Monday, April 17, 2017

Amerks end tough season on a sour note, but some bright spots emerge

Published by, 4-16-2017

After making huge strides last season as the Buffalo Sabres emerged from two years at the bottom of the league with a season of progress before they took a step back this season. Among the issues that plagued Buffalo this season were key injuries, player/coach disconnect, vet/youngin disconnect, a weak defense-corps and severe lack of depth. Outside of disconnects on the Sabres, a troublesome aspect of the entire organization was lack of depth which was exposed when injuries hit hard, especially on defense and in addition to defensive woes in Buffalo, the Rochester Americans ended up feeling the brunt of it.

Whatever depth the Sabres had this season was stretched thin, something that didn't bode well for Rochester. It's a problem that's not unique to the Sabres/Amerks as an NHL club is constantly tapping into the farm team when injuries strike. With injuries mounting on the Buffalo blueline, the Sabres got help in the form of defensemen Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun, Rochesters top pairing. Both were called up in the middle of November and stuck with the Sabres well into December.

From November 12 when Fedun joined Falk in Buffalo to December 17 when he was sent back to Rochester, the Amerks went 4-11-1, were outscored by a 35-57 margin, were outshot 526 to 423 as a defense-corps of Casey Nelson, Eric Burgdoerfer, Brady Austin, Paul Geiger and Mac Bennett, and Brycen Martin, among others, were overwhelmed and undermanned. Rochester went from a middle of the pack 5-5-0 team to the lower levels of the conference.

The thin defense corps left goaltenders Linus Ullmark, John Muse, Jason Kasdorf and Jonas Johansson as ducks in a shooting gallery all season long. Ullmark had a pretty strong season for the Amerks going 26-27-2 with a 2.87 GAA and .909 SV%. He faced a league-high 1,678 shots while his 1,525 saves also were tops. Of note for those of us in Sabreland who watch shootout struggles from Buffalo's goaltending duo, Ullmark stopped 10 of 14 shootout attempts for a .714 SV%.

The Amerks were shut out 3-0 by the Albany Devils (NJD) last night and finished the season with a good stretch going 8-4-1 in the final 13 games. That included a 5-3 home win the prior night against the Devils to close out the home portion of the season. A couple of players also left the ice on the upswing. Forward Nick Baptiste finished with nine points (5+4) in his final eight games and Justin Bailey had seven points (4+3) in his last 10. Both will be expected to make a strong push for the Sabres roster next season as will forward Evan Rodrigues who played very well in his 30 games with Buffalo. Although four goals and two assists isn't mind-blowing Rodrigues held his own in a bottom-six role while showing he has the tools to stick with the big club.

Falk ended up playing 52 games for the Sabres and earned a contract extension from Murray in the process. Fedun is an unrestricted free agent and may be looking for greener pastures after he displayed solid two-way acumen at the NHL-level as his seven assists and plus-3 rating in 27 games would indicate. We're no sure if any bridges were burned this season, but he'd be a nice re-sign for the club.

When the team went in the tank for two seasons, the roster on both clubs was left in shambles. Murray began filling his NHL club with talent, but acquiring that talent sometimes meant plucking prospects from the farm system. That depleted system, especially on the blueline, really hurt this season and it will take more than one off season to address it properly. We can expect an influx of draft picks and free agents to make their way to Rochester this summer but how many and how much of an impact they will make is to be determined.

The Amerks recently signed defenseman Anthony Florentino (2013, 143rd-overall) to an AHL contract and he looks to be a solid defender. "Flo" spent the last five games of the season with Rochester and was an even plus/minus. Up front they'll have Alexander Nylander in a scorers role should he not be able to crack the lineup and in goal, Johansson looks to be the starter next season as Ullmark looks to be NHL-bound.

Although it's not all doom and gloom over there, a 25th place finish in the league for Rochester isn't' exactly rainbows, unicorns and jujus either. Murray has a lot of work to do with both clubs this off season and building quality depth in Rochester is something that won't be overlooked.

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