Saturday, November 8, 2014

Catching up with Don Stevens and the Rochester Americans

Reprinted with permission from

Plenty on the docket tonight for Sabres fans to watch as three contests are of relevance to the organization.

The Sabres are at home for their fifth back-to-back of the season as the Edmonton Oilers come to town. Edmonton is one point ahead of the Sabres in the league standings thus far and may be the most disappointing team in the league.

The Oilers are a team that had three consecutive first overall picks (2010-12) including claiming victory in the "Fail For Nail" campaign of 2012, yet it looks as if they're gunning for this year's prize prospect, Connor McDavid. If the Oilers continue to plummet to the bottom of the league (which wouldn't be tanking, would it?) they'll have a good shot at McDavid or the next two top-prospects, C, Jack Eichel and D, Noah Hanifin. Both are considered top-notch prospects who would be at or near the top of any draft year.

And for those interested in seeing them in action, the collegians face off against each other tonight as Eichel's Boston University Terriers face off against Hanifin and his Boston College Eagles in a battle of #5 vs. #3 in the college ranks. Game time is 8pm on NBCSN.

The Rochester Americans are also in action tonight. After a roadtrip that saw them play three games in five days including a 10:45am start in Hamilton on Tuesday to conclude the trip, they return home tonight to face off against the Binghamton Senators at 7pm. It's the beginning of a five-game homestand. Overall he Amerks are 6-4-0-0 but are 4-1-0-0 at home.

I caught up with longtime Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens to get his take on the Amerks solid start to the season and the word "balance" seems to be one of the things stood out to him through the first 10 games. "What I'm liking with the team," he said, "is how spread out the scoring is. [There are] seven players right now with either eight or nine points which shows how well rounded the team is."

Center Phil Varone, winger Joel Armia and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel have nine points each while forwards Mikhail Grigorenko, Tim Schaller, the recently called up Johan Larsson and Luke Adam have eight points each.

Varone leads the team with five goals while Armia, Grigorenko and Schaller are tied for second with four goals each.

It's early in the year so injuries to either the big club or Rochester have not affected continuity within the forward ranks. Up-top, last year's best combo of Varone and Adam has remained intact with a bit of a shuffle on the right wing while Grigorenko and Armia have formed a "dynamic duo" with rookie William Carrier anchoring the left wing.

When the Sabres took on the Hamilton Bulldogs at the First Niagara Center, both Armia and Grigorenko had a goal and an assist and looked as if they were having a pretty good time on their future home ice.

"They compliment each other very well," said Stevens, "although, at times they might try to do too much, especially Armia.

"He's so unbelievably gifted, so skilled," continued Stevens about Armia, "But sometimes he tries to do way too much and doesn't use his linemates as much as he could for creating opportunities."

The thing with all young players is consistency and the AHL is the place to develop that. Armia was wildly inconsistent last season but has been making positive strides. Stevens sees him as "getting stronger and getting better all the time."

What's really jumped out at Stevens when talking consistency is the progress that Grigorenko has made in his ten games with the club.

We need to keep in mind that this is the first time the big center has been in a stable environment at the pro-level since he signed with the Sabres. And he's really taken to it.

"I'm seeing a lot more consistency in Grigorenko than I've ever seen before," remarked Stevens. "He's a much more well-rounded, two-way player now than he was previous couple of seasons."

"Grigo" made a short, two-game appearance with the Amerks for the 2013 playoffs and joined the team for nine regular season games and five playoff games last season. In all he was lauded for his focus upon the defensive side of his game which left him with a composite zero goals and four assists in the 16 games for Rochester.

His progress and strong offensive start is a tribute to how the 20 yr. old Russian approached the off-season. He turned heads when he came into Development Camp in the best shape of his career and turned that into a solid training camp and preseason. And maybe his mental side, moreso than the physical side of the equation, is what has him going well. After a brief bout with disappointement upon learning of his demotion to Rochester, Grigorenko took it in stride and kept on working.

"[Grigorenko's] confidence-level is so much higher," said Stevens. "He was down in the dumpers the last couple of years, but now he's feeling good about himself and what he's doing and rightfully so. It's just building."

Stevens was also quick to point out that the success the Grigorenko/Armia line has been having should also be attributed to the hard work of Carrier.

Carrier was a part of the first trade Buffalo GM Tim Murray made when he was acquired in the Ryan Miller to St. Louis deal. He's a hard-working winger with a good-sized body who can work the corners. The 19-yr. old is with the Amerks because he finished his four seasons in the Canadian Hockey League. He has one goal and four points through 10 games and leads the team in plus/minus with a plus-seven rating.

"Maybe [Carrier's] doing all the heavy lifting on that line, and those two guys (Armia and Grigorenko) are having the fun and doing the finishing," remarked Stevens. "You gotta give credit to the other side, Carrier's been playing real well."

Grigorenko and Armia join Larsson as the first wave of forward prospects geared towards the future Sabres as the building process begins in earnest next season. Carrier and Schaller may end up being important bridge pieces moving forward as the next wave of Sabres prospects, mainly those drafted in 2013, begin to make their presence felt.

Forwards like Nicholas Baptiste and the recently inked Justin Bailey will be ready to hit the pro ranks next season and may be joined up front by collegians like JT Compher and/or Hudson Fasching in Rochester. It's a major step for all of them as they begin to develop a pro mindset with the Amerks.

The defense-corps is already well into that process.

Rasmus Ristolainen is with the big club after skating 34 regular season games with the Amerks last season. Mark Pysyk is being a good soldier, doing his thing in Rochester. Both will be a future part of the new defense-corps up in Buffalo.

And Rochester defenseman Ruhwedel is starting to have a real impact this season with the Amerks.

The offensive-minded defenseman has two goals and seven assists in 10 games. His nine points are second in the league for defensemen. He played 47 regular season games with Rochester last season with a stat-line of four goals, 24 assists and a minus-one plus/minus rating. Ruhwedel has played very well and had points in the first eight games of the season.

One thing Ristolainen and Ruwhedel have in common is their pairing with veteran defenseman Drew Bagnall. The 6'3" 215 lb. defensive defenseman has been a "steadying influence," for the youngins, according to Stevens.

"He's got a good head on his shoulders and plays within his capability," Stevens said of Bagnall. "He allows his partners to go and do what they want to do because he's so good at taking care of his own end."

After a strong start, the Amerks have dropped two in a row and for the first time all season they were held to one goal in consecutive games dropping their 3.75 goals/game average over the first eight games down to 3.20 after 10 games, good for 10th best in the league. They've not been shut out yet.

Goaltender Andrey Makarov got smoked in the last game, a 10:45am start at Hamilton. He gave up five goals on 17 shots and even with a poor outing where he seemed to be asleep, he still has a solid 2.47 goals against average on a .928 save percentage. Keep in mind that the undrafted free agent was the backup to Nathan Lieuwen when the season started.

There's plenty of optimism in Rochester. And there should be. The Amerks are the most important part of the organization to this point with a wealth of talented players set to be passing through on their way to Buffalo.

Only 10 games into the season it looks as if two key offensive components--Grigorenko and Armia--are set to take a big leap on the road to the NHL while their defense-corps is developing rather nicely and their goaltending situation is pretty stable. Role playes like Carrier and Akim Aliu (despite icing the puck three times in a row for which he was benched) are having a positive impact on their linemates and the team in general. An often dismissed player like Schaller is stepping up his game while veterans like Varone and Adam are beginning to find their groove.

They're developing well and are creating a winning atmosphere. Just gotta keep it rolling.

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