(photo via Amerks.com)
After failing to qualify for the Calder Cups Playoffs since 2013-14, the Rochester Americans, led by first-year head coach Chris Taylor, clinched a playoff spot last season. With a familiar match up in the first round with the Syracuse Crunch, the battle-tested Amerks went down in flames after just three games.
Getting swept in the first round may have stung, but looking at the body of work by the Amerk players and coaches throughout the season, you couldn’t help but be excited for what is to come. After all, it was only the first season Sabres GM Jason Botterill and Assistant GM/Rochester’s GM Randy Sexton got to mold their affiliate team into a success.
In the off season, it’s clear management wanted to address what was lacking last season. Along with continuing to add speed and skill, they wanted more toughness. At times last season, the Amerks were out-hit and bullied along the boards. Especially against teams in the North division so many times like Syracuse, Toronto, Utica, etc., these teams are going to know what they can and can’t do against Rochester. One aspect of games against the Amerks opponents could control was the physicality. I’m not saying they got bullied every game, but adding more size and sandpaper grit should prove to be beneficial in the long run.
While keeping exceptions in check for the newcomers not only to the Amerks, but to North American hockey, is vital, but as a team, the expectation cannot be any lower than making the playoffs and winning a series against a North division opponent.
Additions (including players who only played a few games)
Goalies: Scott Wedgewood
Defense: Will Borgen, Jack Dougherty, Brandon Hickey, Lawrence Pilut
Forwards: Rasmus Asplund, Andrew Oglevie, Victor Olofsson, Myles Powell, Tyler Randell, Wayne Simpson, Yannick Veilleux
Goalies: Jason Kasdorf, Linus Ullmark
Defense: Conor Allen, Barry Goers, Brycen Martin, Stuart Percy
Forwards: Colin Blackwell, Hudson Fasching, Sahir Gill, Seth Griffith, Adam Krause, Garrett Ross
While the Amerks did lose 3 of their top 6 scorers, the roster is looking better as a whole. There is better depth, grit and solid mix of young, skilled players and quality veterans that are no slouches themselves.
Remember: AHL rules restrict the amount of dressed “veteran players” to five. With 18 skaters per game, that leaves 13 players, 12 of which must have played in 260 or fewer professional games (including AHL, NHL and European elite leagues), and one must have played in 320 or fewer professional games.
The following qualify as veterans: Taylor Fedun (338 pro games), Andrew MacWilliam (318, exempt per @LetsGoAmerks), Nathan Paestch (797), Zach Redmond (389), Kevin Porter (672), Tyler Randell (337, exempt), Wayne Simpson (355, non-vet), Dalton Smith (331, exempt), Yannick Veilleux (329, non-vet).
Frankly, I still haven’t nailed down what causes a player to be exempt or a non-vet with 300+ games, but I trust LetsGoAmerks.
The Three Swedes
Rasmus Asplund, Lawrence Pilut and Victor Olofsson
There is a case to be made where all three of these players can see themselves called up at some point this season, but the vast majority of their first season as a pro in North America will be spent in the 585 area code.
Asplund is a two-way center with playmaking abilities that will slot in nicely all over the Amerks lineup. His offensive abilities can see him as a consistent top-6 AHL forward by the end of the season, but to start I believe he will slot nicely on the 3rd line. Another aspect of Asplund’s game is his ability to play both center and wing. He has the foot speed of a winger and likely will get looks at both, but everyone’s expectation seems to be in the same area: Asplund will be a high quality 3rd line center once he cracks the Sabres lineup.
Pilut was the eye-opener of Sabres training camp/preseason. His ability with the puck, skating and offensive mindset was on full display giving management a tougher decision on if they send Pilut down than I think everyone believed he would. At the end of the day, sending him to Rochester was the right move. It gives him time to learn the North American game a bit better, more ice time than what he’d receive with Buffalo and the ability to make and learn from his mistakes. While Pilut probably won’t light the lamp too often, his puck moving not only in the offensive zone, but with breakouts and transitions, shows why he was brought over from the SHL.
Also, with so many veteran defensemen in Rochester, giving him any number of partners with tons of experience will only help his development. My thoughts are Pilut would be the call up behind Guhle if a Sabres defenseman goes down, but Will Borgen could likely bump him down the list.
Goalofsson I mean Olofsson is a winger with a wicked shot. Either with his quick release on wrist shots to finding soft areas to clobber one-timers, the fans in Rochester are in for a treat. While he’s undersized, he could have fans flashback to watching a young Tyler Ennis with his shiftiness (even though Ennis’ only year in the AHL was spent with Portland).
Now I do believe he will have some off nights when making plays with the smaller ice, but that’s expected. The key with Olofsson is continuing to grow as a complete player. He has a natural gift, now he just needs to piece everything together and he’ll see his name stitched into a Sabres jersey.
I know he’s not one of the Swedes that came over this season, but keep an eye on Andrew Oglevie. His last two seasons at Notre Dame he was over a point-per-game player including 36 goals in 76 games. It’s his first pro season, so there will be an adjustment, but over the course of his career in different leagues, he’s consistently produced more year after year. Give him some time and he’s another potential bottom 6 forward for Buffalo in the future.
Will Borgen, Andrew MacWilliam, Tyler Randell, Dalton Smith and Yannick Veilleux
While I want to focus on Will Borgen, the other four are not only veteran players, but tough to play against. They all will drop the mitts which is still a much needed attribute with a team full of skilled players. They make space on the forecheck for the skill players to have an extra second to craft a play. There is no true enforcer on the Amerks, but they have a decent amount of grit to keep the scales more even this season in terms of toughness.
Side note: Smith and Veilleux threw knucks last season
Borgen will have the opportunity to pair up with another Swedish defenseman in Lawrence Pilut. After pairing with Dahlin in development camp and receiving a positive response for his play, Borgen’s steady, but in-your-face style could have a similar effect with Pilut.
Yes, the Prospects Challenge and the AHL are vastly different, no debate there, but there will be a resemblance in Borgen’s game when paired with another offensive defenseman. This is where he thrives, covering for partners jumping up in the play and simply being a pain to play against in the defensive zone.
While I’d love to dive into each individual player, this would be a never ending article; a lot of which covering players that fans are already familiar with. I’ll say we should and need to see C.J. Smith, Justin Bailey, Brendan Guhle, Danny O’Reagan, Kyle Criscuolo, Alex Nylander and Sean Malone to play a huge role for Rochester. These are your guys most likely called up first to Buffalo, but when they are in Rochester, they should and need to be the Amerks best players.
Smith, Bailey, O’Reagan and Nylander need to lead the team in points (or at least keep their points-per-game as close to 1.00 as possible). Malone needs to show he’s continuing to progress into a reliable centerman and someone who could slot in on the Sabres bottom 6. I could see a day where Eichel, Mittelstadt, Asplund and Malone are your four down the middle in Buffalo.
It’s clear Scott Wedgewood was brought in to be the #1 in Rochester, but he’s also a formidable backup if one of Cater Hutton or Linus Ullmark goes down for any reason. He’s a big body with plenty of AHL experience and he’s only 26 years old, so there is still plenty of time for Wedgewood to progress.
Adam Wilcox showed Amerks fans he could hold his ground as the backup to Linus Ullmark last season. He has Jonas Johansson with Cincinnati in the ECHL on his tail pushing him to perform his best, but for now, the 25 year old will backup Wedgewood and likely take over the starting role if Wedgewood is called up.
The Amerks will see many different combinations of lines and this might be different from the opening night lineup, but here’s who I would like to see the majority of the games.
Smith – O’Reagan – Bailey
Nylander – Asplund – Olofsson
Criscuolo – Malone – Ogelevie
Veilleux/Randell – Porter – Cornel/Simpson/Powell
*Sean Malone is still injured, I’d expect Porter to take his place, Cornel to take Porter’s place and Simpson to take Cornel’s.
Guhle – Redmond
Pilut – Borgen
Hickey/MacWilliam/Paetsch – Fedun/Dougherty
I’ll said it once and I’ll say it again, the investment not only by management, but ownership is making in Rochester is remarkable. The Amerks are now a team in which players can grow in a winning culture with internal competition. You can’t change the culture in Buffalo if a decent % of your roster comes through the minor league system with a bad team.
Like the Sabres, there might be some stumbling along the way this season, but I firmly believe this team can make a push in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Injuries in both Rochester and Buffalo can leave the roster a bit depleted, but the depth in the organization is much better shape than years past.
It’ll be an exciting year in Rochester. I highly suggest making it out for at least a game or two if you’re not living in Rochester; supporting the Americans will only help the Sabres in the long run.
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