Sunday, March 12, 2017

Pegulaville '17: Jackals folding, Rochester mess, Sabres sliding

Published by, 3-11-2017

When billionaire Terry Pegula took over the Buffalo Sabres in February, 2011 he laid out a picture where no expense would be spared to turn the Sabres into a top-notch organization. In his first presser he talked about taking the financial chains off management while also boldly stating that money would be pouring into drafting and developing (as well as keeping) theirplayers.

"There is no salary cap for the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets," Pegula declared. "I plan on...increasing our scouting budgets, both with bodies on the ground, and in areas we may not be hitting capably, and also enhancing our video department. Starting today, we will bring in more player development coaches, to help these guys become better hockey players, work on their weaknesses, or whatever the coaches think. We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing, and keeping our players in their new Buffalo Sabre family."
True to his word, Pegula allowed upper management to bolster the scouting department. When he took over from GM to amateur scout there were 16 people who represented the hockey department which included two scouting directors, two pro scouts and eight amateur scouts. Today the Hockey Department has a group of six scouting directors overseeing a scouting department of 16 pro and amateur scouts as well as one person devoted to Analytics.

However, it's an evolution that does not bring instant gratification and it's best to keep in mind that GM Tim Murray began to put this team in place nearly three years ago with 2014 being his first draft for Buffalo.

Pegula furthered his player development plan by purchasing the Rochester Americans and buying out the Sabres affiliation with the Portland Pirates. Under previous Sabres owner Tom Golisano, the long-time affiliation with the Rochester Americans went from a lone, 29-year affiliation to a shared one with the Florida Panthers (2005-08) to Buffalo breaking away and aligning themselves with the Portland Pirates beginning in 2008. With Pegula's 2011 purchase of the Amerks, Rochester was back in the fold and Western New York hockey was whole again.

To expand their player development plans even further, the Sabres announced an East Coast Hockey League affiliation with the Elmira Jackals beginning with the 2014-15 season.

Unfortunately for Pegula and his Sabres, things haven't gone quite as planned yet as every organization is going through a rough patch.

Yesterday it was announced that the Jackals will cease operations at the end of this season. The Sabres have three prospects on the team--F, Justin Kea;  D, Brycen Martin;  G, Jason Kasdorf--who've all been placed in difficult situation on a losing team.

According to the Jackals Wiki page, the franchise had been in trouble for years beginning with ownership issues in 2012 when, according to the page, "the Arena owner failed to pay $136,234 in taxes for three years" and foreclosure was on the horizon. Chemung County held off and in 2013 First Arena and the Jackals had new owners.

At the start of the 2013-14 season the Jackals announced that they were "community owned" and that any profits would go back into the community. They lost money and in 2016 the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) took over ownership of the Arena and the Jackals. With the team at the bottom of the league yesterday "the IDA announced that it had sold First Arena to local businessman Brian Barrett [and] as part of an agreement, it was announced that the Elmira Jackals would cease operations at the end of the season."

As of now there's been no official word from Pegula Sports and Entertainment (PSE) concerning the Jackals.

Yesterday wasn't a good day for the Rochester Americans either as they lost. The Amerks are 24-33-0-2 and it looks as if they'll be out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Rochester had made the playoffs three consecutive seasons after Pegula bought the franchise but were bounced in the first round every time.

In addition to on-ice woes there are squabbles over the Amerks home, Blue Cross Arena. Basically the 61 yr. old arena which was renovated in 1998 and is due for a makeover and the city and PSE are not fully on the same page when it comes to the undertaking.

Rochester just secured $10 million in state funding for the downtown arena and while the city and it's mayor, Lovely Warren, have their plans PSE and the Sabres, who are the primary tenants via the Amerks, would like a broader say. "Being the largest tenant, we would like to have more control and active discussion in how the dollars that come in are appropriated,” PSE Managing Partner and President Russ Brandon said. “We’re going to need some changes down the road to ensure viability."

The Amerks one-year lease is up at the end of the season and now there have been reports that "the team is exploring other venues in which to play," according to a recent article by Brian Sharp and Leo Roth of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

"A report on ESPN 95.7-FM," wrote Sharp and Roth, "that team owners, eyeing the expiring lease, had contacted at least one other arena outside the city about hosting the team, led to speculation on other programs and on social media that the Amerks might leave."

Brandon flatly denied it saying the report is “100 percent wrong. We're not planning on going anywhere."

To further what Brandon said, the article points out that "the team already has sent in its game dates to the American Hockey League, officials said, is working with arena manager SMG on promotions for next year, and the team website is accepting season ticket renewals for next season."

As for the Sabres, the 2016-17 season is turning into a disaster as they lost again last night. In the last nine games Buffalo has won only one time and mathematics is the only thing keeping from a sixth consecutive season outside the playoffs.

Buffalo travelled to Columbus last night and even though the Blue Jackets didn't play anything close to their best game, the still beat the reeling Sabres.

This might be more than just a late-season slide, as Buffalo's spiral into the abyss could cost coach Dan Bylsma his job.

Bylsma and his systems have been in place for nearly two seasons and in both Buffalo and Rochester the results have been underwhelming. Last year Buffalo may have exceeded expectations after gaining their footing and finishing the season on a high note, but this year the team seems to be regressing. Although individual players like Evander Kane and Jack Eichel are having stellar seasons while Kyle Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart are around previous expectations, the team as a whole is a mess.

Same goes for Rochester.

Dan Lambert went from Bylsma's side in Buffalo as an assistant coach last season to Amerks head coach this year and with Lambert came Bylsma's systems. The Amerks, like their parent club, is languishing near the bottom of the conference and amongst the troubles with both are goaltenders who are facing tons of leather.

Linus Ullmark, in his first full season as a starter for Rochester, has faced a league-leading 1416 shots-against while the next nearest is 1251. In Buffalo the duo of Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have faced a league-high 34.1 shots per game or a grand total of 2319 shots.

Another area is the Penalty Kill. Buffalo's penalty kill sits 29th in the league (76%) while the Amerks are 25th (80%.)

There are discrepancies as pure talent has the Sabres powerplay second in the league at 23.3% while the Amerks sit at 27th with only a 14.8 conversion rate, but for the most part the overwhelming sentiment with both clubs is utter disappointment.

If you're about to slit your wrists having read the above, take heart in knowing that help is on the way for both clubs, at least with the forward group.

It's best to keep in mind that Murray completely gutted both teams and his primary focus of the rebuild was Buffalo. He had Eichel and Reinhart rightfully bypassing Rochester and this past season saw an Amerks roster that had only a handful of draft picks on the team. William Carrier, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste, all spent most of last season with Rochester but were summoned to the big club this year and spent some good chunks of time in Buffalo. Carrier, who progressed nicely in Rochester played in eight games for the Amerks and 35 with the Sabres until he was felled by injury. Bailey had a two-game call-up early in the season and after impressing during his second call-up has stuck with the team for the last 25 games.

Evan Rodrigues struggled in Rochester last year and in the early part of this season but has been outstanding during his latest call up to Buffalo. He scored his third goal of the season last night and in doing so broke Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky's shutout streak at 182:50. It's highly doubtful he'll be seeing Rochester again as Bylsma tried to give him as much ice-time as possible last night.

Those four--Carrier, Bailey, Baptiste and Rodrigues--managed to seemingly break trough the NHL threshold which is a good developmental sign. Take them out of the equation in Rochester and there's a huge gap that won't be filled until next year.

Defense is still a shaky matter as the Amerks best defenseman, Justin Falk, was summoned to the big club in mid-November and for the most part hasn't left. Veterans Taylor Fedun and Eric Burgdoerfer got a taste of Buffalo but have mostly stayed in Rochester and both have held their own in a mostly dismal Amerks season. Homegrown defensive talent is severely lacking and it won't get much better next season as prime prospect Brendan Guhle will probably bypass the AHL and head right to Buffalo.

Other than that 20 yr. olds Will Borgen (St. Cloud State) and Devante Stephens (Kelowna, WHL) should be on their way to Rochester with an outside possibility that Providence Friar Anthony Florentino could be there, maybe on an AHL or ATO contract, according to Kris Baker of

And if the Sabres can get goalie Cal Petersen signed should he decide to leave Notre Dame early, this next wave of prospects should add a jolt of talent to the system.

Was told last night "trust the process," which is tough to do when the product is in such rough shape. That said, in looking at what the Sabres have done scouting wise--Guhle, Petersen, Borgen, Rodrigues, Stephens and Giorgio Estephan who may also be in Rochester next season, along with Rasmus Asplund and goalie Jonas Johansson overseas--there's plenty of room for optimism even if Pegulaville looks to be burning.


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