picks, free agents, borderline NHL'ers, career AHL'ers and players on pro tryouts.

In this, like every other season, an array of players will be hitting the ice for the Amerks, but this season seems to have more of a veteran look to it. That will change over the course of this season as it does every year, but for now head coach Chadd Cassidy will have only a handful of rookies when they hit the ice. What he and his coaching staff will be looking for is individual growth and improvement from all of his players in an environment (the AHL) which is constantly changing.

For most Sabres fans, though, all eyes will be on a couple of the first-round draft picks as prospects Joel Armia (2011, 16th overall) and Mikhail Grigorenko (2012, 12th) will be skating top-six minutes for the club.

Armia will begin his second season with the Amerks and will be starting injury-free. Last season he had a broken hand which kept him out until November. It took the Pori, Finland native most of the season to acclimate himself to the North American game, but when he did he came on like gangbusters. In five playoff games he had three goals and three assists.

He will need to develop consistency within the game. The knock on Armia going back to his draft year was that he'd disappear for long stretches, then appear to score a game-winner. He's learning that he needs to bring it every shift.

Long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens has noticed that, saying that Armia's all-out effort every shift didn't seem to be there in the preseason, "but in comparison to last season, there were more shifts on than off for Armia where as last year was the opposite." Armia is still only 21 yrs. old.

Grigorenko is back in Rochester where he ended up last year. The 6'3" center bulked up to 211 lbs. before hitting Sabres Development Camp back in July and continued to impress throughout training camp. He showed that he's almost ready to take the next step, but his waiver-free status and a numbers-game sent him east.

Quality minutes in the AHL are of the utmost importance to players like Armia and Grigorenko and both will be in the top-six mix. Line combinations come and go due to the constant state of flux for AHL teams so if Armia and Grigorenko either start or end up on the "second line," not much should be drawn from it. "[Lines are] different from one shift to the next," said Stevens, "not one game to the next but it's one period to the next, one shift to the next.

"It's constant flow."

Two players that have been a part of the "constant flow" in Rochester are Luke Adam and Phil Varone. Adam was a 2008 second round pick (No. 44) and successfully made the move to left wing. He's entering his fifth full season with the Amerks coming off of a career-high 29-goal year which lead the team.

Varone lead the Amerks in assists (43) and points (61) last year and was named Team MVP. The 5'10" 190 center was drafted by San Jose' (2009, 147th) but was signed by the Buffalo as a free agent in and will be entering his fourth year with Rochester. He was named alternate captain for this season.

Three rookies will start the season up-front for Rochester tonight--Justin Kea, Jordan Samuels-Thomas and William Carrier.

Kea is a big (6'4" 212 lbs.) bottom-six forward drafted in the 3rd round (No. 73) of the 2012 draft. When the Sabres took him there were comparisons to a Paul Gaustad with more offensive upside.

Both Carrier and Samuels-Thomas were "heavies" GM Tim Murray brought in via trades at the deadline last season.

Carrier was a part of the Ryan Miller-to-St. Louis deal. The 6'2" 204 lb. power forward was drafted in the 2nd round (No. 57) of the 2013 draft. Carrier is an all-around winger who plays a physical game and leaves it all on the ice. He's an offensive threat as well. In four years of junior he had 73 goals and 189 points in 227 games (.83 pts/game.)

Although Samuels-Thomas is a considered a rookie, at 24 years old he doesn't really fit the mold. He spent five years in college after red-shirting at Quinnipiac. He had an excellent Traverse City tournament while playing some top-line minutes with Sam Reinhart and Lemieux and had a solid training camp as well. JST is a banger with a scoring touch who's not afraid to mix it up. He was originally drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009 (No. 203) and came over from Winnipeg in a July deal.

The only other rookie on the roster is defenseman Brady Austin (2012, 193rd) and he's the only rookie on the back end. Austin spent five full seasons in the CHL and comes to the team after playing with prospect Nikita Zadorov (2013, 16th) for the London Knights for most of last season.

Austin is listed at 6'3" 235 lbs. and is an imposing presence on the ice. He's a big, strong stay-at-home defenseman who's surprisingly mobile and can chip in a bit offensively. He had nine goals in 67 regular season games and added a goal in four playoff games for the Knights last season.

He's joining a veteran group of defensemen lead by team captain Drew Bagnall. Bagnall is a tough, stay-at-home defenseman who has played in over 400 AHL games and over 50 playoff games in seven seasons. Last season he took Rasmus Ristolainen under his wing and showed him the ropes.

Amongst the size and toughness, which includes 6'3" 227 lb. Nick Petrecki, are puck-movers Chad Ruhwedel (FA, 2013) and Jerome Leduc (2010, 68th.)

Ruhwedel came out of UMASS-Lowell college looking for, and receiving, an immediate shot with an NHL team. The Sabres signed him and he played seven games to finish out the 2012-13 season. Ruhwedel was able to add some offense in the AHL playoffs last season with two goals and five points in five games. Buffalo re-signed him this off season to a two-year contract extension.

Leduc enters the final year of his entry-level contract and will need to step it up. He's an excellent skater who was thought of as a scorer when the team drafted him out of the QMJHL. So far his offensive prowess has not shown up in Rochester. Could be a make or break year for him.

Joining the Amerks today is F, Johan Larsson who has been cleared to play by the medical staff. Larsson was injured after taking an elbow to the head from Peter Granberg in a preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The team should know enough about Larsson as he played in 51 games for Rochester last year scoring 15 goals and 41 points in 51 games. Larsson being sent down is another numbers move as he, like Grigorenko, does not need to clear waivers. Since his time in Buffalo was limited this preseason, he'll need to get up to game speed before he can muck it up on the big club. But he's raring to go, "It's been a long wait," he said. "Obviously the injury came at the wrong time but that happens. I just feel excited to get going."

Also of note is that free agent forward Akim Aliu was signed to a 25-day pro tryout contract and the team will have the opportunity to get a good look at him.

Aliu is another big body who can skate and chip in offensively. He had two goals in the Amerks first preseason game, and assisted on the only goal in a 1-0 victory in the second one. He'll be an interesting player to watch as he seems ready to go. Although not thrilled with the PTO, he gets it.

"Obviously I'm a little bit disappointed. I have a lot of games in this league," he said. "But I guess that's how the business works.

"Every day's almost like a tryout,"

One of the things to keep in mind with the Sabres only offering a PTO to Ailu is that as of right now they have 49 professional contracts and the limit is 50.

One of the strengths this season will be in net as Nathan Lieuwen (2011, 167th) and Andrey Makarov (FA, 2012.)

Lieuwen overtook Matt Hackett for the starting job in Rochester last season and was solid until his call-up and eventual injury with Buffalo last year.

In his stead for the Amerks was Makarov who came in from the ECHL, had a rough start with Rochester, but proceeded to almost single-handedly get the team into the playoffs.

This looks to be a pretty strong Rochester Americans club heading into the season. They'll probably be lead by their goaltending. They boast some good scoring up front and a real good group on the blueline. About the only thing lacking, said Stevens, is scoring from the backend.

A definitive outlook for the Amerks is elusive as they, like any other AHL team, is in a constant state of flux, something that Stevens pointed out when I asked him about his read on the upcoming season.

"This is the American Hockey League," he said, "it's a place where we don't control our own destiny. It's all dependent upon what happens with the parent club."

For this season, he's believes there will be an improvement over last season. "It seems like [the Amerks] are improving every year and it's going to be a better year than what it was last year."

Which is what each and every player hopes for themselves on an individual basis.

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