Thursday, October 15, 2015

Catching up with long-time Amerks broadcaster, Don Stevens

Reprinted with permission from

When you bring three top-six players into the forward ranks for an organization like the Buffalo Sabres did from February to June this year, lost in the immediacy of the affect it will have on the big club is the benefits trickle right on down to the farm club.
Evander Kane (acquired via a trade with the Winnipeg Jets,) Jack Eichel (drafted 2nd overall, 2015) and Ryan O’Reilly (acquired from the Colorado Avalanche the day of the 2015 NHL Draft) immediately added legitimacy to the top-six forward ranks for Buffalo. And with those three joining Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson in the top-six mix, the rest of the forwards dropped down into place to the point where solid bottom-six players were squeezed out and ended up in the AHL playing for the Rochester Americans. It’s something not lost on long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens.
When asked by phone if there was a totally different feel for the Americans this year as opposed to last year, Stevens pointed out that the 2014-15 Amerks started out very well and that there was a good feeling about the team. He said if there's a at this stage of the season it's “not necessarily with the team, it’s with the organization,” and how they added depth.
“The depth is so much better than before,” said Stevens, “[Last year] you knew you were going to be losing some players [to call-ups and injuries] and that you would be having trouble replacing the talent-level of those players.
“This year [Buffalo’s] talent-level increased with so many more quality-type players to pick from here in Rochester now, and then Rochester has some players that could play [for the Amerks] that have been sent to Elmira (Buffalo’s ECHL affiliation.) There’s a lot more depth, a lot more positive aspect to the [situation] should there be injuries."

Because of that depth, especially up-front, head coach Randy Cunneyworth can roll four lines which has benefitted Matt Ellis early on. Ellis was with rookie Jean Dupuy (FA, 2014) and William Carrier (2013, 57th-overall, LAK) until the latter was felled by injury. That trio rocked the 6-4 season-opening win over the Lake Erie Monsters (CLB.) Ellis had the hat trick, his first since 2007, and Dupuy assisted on all three Ellis goals with two helpers being primary assists.

In the next game vs. a Utica Comets (VAN) that had made it to the Calder Cup Finals last season, 22 yr. old Jack Nevins replaced the injured Carrier on that line and proceeded to score his first professional goal (the game-winner) in his first game with the Amerks. Both Ellis and Dupuy assisted on Nevins' goal and after two games Ellis sits atop the leader board in goals and points for Rochester with 3+1 while Dupuy has four assists.

GM Tim Murray brought in a key, veteran piece in the off season to help anchor the forwards. Cal O'Reilly, brother of Sabres center Ryan, and a 10-year veteran was signed in the offseason. O'Reilly's a skilled, playmaking centerman who had 61 points (10+51) for Utica last season and is the captain of Rochester. He joined Rochester veterans Phil Varone, who's lead the team in scoring three of the last four years, and Tim Schaller who was second on the team last year with 43 pints (15+28.)

The parade of youngins through Rochester to Buffalo begins in earnest this season as the 2013 draft class has given the organization two right wingers cutting their teeth for the Amerks. Rookies Justin Bailey (52nd) and Nicolas Baptiste (69th,) who was signed not long after Murray took over as GM, got their introduction to the professional game over the weekend.

Bailey's a big (6'4", 206 lbs,) burgeoning powerforward who notched his first professional point (an assist) against Utica. He was on a line that game with Schaller and 24 yr. old Jerry D'Amigo whom Murray acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in December, 2014 for Luke Adam. Although Baptiste is still without a point, he's got the speed and the skill and will figure it out soon enough.  "He's finding out that his speed is going to do a lot for him," said Stevens of Baptiste. "He's experimenting with things to see what he can and can't do, but he'll figure it out."

Another rookie, Evan Rodrigues (2015, FA) got himself on the scoreboard against Lake Erie with a primary assist on linemate Jason Akeson's first goal of the year. Rodrigues, who played on Jack Eichel's wing for Boston University last season and was second to Eichel in scoring with 61 points (21+40,) had an impressive training camp in Buffalo and fell just shy of making the team. He and Akeson have been on O'Reilly's wings and Stevens called them the most consistent trio thus far.

Rodrigues is a very smart player who finds open ice, something he was able to do in training camp and into the preseason. Early on in his first professional season, it's been a little more difficult not so much because that knack abandoned him, but moreso because the defenders he's been facing in the AHL haven't been where he expects them to be.

"There's a different game between the NHL and American Hockey League," remarked Stevens. "In the NHL it's all so set, everybody seems like they're always in the right position at the right time you kind of know where everybody's going to be. The AHL is a little more scrambly which makes it more interesting.  Sometimes you're pretty sure you're going to have an opening [one place] and there's [a player] there for some reason. It just takes a while to figure it out.

"[Rodrigues] is playing well and he's going to get better. The talent-level is there and he'll improve the more he plays."

Defense might be a little trickier and is more of a work in progress then the forward ranks as Murray traded away some pretty good defensemen in Tyler Myers (WPG) and Nikita Zadorov (COL) to acquire Kane and Ryan O'Reilly, respectively. As additions add depth, subtractions take away. The Americans also lost top d-man Mark Pysyk to graduation while 22 yr. old Jake McCabe has been given the opportunity to stick with the big club because of injuries to the d-corps in Buffalo.

Murray added 25 yr. old Colby Robak via free agency this off season and with another 25 yr. old in Matt Donovan being waived, the Amerks blueline could end up being stronger should he clear and report to Rochester.

Top-pairing defenseman and powerplay quarterback Chad Ruhwedel (25 yrs. old) is back for the Amerks along with Jerome Leduc (2010, 68th) who re-upped for another season. The 23-yr. old Leduc made a strong comeback from a poor start last year and ended up winning  the Rob Zabelny Unsung Hero award. He scored the first goal of the 2015-16 season for Rochester. Twenty-two yr. old Brady Austin (2012, 193rd) and Josh Chapman (2015, FA) are the youngest in the group.

Despite the two wins, Rochester has given up a ton of shots and were it not for the stellar goaltending of Nathan Lieuwen in game-one and Linus Ullmark in game-two there may have been different outcomes. Lieuwen, who's now fully recovered from concussion symptoms stopped 35 of 38 shots in the opener while Ullmark, who quickly recuperated from elective, double-hip surgery in April, stood on his head vs. Utica stopping all but one of the Comets' 39 shots.

With Lieuwen backing up Chad Johnson in Buffalo, the play of Ullmark surprised and delighted Sabres fans.

Ullmark was originally slated for a December return to action, then it was pushed up to November but his healing powers had him in a game some six to eight weeks before the original time. At the time he was cleared, Stevens expected that he'd be backing up Lieuwen for a couple of games but the team put him right into the lineup. "That was the surprise, that he went right in and was playing" said Stevens of Ullmark, "and he certainly looked as if he was ready. He looked like he was in mid-season form."

Stevens, rightfully so, cautions against being overly optimistic as Ullmark had the adrenaline pumping for his first appearance in North America. But for an organization with question marks surrounding the goaltending position, it's not hard to get fired up about play like that.

There's a strong nucleus in Rochester and over the course of the next couple of seasons the organization will see an influx of drafted talent beginning their professional journey with the Amerks. As mentioned, up-front are Bailey and Baptiste leading the way. Next year the door will open for the likes of 2014 draft picks Eric Cornel (44th) and Vaclav Karabacek (49th) as well as the possibility of a North American arrival of Gustav Possler (2013, 130th) and Victor Olofsson (2014, 181st) from the Swedish Elite League.

The defense will really get a boost if, as expected, Anthony Florentino (2013, 143rd) of the 2015 NCAA Hockey Champion Providence Friars decides to turn pro. Nineteen yr. old Brycen Martin will be eligible to turn pro as well. Martin's off to a strong start in Saskatoon with nine points (1+8) in seven games for the Blades.

There's a lot of excitement in Sabreland these days and it reaches all the way over to Rochester and down to Elmira. Stevens doesn't hesitate to include other entities under the Pegula Sports and Entertainment umbrella like the Buffalo Bills and HARBORCENTER as reasons for excitement. "Within the whole organization, with all that's going on, things are growing by leaps and bounds and it's something we can be very proud of," said Stevens.

It's been a while since there's been this much excitement emanating from the Buffalo sports world and like Stevens said with chuckle and some relief, "It's about time, right?"


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