A dozen games into their 2019-20 season, the Rochester Americans are doing well. They're tied for third in the division right now with a 7-3-1-1 record. Those 16 points place them tied for fourth in the conference and they're fifth in the AHL with a .667 points percentage, but it hasn't been easy road to get there.
The Amerks started out the season with their head coach up in Buffalo serving as a Sabres assistant. Chris Taylor got the call after Sabres assistant coach Don Granato was hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia, which his brother Tony described last month as a "scary" situation. Don Granato was hospitalized for an extended length and Taylor was picked to take his spot behind the bench while his assistant, long-time hockey-man Gord Dineen, became the interim bench boss in Rochester.
According to long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens, whom I chatted with yesterday, things look as if they'll be returning to normal as Granato's "getting better" and they expect him back soon.
With Taylor up, Dineen has got his Amerks team working hard for what they've got. They're presently seventh in the league in scoring with 40 goals in 12 games averaging 3.33 goals/game which is the same rate they had last year when they scored 254 goals in 76 games (3.34 g/gm.) However, they're doing that without scoring very much on the powerplay. Rochester has stuggled with the man advantage this season scoring at only a 10.2% clip with an atrocious, league-worst 3.8% conversion rate at home. Of their 40 goals this year, only six have come on the powerplay (15%) while last year 24% of their goals came with the man advantage.
When I asked Stevens what were some of the differences between this year's club and the Amerks from last year he was quick to point out that Rochester "lost quite a bit of firepower," something seen on the powerplay. Two players Stevens mentioned, Danny O'Regan and Victor Olofsson, represented a combined 50 goals lost after they moved on from Rochester with 17 of those coming on the powerplay. The Amerks lost three of their top-six goal-scorers from last year in Olofsson (30,) Wayne Simpson (21) and O'Regan (20) and started the season with their 2018-19 third leading goal-scorer, Taylor Leier (22) in the injury list.
Dineen has managed a scoring-by-committee approach with the top seven players representing 60% of their goals. Their last game against the Utica Comets (VAN) saw six different players light the lamp in a 6-0 shutout win. Tage Thompson was one of those players scoring his fifth of the season which ties him for the team lead. He is also is tied for the team lead with six assists and leads the team with 11 points.
Stevens had high praise for Thompson's game but with a caveat or two. "Thompson's playing very well," he said. "He's a tall, lengthy guy who's got great reach and most of the time he has outstanding puck control, it's like the puck is glued to his stick. But there are times when he's a little light on the puck and the puck gets picked off of his stick or he loses control of it."
Thompson came into camp with a little more meat on his bones but still only packs 215 lbs. on his 6'6" frame. When we talked with Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com over the weekend he mentioned the 22 yr. old doing the things necessary to get back into the NHL with him also mentioning that Thompson is starting to realize how big and strong he is. We saw first hand last year just what a great shot Thompson has when he finds open space, but finding those areas on a consistent basis has been a bit difficult. There are a lot of pieces for him to put together and it seems as if he's making some good progress in Rochester. Will it be enough to end up in a top-six role in Buffalo this year? We shall see.
Jean Sebastian-Dea is tied with Thompson for the team lead in goals and is close to being near a point/game player for the Amerks. Dea split time between Wilkes-Barrre/Scranton (PIT) and Springfield (FLA) last season totaling 44 points (17+27) in 46 games between the two clubs and is nearing that same pace again eight points (5+3) in 12 games for Rochester.
Stevens called big winger Brett Murray (five points in seven games) "a very pleasant surprise" and someone the Amerks really need up front. "He's a big body and [the Amerks] really don't have a lot of those," said Stevens. "He's one we need in front of the net and going to the net. He's got good speed and he's got good puck control."
According to Stevens the defense is stronger this year than last. As mentioned in Part I of our two-part series on the Sabres prospects with Baker, the organization loaded up on defense and it fortified Rochester as well. There's an array of Amerks young defensemen from tough Will Borgen to a speedster like Jacob Bryson.
This isn't the first time we've mentioned Borgen in a blog. The 22 yr. old native of Moorhead, Minnesota is playing top-pair minutes for the Amerks and is unafraid of throwing his 6'3" 198 lb. frame around. He's a defensive-defenseman that skates very well with Stevens saying he's "steady and strong" and "likes to stick his nose in there" as evidenced by his AHL fourth-most 35 penalty minutes. As for Bryson, he's a speedster that can get up and down the ice and always seems to get back into the play when caught up ice. Stevens says he's not afraid to join the rush and often times leads it.
A player similar in nature to Bryson is defenseman Lawrence Pilut who was called up from Rochester and is with the team in his native Sweden. Pilut was a 2018 free agent signing by Buffalo and had a standout beginning to his pro career with the Sabres before being sent to Rochester. The very mobile defenseman "who never saw a rush he didn't like," according to his former HV-71 coach, had 26 points (4+22) in 30 games for the Amerks last season but suffered a shoulder injury in their final playoff game which kept him out until last month.
Of all the players we discussed, Stevens really lit up when asked about Pilut. "He's really played well," said "The Voice of the Rochester Americans. "I don't know how much longer he'll be here (in Rochester.)"
In addition to the powerplay, the Amerks other area that needs work is their goaltending, although it's been getting better. Rochester brought in Andrew Hammond but he got off to a slow start. "He wasn't playing well," said Stevens, "but he had a shutout the last game and it looks like he's coming around. Stevens had high praise for Jonas Johansson who has a 2.28 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage, but the goalie everyone in Sabreland is focused on is Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, or 6K as he's known.
Luukkonen had a banner season in the OHL last year and also backstopped Team Finland to gold at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships. After his season with the Barrie Colts ended, 6K elected for double hip surgery that kept him out until this month. He got a start in Cincinnati with Buffalo's ECHL affiliate, the Cyclones, and is with Rochester while Hammond is over in Sweden as an emergency backup. "Right now they're thinking he's the future beyond Ullmark in the organization," said Stevens of Luukkonen, "and they're expecting him to have a real strong year here (in Rochester.)"
The Amerks have a game tomorrow night at home vs. the Binghamton Devils (NJD) and Luukkonen could very well make his AHL debut.
In talking with Stevens it would seem as if the team is doing well overall but obviously there's plenty of room for improvement. Sabres bench boss Ralph Krueger is held in high regard and has openly welcomed creativity in his team's play and Rochester is following suit. It will be interesting to see just what Taylor brings with him when he returns to the Amerks bench after spending over a month with Krueger watching, listening and learning about what the NHL head coach is doing.
As we know all to well AHL rosters are almost always in a state of flux so things can change but right now it's been pretty stable in Rochester and they're off to a solid start even while incurring a few speed bumps to start the season.