For the first time in what feels like a very long time, high expectations are preceding the Rochester Americans’ 2017-18 American Hockey League debut.
The excitement may seem off-base for a team that has not made it out of the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs since the 2004-05 season, let alone even make the playoffs since 2013-14.
Something feels different about this version from the Rochester Americans and it starts from the top down.
New management comes in, thanks to new Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill. With the firing of general manager Tim Murray, the Americans general manger opening will be filled by Botterill confidant Randy Sexton.
With the new leadership both in Rochester and Buffalo, a focus has already been placed on development and winning from the bottom up.
“From my standpoint, my job will be to make sure that every player and staff member understands the significance of wearing the Sabres logo and wearing the Rochester Americans logo,” Botterill told media in May. “I’m committed to building an organization the right way. Success comes from structure and we want to build two teams, one in Buffalo and one in Rochester, that are highly competitive year in and year out.”
Botterill and Sexton started out building a competitive team by hiring a familiar face – former Americans forward, captain and current Americans Hall of Famer Chris Taylor.
The Americans job is Taylor’s first head coaching job, but he has spent the last few seasons as an assistant coach with the Americans and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Penguins. Coaching is nothing new for Taylor and he already appears to have his sights set on exactly how he wants his team to look and feel.
“We’re trying to develop and push everyone to the next level,’’ Chris Taylor told Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle. “These guys are going to make a push for the Buffalo Sabres and that’s what we want, but if you don’t, you’re coming down here to make a winning culture here in Rochester and to make everyone better.’’
To put the Americans’ playoff struggles into perspective, Taylor lead the team in scoring the last time they won a playoff series. It indeed has been a long time.
Over the years, the goal has been to develop NHL-caliber hockey players but Buffalo has struck out more often than not in the NHL draft. Naturally, this has led to a drying of the prospect pipeline.
Looking down the 2017-18 Americans roster, this season appears to finally buck the prospect-less trend.
Forwards Justin Bailey and Nicholas Baptiste lead the way. Both are stud prospects who are expected to contribute at the NHL-level as soon as this season. This would almost certainly hamper the team’s hopes for a season-long playoff push, but it doesn’t stop there for the Americans.
Prospects Hudson Fasching, Brendan Guhle, Casey Nelson, C.J. Smith and Linus Ullmark are certainly going to spice things up down on the farm as well.
Not mentioned is first-round pick Alexander Nylander. His status is very much unknown at this time. Nylander suffered an injury during the Sabres Prospect Challenge and missed all of training camp. Nylander has been sent down to Rochester to get back into game action. He finds himself in the category of Bailey and Baptiste as a stud prospect but Nylander’s time in Rochester shouldn’t be long. He can contribute a ton and many hope for that to be sooner than later.
It is hard to remember a time when the Americans were in such a solid prospect position heading into a season. The last time might have been when Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek all found themselves in Rochester during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
The best part about that Americans squad? Taylor led scoring with 79 points (21 goals, 58 assists) in 79 games. Oh and don’t forget – Botterill played eight games that season, tallying eight points.
Safe to say, it has been a minute.
On the flip side, one major worry Americans fans always have is the quality of the team outside of prospects. Whenever Buffalo would suffer a major injury, they would pluck the best player from Rochester. Unfortunately, this meant prolonged struggles for the Americans. We have seen this story unfold almost every season.
Luckily, Sexton quelled those worries with a very strong offseason of veteran reloading on both sides of the puck.
Offensively, Kevin Porter makes his return to the Sabres organization. A leader through-and-through, Porter will not only help solidify the Americans’ top-six, he will also show the younger players how to carry themselves on and off the ice. At this stage of their careers, that is a very underrated aspect to have in a locker room.
From there, Sexton added a few more offensive bodies but the most important coming in the form of Kyle Criscuolo and Stevie Moses.
Criscuolo is coming off of a Calder Cup winning season, in which he put up 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 76 games. On the way to his first Calder Cup, he also pitched in nine points (5 goals, 4 assists) in 19 playoff games.
Not yet an AHL veteran, Criscuolo understands the importance of strong leadership. "As the year goes on I think having great leaders means making the young guys feel comfortable,” he told the Buffalo News. “Then by the end of the year you don't even notice who's a young guy because the leaders have done such a good job of integrating everybody."
Moses is a talented forward who has played his way across the world. Last season, he scored 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) in 24 games with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL.
He has been trying to break into the NHL for a few seasons now, but seems content letting his play do the talking in the AHL. Last time Moses had an opportunity to make the NHL, he played only 16 games with the Milwaukee Admirals before returning to the KHL.
Defensively, it starts with two-time Calder Cup winning defenseman Nathan Paetsch, who also returns to the Buffalo Sabres organization.
Not only does Paetsch add a steady hand on the blueline, but he adds a winning pedigree and another strong veteran presence to an already strong locker room.
“We’re excited to welcome Nathan back to the organization as he brings a wealth of playing experience at the American Hockey League level,” Sexton told local media. “We’re very confident he will play a leading role in creating a successful, winning culture for our young prospects here in Rochester.”
While expectations currently may be running wild throughout the streets of Rochester, as fans clamor for the AHL playoffs to return to the Blue Cross Arena, one thing is for sure – this Americans team will be different than many we have seen recently.
How Many Points will the Americans Get?
This poll is closed
Less than 60 points
More than 90 points