When Jason Botterill took over as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, his philosophy of developing a perennial contender through the minors was a major selling point amongst fans. With the help of the first-year head coach, Chris Taylor and a handful of veteran free-agent acquisitions, he was able to catalyze a winning culture in Rochester, bringing the Amerks from a floundering afterthought to a Calder Cup playoff contender.
Last season was a big improvement, but there are still questions about the team’s sustained success moving forward. I checked in with Keith Wozniak of LetsGoAmerks.com to get his take on what went right for the Amerks last season, and what he sees on the horizon for the Sabres AHL affiliate.
Q: There has been a lot of talk surrounding a perceived “culture” change with the Amerks this past season. What do you believe that can be most attributed to?
KW: Leadership and players buying in. Kevin Porter had a meeting at the start of the season laying out the goals of the season and from that point forward everyone was on board. Hudson Fasching told me at locker cleanout that the leadership group was stable and the rink was a place where everyone wanted to be.
Winning helped. Would the culture change have been as successful without a strong first half of the season? It’s possible, but maybe not as easy. An AHL roster can be turned over in one summer and that’s what was done.
Comments to us in the media from Chris Taylor were repetitive (like a majority of coaches are) throughout the season but inside the locker room, it was a different story. Taylor was honest with players and, in his own words sometimes too honest, which he thought earned him some more respect.
Having Randy Sexton around played a big role as well. He was able to rebuild the team and always made himself available to players.
Q: Botterill added several of veterans via free agency last summer, specifically for the Amerks. Do you feel that he will do the same this year, or roll with the young guns coming up from the ECHL, NCAA, juniors, etc?
KW: Rolling with the young guns would be a step backward. It has to be a mix. Veteran leadership leads to winning which leads to better development.
Kevin Porter and Taylor Fedun both have a year left on their contracts and will be back to help guide the ship. Add a proven AHL scorer and a goalie and they should be in good shape.
Q: During the Tim Murray era, Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, and Hudson Fasching were the most talked about up-and-comers. Last season, their offensive production in the AHL left something to be desired. Is there a particular reason that you feel they have been held back from being successful?
KW: Baptiste and Bailey had to evolve into two-way players and that’s what we saw this season. They didn’t score as many goals as they did in 2016-17, but they were better at both ends of the ice. That’s why Baptiste was called up.
Justin Bailey appeared to find his game at the end of the season and was one of the best players in the playoffs. The injury really held him back from having as successful of a year.
Hudson Fasching might be the odd man out in terms of getting a qualifying offer. He could still be successful if he finds a way to play a consistent game.
Q: What’s your take on Alex Nylander? He’s been disappointing in his development thus far, and he’s been the topic of some fierce debate among fans. Have you seen anything in his game to give the Sabres hope for the former eighth-overall pick?
KW: A Die by the Blade Top 20 Prospects article in 2007 said, ”Zagrapan struggled a little in his first professional season but he came on at the end and appeared to be more comfortable as the season progressed. In my opinion, he is still one of the Sabres top prospects.” Sound familiar?
After two seasons it’s a good time to question whether or not Nylander will play more games in the Sabres organization than Marek Zagrapan did. There is still hope in the fact that Nylander is still young.
His late season point streak was deceiving - especially with the vanishing act in the playoffs. Nylander had 19 assists in 51 regular season games but only three of those were primary assists - only one of those three was a pass. Another was a blocked shot that resulted in a goal off a loose puck and another was a save where the rebound resulted in a goal.
Yes, he’s one of the last players on the ice after practices but in games, he’s a passenger that’s been known to shy away from the physical parts of the game. Playing physical doesn’t mean throwing a big hit but you can’t stay on the perimeter and expect to have success. After two pro seasons, the age excuse isn’t going to last much longer.
Q: Do you believe that productive, albeit lesser-known players like Sahir Gill and Colin Blackwell have a chance to stick with the Amerks with guys like Rasmus Asplund, Cliff Pu, etc. joining the squad next season?
KW: Colin Blackwell should have been offered an NHL contract by now. Late in the season, Chris Taylor made a comment that everyone should watch Blackwell play. Whether he’s an NHL player or leading AHL player like a Phil Varone remains to be seen, but the Sabres should give him a look.
Sahir Gill will be interesting. He led the Amerks with 18 goals this season and was a Chris Taylor and Randy Sexton player so it feels like they’ll want to bring him back.
Q: Outside of well-known players like Baptiste, Ullmark, Guhle, etc, which unsung hero from last season do you feel deserved more credit?
KW: Have to go with two players; Sean Malone and Colin Blackwell. It was obvious how much Blackwell meant to the offense when he was out of the lineup injured. Once he was back, he was the best player on the team to end the season.
Sean Malone missed the first three games of the regular season and then played the next 73 straight plus three more in the playoffs. He was relied upon a lot in defensive roles and was always on the ice at the end of a close game, whether the team was winning or losing.
There’s the cliche of needing to play 60 minutes and it’d be tough to think of one game where either of those two players weren’t playing at full speed.
Q: Which call-up from the Cincinnati Cyclones impressed you the most last season?
KW: Arvin Atwal on defense. He played a defensive game and didn’t hesitate to protect his teammates as a physical player. He’s the definition of a depth a player in the minors.
He wasn’t going to be a game-changing player but he also wasn’t going to be a liability either. There were a lot of ups and downs but besides him, the only other Cyclones player that played more than 10 games was Justin Danforth, the ECHL Rookie of the Year.
An injury in March slowed down the chances of Danforth trying to work his way to the top of the lineup to really make a bigger impression.
Q: Which of the prospects looking to make their AHL debuts in 2018-19 has you most excited?
KW: Victor Olofsson immediately comes to mind. Everyone describes him as a natural goal scorer. It always feels every team has a major offensive threat that you expect to score, except for the Amerks. It’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to the North American game but for right now, I’ll buy into the hype.
Q: The Amerks struggled a bit late in the season, though they did have several players on NHL assignment in Buffalo. With a full roster, what do you feel went wrong in the playoffs?
KW: Goaltending and injuries. Linus Ullmark is a big part of what went wrong in the playoffs. The late season call up and subsequent injury had him off of his game. They should have had him playing in Rochester down the stretch. It’s a topic that has been discussed extensively back and forth on Twitter.
Injuries played a big role as well. CJ Smith, Kyle Criscuolo and Sahir Gill were all playing with injuries that would’ve kept them out of the lineup in the regular season. Depth carried the team during the year, but it wasn’t going to win a playoff series.
The organization still has a lot of work to do but there’s a lot of reasons to be excited for Rochester to be competitive and make the playoffs again. Success as a team in the AHL leads to success as a team in the NHL - Pittsburgh, Tampa and Toronto are easy examples of that.
With the Sabres hopes for post-season contention dashed very early on last season, the Amerks’ success was somewhat of a silver lining. Rasmus Dahlin excitement aside, the continued development of organizational prospects through Rochester will be of paramount importance if Botterill hopes to develop a consistent Stanley Cup contender in Buffalo. It will be interesting to see how new players acclimate to coach Taylor’s new system, and which current prospect continue to develop into NHL contributors.