Friday, December 8, 2017

Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens talks of culture and confidence in Rochester

Published by, 12-7-2017

If you noticed a difference in the way the Buffalo Sabres played on Tuesday night in Colorado, you weren't seeing things. Heading into the matchup the Sabres were in a serious 1-9-2 rut that included being shut out three times in a row (a franchise record for futility) and goal-less drought that lasted almost four full games in length.

Frustrated with the way his team was playing, GM Jason Botterill shook things up by waiving veteran forward Matt Moulson and his $5 million salary and trading for forward Scott Wilson, a player he was quite familiar from his time in Pittsburgh. In addition, center Evan Rodrigues got the call from Rochester to join Hudson Fasching who had been called up from the Amerks the prior game.

None of Wilson, Rodrigues or Fasching scored a point in the game, but they had an impact in how the team looked as a whole. Buffalo played a fast, north/south game up and down the lineup and were hard on the puck which eventually lead to a 4-2 victory. Two of the Sabres goals were scored at even strength, compared to zero for the Avalanche, one was scored short-handed and the last was into an empty net. It's the type of game that Botterill and coach Phil Housley had wanted to see their team play more often and it may have been their best 60-minute performance in a winning effort this season.

When Botterill took the job this past April, the Sabres organization was in need of a culture change. He had two problems, one in Buffalo and the other in Rochester. Both teams were flailing and on July 1, the first time GM went to work to stabilize Rochester. He signed five players ticketed for Rochester that day including Kevin Porter, who had spent the previous two seasons with him in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

When Botterill came to Buffalo, he brought in Randy Sexton as his assistant GM, and the general manager of Rochester, as well as Chris Taylor to be his head coach, both of whom came from the Penguins. Sexton followed Botterill's lead with Porter and signed more 'Baby Pens' to the Amerks in an effort to help stop a losing culture in Rochester using an influx of personnel that knew success and what it took to get there.

"[The Sabres] came in with Botterill and Randy Sexton and the rest of the group," long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens told me, "and the number-one focus was to change the culture. As Sexton said," continued Stevens, "it's a lot easier to change the culture here (at the AHL-level) than it is up-top because of salaries and all the different things that go on up above. You can't do it as rapidly (in the NHL) as you can here.

"I think we've seen a pretty good change in culture here.

The results have been very good so far as the culture change is taking hold. The Amerks are 12-5-3-2 on the season and sit in second place in the North Division after finishing near the bottom of the league for the prior three seasons.

Porter, whom Botterill knew well from his time in Pittsburgh and whom he spoke very highly of, is the captain and leads the charge of 'Baby Pens'. Sexton, who was Pittsburgh's director of amateur scouting prior his role in the Sabres organization, continued by bringing in four more former Pens--centers Sahir Gill and Adam Krause, defensemen Stuart Percy and Barry Goers.

In addition, the Amerks brought in players like Kyle Criscuolo, Nathan Paetsch and Connor Allen, all of whom were on last year's Calder Cup Champion Grand Rapids Griffins (DET) team.

It's a good mix of players overall. And when you add in young players and rookies from the Sabres pipeline it creates something the team hasn't had in a while, depth, an aspect that's rather crucial to the success of an AHL team.

The Sabres went through a rash of injuries on the blueline earlier this season and have dressed 11 defensemen so far. Although injuries haven't hit the forward ranks as hard, the Sabres did call up a number of forwards from Rochester including Criscuolo for eight games and Justin Bailey for seven. Seth Griffith looked to be ticketed for Rochester out of camp but stayed in Buffalo and played in 18 games for the Sabres. It's the nature of the beast. "But the difference (for the Amerks,)" said Stevens, "is that there's enough depth here, which we haven't had in the past decade or so, to weather the storm.

The AHL is a tough business in that they're in it to win, but they also have a very important role in developing the youngins. The two aren't mutually exclusive and as we've seen, development without winning may not be development at all (Buffalo,) and that winning is the best form of development (Pittsburgh.)

Every time we've talked, Stevens has mentioned needing an environment that allows prospects and players to develop at their own pace and the need to keep them at the AHL-level until they're ready to make the jump. As our attention moved towards individual players, like 20 yr. old d-prospect Brendan Guhle, the word confidence, "which seems to be an overall theme for the team," according to Stevens, came to the fore.

Guhle is playing all-situations, top-pairing minutes as a rookie in his first full pro season. In 21 games he has 14 points (5+9) and is a plus-8. Those are just the numbers, but what Stevens has been seeing from the young player is "more confidence rushing the puck" and that he "is now one of those who is willing to take chances." However, Guhle's successes circle back to the depth in Rochester. "He's doing things he might have held back on," said Stevens, "and trying more things than he used to because he knows he's got somebody back there who's going to cover up for him."

Coach Taylor seems to have made a lot of good moves in his first stint as a head coach and he has the team in a good place. After Fasching got called up, he told the gathered media about the feel in Rochester. "Guys there are happy," he said. "We're excited to be there every day. There's a lot of energy at the rink. It's fun to be there, fun to play like that.

"We're almost playing more loose, more relaxed."

Earlier in the season it wasn't quite that way as the Amerks had lost three of their prior four games and were down 3-0 vs. the Laval Rocket (MTL) at Blue Cross Arena. They were being booed by the home crowd as they left the ice for the second intermission but came back to tie the score with three unanswered goals in the third and won the game in overtime.

Taylor told his team during the intermission to relax and just play their game. A reporter stated that with his team down 3-0, he had to have a lot of confidence in them. "For sure I have a lot of confidence," said Taylor. "I see them every day. I have confidence in everyone of those guys in the locker room and that's what it's all about. And they have to have the confidence in me. We're all in this together."

That was on October 27th, since then his team has gone 8-2-5 and have gotten points in 13 of their last 14 games (8-1-5.)

Rodrigues and Fasching both seem to have benefitted well from the change in culture, especially Fasching. The 6'3" 204 lb. winger was traded for by the former regime for his size and ability to work the front of the net. The issue with him, other than youthful inconsistencies, has been his skating. Fasching will never have blazing speed but the difference between last season and this year is that he's playing the game faster and it looks as if he's a faster player because of it. Although he still needs to produce at the NHL-level and will need to develop more consistency, which is typical of most young players, he looks like he took a big step forward.

Rodrigues had shown marked improvement last season and looked to be on the Sabres roster until an injury sidelined him in training camp. After being sent to Rochester to start his season and managing one assist through his first three games, Rodrigues used a four-point game and a three-point game to leave Rochester with 10 points (5+5) in eight games. "Again, it's that confidence-level," said Stevens.

Another player playing with a lot of confidence is goaltender Linus Ullmark.

Ullmark took the reigns of the starting goalie position last season and was the Amerks MVP. Back in October, Stevens said that the best thing for Ullmark was that the Sabres got back-up Chad Johnson in the off season which kept the 24 yr. old developing in Rochester.

That may change, however, as Buffalo's goalies are becoming a part of trade rumors. Should one of Robin Lehner or Johnson be moved and the Sabres receive no NHL goalie in return, Ullmark may end up in Buffalo. It's something Stevens doesn't want to see for Ullmark and the Amerks, but something that may happen.

When asked if he thought Ullmark was ready to make the jump, Stevens, who's always been an advocate of keeping young players in the AHL for as long as necessary, said, "yes," but qualified it by saying, "but I would like to have him [finish the year here] so that when he goes into next year, he's just brimming with confidence."

We need to keep in mind that despite the Sabres playing one of their best games of the season on the road and winning on Tuesday, they're still a 7-17-4 team, something that may not be conducive to proper development if they continue down that road.

"[Ullmark's] built up to where he's at now and I would hate to see him go into a situation on a team that's really struggling the way they are, and he plays well but doesn't get the wins and starts to lose that confidence."

Which happens all the time, especially with team trying to rush players.

But Botterill seems to have Rochester on the right track which benefits the Amerks right now and will eventually make it's way up to Buffalo. There are a lot of players who've played under Botterill and they're beginning to make their way onto the Sabres. Players like Wilson, and to an extent Rodrigues and Fasching, know what he and his staff are trying to do and know their roles are in this process.

Rochester is having success right now but by no means are they an AHL juggernaut at this time, as inconstancies still rule. It's something they "really need to develop," according to Stevens, but the foundation seems to be there which is a major step in the right direction.

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