Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Amerks start anew with new faces abound and Don Stevens still at the mike

Published by, 10-6-2017

The last time the Rochester Americans were significant in the AHL was in 2004-05 when the NHL was in a full-season lockout mode and a group dubbed "The Rochester Guys" were roaming the ice. A few years down the road Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Paul Gaustad along with goalie Ryan Miller would play lead roles for the Sabres, but for that one season together in Rochester they were all plying their trade as a group and learning a relatively new system that would serve them and the Sabres well up in Buffalo.

There was an excitement about that team as the NHL lockout allowed for some very talented players to not only all grow together at the AHL-level for a season but to also achieve a level of success as well. The Amerks were a premier AHL franchise at the time having been to the playoffs 16 consecutive years, winning the Calder Cup in 1995-96.

Also in that '04-05 group was veteran player Jason Botterill, the Sabres present general manager who was in the final season of an eight-year pro playing career.

When Botterill said goodbye to his playing days and hello to a front office position in Pittsburgh, he hooked up with a Penguins organization that had two very successful teams at both the NHL and AHL levels. And when he was hired by the Buffalo Sabres to be their general manager, he brought the same philosophy with him. “My goal is to strengthen the relationship between Rochester and Buffalo," he said at his introductory presser. "To develop an organization that is going to be successful year in and year out, you have to have that development system in place."

That was music to Rochester's ears as the franchise had been struggling ever since that '04-05 season. Their downward spiral began with the announcement that there would be a dual affiliation with the Florida Panthers beginning in '05-06. That would last for two seasons before the Sabres left Rochester and headed to Portland, Maine. When owner Terry Pegula bought the Sabres in 2011, he made it a priority to bring back the Americans which he did, beginning with the 2011-12 season. Change had been the order of the day since Pegula took over and when all was said and done, the Amerks had made the playoffs five times in those 12 seasons never making it out of the first round.

Don Stevens has been "The Voice of the Rochester Americans" for 31 seasons and he's been through good times and bad. He was very happy to hear Botterill talk about building a strong Amerks hockey club and is quite happy with how Botterill constructed the roster this season. "The veteran players he's brought in and the moves he's made are just outstanding," he told me via phone. "All the right things were said (by Botterill at the time) and so far they're proving to [be true].

Stevens also cautioned, "At this point everything looks good. It's always the case that the first week of the season, you're the best team in the league."

Botterill brought in some vets with championship pedigree to help guide the Amerks this season. Former Amerks captain Kevin Porter returns to the Amerks after spending three years away. He was with the Grand Rapids Griffins (DET) in 2014-15 and spent the last two seasons in the Pittsburgh organization with the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins. Botterill is very familiar with Porter and signed him on July 1, the start of free agency.

Although he spent a majority of his time at the AHL-level while in the Penguins organization, Porter played well when called up by Pittsburgh and he also helped in the development of players. Jake Guentzel was one such player. He had a terrific 2017 post season while helping lead the Penguins to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

"[Porter's] a player I'm very familiar with," said Botterill while recapping his July 1 signings. "[He] was a strong leader for Wilkes-Barre over the past couple of years, but also was a player, especially two years ago, that (Penguins head coach) Mike Sullivan really trusted at the National Hockey League level."

Also in the fold for Rochester is well-travelled veteran defenseman Nathan Paetsch who was also with the Amerks in '04-05. The 34 yr. old's last stop was in Grand Rapids as he helped the Griffins to the 2016-17 Calder Cup. On September 12, Rochester GM (and Buffalo AGM,) Randy Sexton brought Paetsch on board for more veteran leadership and to help develop a winning mentality. “We’re excited to welcome Nathan back to the organization as he brings a wealth of playing experience at the American Hockey League level,” said Sexton of the signing. “We’re very confident he will play a leading role in creating a successful, winning culture for our young prospects here in Rochester.”

Sexton himself was poached by Botterill from the Penguins organization and is also familiar with the Rochester Americans as he was with the Florida parent club from 2007-10 while the Amerks were the Panthers AHL affiliate. He moved to Pittsburgh in 2010 where he became the assistant director of amateur scouting for the team. "[Sexton] was the only good thing there was of that whole schlimazel with the Florida Panthers," Stevens said of the Panthers affiliation which stretched from 2005-11. "He was excellent, is a good man with great credentials and is very highly thought of."

It doesn't hurt that Sexton also has the same drive to make Rochester a winner that Botterill does. Back in July at Sabres Development Camp Sexton told the gathered media, “We are not going to rest until we restore the Americans to what I think is their rightful place among the elite teams in the American Hockey League. It will come one day at a time, it will come one person at a time. But we will be relentless in our pursuit of that success.”

The Amerks didn't stop at tapping into recent championship success as they signed another player from the '17 Calder Cup champion Griffins. Forward Kyle Criscuolo is 5'8" 165 lbs. and Botterill described him as one who"plays with a lot of pace, with a high compete [level] and can play the type of pace that Phil (Housley) wants to play."
That pace Botterill and Housley want to see has been seen in Rochester during their preseason thus far, according to Stevens. "The speed of the practices is vastly ahead of where it was last year," he said. "The pace is very good and (head coach Chris) Taylor's really got them moving." Perhaps the pace is a bit easier to pus as the Amerks, according to Stevens, are a little smaller this year and he points to a line featuring the aforementioned 5'8" Criscuolo with Steve Moses (5'9" 175 lbs.) and the biggest guy on that line, C.J. Smith who chimes in at 5'11" 185 lbs.

Rochester did add some heft on the blueline, however, as they tapped into the champion Griffins once again to land 6'1" 210 lb. Conor Allen and also added 6'2" 225 lb. defenseman Andrew MacWilliam who was with the Albany Devils (NJD) last season. Both are steady, solid rearguards who will balance the smaller, skilled puck-movers the Amerks will start with on defense.

Defenseman Taylor Fedun was waived by Buffalo and luckily for Rochester, cleared waivers. Fedun signed with Buffalo last season and re-upped with a two-year, one-way deal. Last season he and Justin Falk started out as the Amerks top-pairing but injuries soon had Falk up with the Sabres. Not long after Fedun got his call and made the most of it. He recorded four assists in his first three games with Buffalo and ended up playing 39 games for the club scoring two goals and totaling 16 points.

Stevens calls Fedun's return to the Amerks "huge" for the club, "especially offensively. He just brings a tremendous amount of skill [to the blueline]." Fedun played 29 games for the Amerks last season scoring five goals, adding 18 assists and was a plus-1. "If he does as well this year as he did last year," said Stevens, "he probably won't be here that long."

Defenseman Casey Nelson had an "impressive" preseason according to Stevens, especially in the first game where he tallied eight shots. His aggressiveness with the puck might be attributed to the new style of play that falls right into his wheel house as smart, puck-moving offensive-minded defenseman. "It's certainly one thing that the organization is trying to do as a whole [which is] trying to get the defense more involved in the offense," said Stevens, "and I think [Nelson] took that to heart."

The big name on defense for Sabres fans is that of Brendan Guhle. The 20 yr. old had two short, six-game stints with the Amerks after his junior seasons ended and he never looked out of place scoring a total of six points (2+4) in those 12 games. Guhle is athletic and very strong on his skates with seemingly effortless long strides to traverse the 200' rink.

Having him spend a full season in Rochester as a first-year pro is not a bad idea. It's the type of development Stevens has been pitching for the last three years I've been talking with him. "There's been a lot of talk that [Guhle] might make it to Buffalo this year," said Stevens, who's entering his 32nd season in the Amerks broadcast booth. "The thing is, for the organization, that process has to slow down. I think these guys need to develop more, have to see more time here (at the AHL-level) in order to get more confident so that when they make that next step they're really ready for it."

In keeping with that theme, Stevens calls the signing of Sabres back-up goalie Chad Johnson "one of the best off season moves for the organization." With the Johnson-signing the Linus Ullmark gets another season in Rochester playing top minutes and the opportunity to build on last year's Team MVP award.

That move, along with the signing of Adam Wilcox who finished the season with the Springfield Thunderbirds (FLA) with a 7-4-0 record, a 2.02 GAA and .932 Sv%, allows the entire goalie depth chart to fall in place. All No. 1's will get top minutes in their respective leagues. Robin Lehner with the Sabres, the 24 yr. old Ullmark in Rochester and 22 yr. old Jonas Johansson in Cincinnati with the Cyclones, Buffalo's new ECHL affiliate.

The Sabres have a group of prospects in Rochester, mostly in the forward group, who will also be spending valuable development time with the Amerks while getting up to speed with the new system. Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste were thought to have the best shots of making the Sabres out of camp, but they're back with Rochester looking to continue to develop. Both showed great year-over-year improvement with the Amerks and the thought process is that proper guidance from vets like Porter, plus some time in the system at the lower level will eventually lead to success in the AHL and confidence to make an impact at the NHL-level.

We can place Hudson Fasching in that grouping as well. Fasching did make the Sabres out of camp last season but was injured early on. He was sent back to Rochester and it took a long time for him to get back to form. According to Stevens, the 6'2" 207 lb. Fasching had a great preseason.

Another player who'll need to come back from injury is Alexander Nylander. The winger was injured at Development Camp and suffered a setback at Sabres training camp. Nylander added some heft to his frame and many thought that he'd have a good shot at landing a left wing spot on the Sabres, but another year of development, especially coming off of an injury, looks to be in the cards for him.

When all's said and done, however, it will be up to head coach Chris Taylor to bring Housley's philosophy to Rochester while also taking on the binary task of icing a winning team and developing the players.

Taylor was also on that 2004-05 Amerks squad along with Botterill, Paetsch and "The Rochester Guys." He spent nine seasons in Rochester, was a captain for the Amerks, a three-time team MVP and is in the Amerks Hall of Fame. He spent five seasons as an assistant in Rochester, the last season with Wilkes Barre as an assistant and now takes over behind the bench for his first-ever coaching job in his hometown.

Botterill and Taylor go way back with the GM saying this about his new coach the day after Taylor was hired, "He was a player who was a high-end offensive player at the American Hockey League level that found a way to contribute in the National Hockey League and play National Hockey League games as a defensive player.

“Goes to show you the hockey sense he has and sort of the hockey mind.”

He also noted that he thinks Taylor is a good fit for what they're trying to do. “I felt there was a good fit there with Chris,” continued Botterill. “I think it’s going to be a scenario where he comes in, he’s extremely well organized. He’s very familiar with Rochester and will have that presence to be able to interact with the players."

"Very few players come into professional hockey and get to the NHL and play the same role that they played in junior or college," said Sexton of the Taylor hire. "Chris was living proof of that. He was a prolific scorer in junior, he was a great offensive player in the American League, but in order to get NHL games he had to play good defense. I think that in itself is a great signal to our players. Young players who recognize that quickly in their careers ascend to the NHL much quicker than the ones who fight it or don't."

"The players like him and the players have always respected him," said Stevens, "which is huge." Yet he also cautioned that the juries still out as Taylor's still a first-time head coach.

Tonight the Rochester Americans begin their 62nd AHL season against the Syracuse Crunch at Blue Cross Arena. In moving forward the team tapped into the past with Botterill, Taylor and Paetsch, they dipped into the winning culture of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization (which includes Botterill and Sexton) and also snagged a few players from the Grand Rapids Calder Cup team. It's been a rough 12 seasons for the Amerks and their glory years look to be even farther away but the mindset is there and there's a strong commitment to resuscitate the franchise with the best people they can find. If successful it will represent a major step towards bringing the entire organization closer to playoff streaks and successes instead of playoff droughts and first round failures.

Of note:  Porter will wear the 'C' for the Amerks while Paetsch and Fedun will wear the 'A'.

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