This is the second part of an early look at the Rochester Americans with longtime Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens. (The first part can be found here.)
Over the last year, the Rochester Americans have added a lot quality players to their roster and have a lot of depth, something that hasn't been seen in years. Thanks to the work of Sabres GM Jason Botterill, his assistant, Amerks GM Randy Sexton, some help from maturing draft picks and some savvy free agent signings, the Amerks said goodbye to three years in the bottom-five of the league and hello to a 2018 Calder Cup playoff appearance.
Long time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens talked about the depth Botterill and Sexton added to the club for the 2017-18 season. "The difference in depth between last year and the year before was tremendous," said Stevens, "and I think it's going to be even that much better this year.
"The depth is growing by leaps and bounds."
No more so than on defense. The Amerks have an extremely strong defense which is so deep that they could possibly make up "two strong AHL defense-corps," according Stevens. However he qualified that by sayin that the strong d-corps might be needed to help out the goaltending.
"Probably goaltending is the biggest suspect area right now," said Stevens who will be headed into his 33rd season as "The Voice of the Rochester Americans." And he didn't limit it to the Amerks either. "The [Sabres] organization had always been near the top, as far as goaltending is concerned, where now they're not quite up to where they once were."
Since Ryan Miller was traded away in 2014 there have been a parade of goalies shuffling through Buffalo which includes rookies and journeymen and a season where they set an NHL record when dressing nine goaltenders including a team video technician and their goaltending coach. Former GM Tim Murray thought he had the answer in net when he traded for Robin Lehner but he wasn't and Botterill let him walk. This year the Sabres are going with a duo of 32 yr. old late-bloomer Carter Hutton (138 NHL games) and rookie Linus Ullmark who was drafted by Buffalo in the sixth round (163rd-overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
Ullmark was the Amerks team MVP the last two years and carried a heavy weight as he was bombarded with shots in both of his full seasons in Rochester. In 2016-17 Ullmark faced the most shots in the AHL (1678) and last season he was third with 1347 shots-against while finishing those two seasons with a combined 47-39-12 record and .915 save percentage.
However, Botterill said at the Sabres' year-end presser that the 24 yr. old two-time AHL All-Star would be with the big club this coming season leaving a big void in net for an Amerks team that finished 18th in the league last year with 221 goals against.
To keep some continuity, Sexton and the Amerks were able to re-sign backup goaltender Adam Wilcox
whom Stevens said was "outstanding" both on and off the ice for the Amerks. The 26 yr. old Wilcox will be entering his fourth full AHL season and will be sharing the net, perhaps as a backup again, with Scott Wedgewood
, who was signed by the Sabres to a one-year, two way deal on July 1.
Wedgwood was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 2010 (third round, 84th-overall) but has been well travelled since turning pro in 2012-13. The 25 yr. old Brampton, Ontario native played in Albany for the Devils AHL affiliate and four games for the big club, was traded to Arizona last October and played 20 games for the Coyotes before being moved to the Los Angeles Kings in February. He finished out the 2017-18 campaign with their AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign.
In all Wedgewood has played in 24 NHL games sporting a 7-10-5 record with a 3.05 GAA and .903 Sv% highlighted by a shutout streak of 159:34 in 2015-16 as a rookie. His AHL record is 53-37-10 (eight shutouts) with a 2.38 GAA and .908 Sv%.
Goalie Jonas Johansson
(2014, 61st,) who played sparingly for Rochester the last two seasons, has been less than spectacular and should end up being the starter in Cincinnati with the Cyclones of the ECHL while enjoying spot duty once again for the Amerks.
With somewhat suspect goaltending, the onus for winning will once again fall on the offense.
Last season Rochester used scoring by committee as they finished tied for ninth in the league with 234 goals. Defenseman Zach Redmond lead the team in points with 47 which was 53rd in the league while their top goal-scorer was Sahir Gill whose 18 tallies tied him for 71st in the league.
The team lost a big contributor in Colin Blackwell whose 17 goals and 45 points placed him second on the team in each category. Blackwell was signed away by the Nashville Predators and Stevens called it a "big loss" for the Amerks. The 25 yr. old Blackwell just completed his second full pro season and had a breakout campaign but maybe more importantly, "every time you needed something on the ice," said Stevens, "he was there."
However, the good news is that despite some losses, the Amerks do have some players moving up through the system. Coming over from Sweden in the forward ranks are rookies Victor Olofsson
(2014, 181st) and Rasmus Asplund
(2016,33rd.) Olofsson just completed a breakout season for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League scoring 26 goals while on his way to the Hakan Loob Trophy as the league's top scorer. The 23 yr. old winger has a wicked shot which he uncorked on the powerplay with regularity (league-leading 14 PP goals) and should make the AHL's fourth-best powerplay last season (21%) even better.
Asplund is that 200', all-around player that should help fill some of the void left when Blackwell signed with the Predators. The two-way center reads the game extremely well, and has a high hockey IQ and has the speed to get up ice. He also can contribute some offense (28 points in 50 games last year.) Despite being somewhat small at 5'11" 176 lbs, Asplund is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice and is solid on the dot.
Those two, along with fellow rookie Cliff Pu
, (2016, 69th) represent an influx of drafted talent that will be joining a group of forwards lead by 32 yr. old captain Kevin Porter
who finished fourth on the team in scoring last season with 42 points and was tied for second in goals with 17. Also amongst 17-goal club last season was rookie left-winger, C.J. Smith
Smith finished third on the Amerks with 44 points (17+27) and 10th in the league amongst rookies. The left-winger was signed as a free agent out of UMass-Lowell in 2017 and displayed acute vision and abundant smarts to adapt, and succeed, at the pro level last season. He's one of those players, said Stevens, "who seems to be in the right place at the right time."
The Amerks 2017-18 season came to an end when they got swept out of the playoffs in their first appearance since 2014. Rochester went into the playoffs fairly strong but Stevens said that it was a case of "the whole team sort of leveling off" with a few players not stepping up when needed. "[They] were trying to step up I don't think [they] knew how to step up far enough," said Stevens of their playoffs struggles.
That leveling off included Ullmark, defenseman Brendan Guhle and winger Alexander Nylander
Nylander's second pro season was defined by injuries as he missed the first month of the season with a lower body injury and had nagging injuries throughout most of the rest. After an incredibly slow start after returning to the ice in November, Nylander went on a hot streak beginning in mid-February scoring 15 points (4+11) in 15 games. That, along with some pretty good play, eventually lead to a three-game callup to Buffalo in April.
Stevens called this upcoming season "huge" for the extremely talented Nylander and said he's got to come around. That would start with staying off of the injury list. "When you think of Nylander," he said, "the first thing I think about is that somehow he's got to stay healthy."
Nylander, along with four other players didn't skate at Sabres Development but he was there and looked physically bigger according to those at the rink. The former eighth-overall pick from 2016 has been very underwhelming in his first two pro seasaons for Rochester, but as Stevens pointed out, it's best to remember that he's only 20 yrs. old. "He's the same age at those coming out of [Canadian] juniors," he reminded us.
Second year center Sean Malone
also came on strong at seasons end and he could possibly take control of a third-line center spot this season (or at least dominate in a fourth line role) and may have an outside shot at making the Sabres roster out of camp, should he have a good one. The West Seneca, NY native and 2013 sixth-round pick (159th) had a strong finish to the season in a bottom-six role for the Amerks and although he doesn't have the outright skill package he's got chutzpah and good size (6'0" 196 lbs) which he uses to impact on the game in that role. And, "he still has a lot of room to grow [in his game]," according to Stevens.
With training camp more than a month away it's still early in the process but when you look at the overall roster, save for some question marks in goal, the Rochester Americans look to be well on their way to bigger an better things. The veteran core is solid and some of the young players from last year like Smith, Guhle and Malone looked poised to take the next step. Add in some young incoming talent like Olofsson, Asplund, and Pascal Aquin
, who had a strong development camp, along with defensemen Lawrence Pilut and Brandon Hickey, and you have the makings of a team with an upgrade in overall talent and plenty of depth that should, hopefully, take them farther.
In talking with Stevens I got the impression that they overachieved somewhat last season but it got them into the playoffs for the first time in three years. Regardless of the fact that they got swept, those returning this season will have had that taste and should have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed both in the regular season and post season. "Maybe that's one of the things that happens when you haven't been to the playoffs for a while," said Stevens, "you don't know exactly what you need to do to step up."
With the added talent and depth and the experience they gained in the playoffs, that should change.