Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-5-2017
The Rochester Americans still felt the effects of the 2013-15 Buffalo Sabres talent purge as much of the talent and depth they expected to have last October was soon whisked away to Buffalo when Sabres' players succumbed to injury.
Such is the existence of an AHL team, when something happens to the big club, they reach down to the affiliate to fill their needs.
It was a rough year for the Sabres and one of the nails in the coffin of their 2016-17 season was lack of depth and/or a failure by management to bolster the roster with an outside transaction while stricken with a rash of injuries. Buffalo was rocked by injuries to key players up-front while at the same time injuries to the defense-corps were either depleting the lineup or inhibiting defensemen from doing their job properly. There was a point in time back in November when the Sabres started six players either scheduled to start the season in Rochester or had been recent call-ups from the Amerks, for three consecutive games bookended by another handful of games where five of those players started for the Sabres.
"Rochester West," was how long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens described it. The Voice of the Rochester Americans chatted with me a couple weeks ago acknowledging that the job of the AHL club was as an NHL feeder and developer of talent but lamented the lack of depth in Rochester.
Stevens and I were in the midst of an interview on April 20 the day it was announced that the Sabres had just fired their GM and head coach. Looking from an Amerks perspective, Stevens saw it a s positive move in the right direction for the franchise. "They weren't building properly from this stage (the AHL) up," he told me, "or even below this stage (in the ECHL with the Elmira Jackals.) We need to have depth in the organization below this stage.
"You could see what happened when we'd lose a player or two players all of a sudden we'd go in the tank."
Such was the handiwork of former GM Tim Murray and what both I and Stevens couldn't understand is why the Sabres didn't bring in any outside help when they really needed it. The Sabres were running with around 45 of the allowable 50 pro contracts all season long and it was a head scratcher as to why those slots weren't used bolster depth. Stevens said at one point "nearly half the roster was first-year players or players on amateur tryout contracts." He said "one game they counted eight players on ATO's" and it's something that stuck in his craw.
Without delving into specifics Stevens said "there are certain reasons why [the firings] was a good move for the organization" and that the contract thing, along with the lack of depth, were parts of it.
All's not gloom and doom in the Saberland, however. There was continuity from Buffalo to Rochester on the ice as the players called up from Rochester fit seamlessly into the Sabres style of play. Many looked as if they belonged even if they couldn't maintain that higher level of play and contribute, beyond a handful of games. However, they did show why they were drafted and that they could at least hold their own at the NHL-level.
Here's some of those players who look to be the future of the Sabres and what Stevens had to say about them:
G, Linus Ullmark--The second-year pro was thrown into the fire early in the 2015-16 season when Sabres' starting goalie Robin Lehner went down in the first game of the season. This past season he was the undisputed No. 1 goalie for Rochester. His stat-line isn't great, but neither was the team in front of him as he faced a league-high 1,678 shots against. "He was just fantastic," said Stevens of Ullmark. "He kept us in 75-80% of the games while being drastically outshout all season long. He was just outstanding. He was hung out to dry many nights and he'd just keep us in the games."
Ullmark, said Stevens, "had a tremendous attitude this year. Win or lose he was cheerful, very supportive, friendly and worked well with the guys. They loved him and voted him the team MVP."
RW, Alex Nylander--At 18 yrs. old, Nylander was the youngest player in the AHL who Stevens said needs to grow physically. "He's not terribly short and he's not small," said Stevens, "but physically he's got to get stronger and bigger. I think he lacks confidence and part of it is because he's still somewhat of a boy playing against men."
When Nylander came up for a short end-of-season stint with Buffalo I told Stevens he looked like a waif compared to those he was playing against but that eventually he started to figure out how to maneuver himself around the NHL'ers without getting killed. "That's what I'm talking about," replied Stevens, "confidence. He's so worried about not getting killed, sometimes he's not doing the things he needs to do and stays away from the physical contact." Stevens said Nylander has the skills saying "he looks like he'll be a good one," but that bulking up is the first step on the way to more confidence which will bring out his skills.
D, Brady Austin--It was the second time Stevens used the word confidence when talking specifically about a player. When Austin came up to the Sabres late in the season it looked like a token call-up based upon the numbers he put up in Rochester. But he turned some heads while in Buffalo.
Austin skates extremely well for a stay-at-home d-man clocking in a 6'3" and 227 lbs. "He's not so flashy in that he makes himself standout," said Stevens, "he just plays the game solid, is there game-in, game-out. The thing is he has the ability to do the flash. You'll see him on occasion take a rush and you're sitting there with your mouth open and you can't believe he just did that. He has that ability but I don't think he has the confidence yet."
RW, Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey--Baptiste, a second-year pro has the size (6'1", 206 lbs) and the speed to have an impact at the NHL-level and has developed well through 121 games at the AHL-level. Last season he made great strides scoring 25 goals in 59 games for the Amerks, which Stevens acknowledged but he also pointed out that both he and fellow RW Justin Bailey, who's also fast and skilled and has an NHL frame, are having certain problems in one area.
Both are very fast skaters but on occasion their skill can't keep up with their skating. "They overskate their game," said Stevens, "and they have a little bit of trouble with puck control and puck movement. They both were getting better at it, but they still need to work on that."
D, Casey Nelson--Sometimes you just can't mince words. Nelson was terrible for Buffalo in his first eight games with the club this season and it took him a while to regain his footing in Rochester. But he finished strong to the point where Stevens thought Nelson should have been acknowledged as the most improved player on the Amerks. "The last four or five weeks of the season he came on strong," said Stevens. "I think he needs another year here. He's not all that big and he's got to gain some strength, but he looks like he could be a good prospect."
LW, Evan Rodrigues--Rodrigues, like Nelson, is an undrafted college free agent signed by Buffalo. He struggled in his first pro season, made an impression in two games played for the Sabres and was back at it this past season in Rochester. Although the numbers weren't there early in the season, Rodrigues, according to Stevens, "played very well. He finished strong his first season and picked up right where he left off this year. He got the call to Buffalo and played even better.
"Overall," continued Stevens, "I think he had an outstanding year and certainly has made a case for him to win a full-time job [in Buffalo.]"
One thing about Stevens is that he's a firm believer in having players play in the AHL for their proper development. There are exceptions like the Jack Eichel's of the hockey world, but most of the others stand to benefit from playing at the lower levels where there's more room to make mistakes and the spotlight is much dimmer. Stevens said that about all the prospects including defenseman Brendan Guhle, who looks to be in a strong position to be a part of the defense-corps for the Sabres.
Stevens will have another group of Amerks players to watch next season as change is sure to come, at least from a player standpoint, but he is hoping that Amerks players like Cole Schneider, who's already voiced his readiness to come back, Tim Kennedy and Justin Vaive will return as cornerstones for next year's team. He also mentioned that he'd like to see head coach Dan Lambert return saying, "I'd love to see him back. I thought he and his coaches did an excellent job with what they put up with." But it's the AHL, and you're at the mercy of the parent club and things rarely work out the way you planned them.