A Strange Season Ahead
The 65th season in franchise history will almost certainly be the strangest. With a complete overhaul of the coaching and development staff as well as major retooling of the roster itself, coupled with an extremely limited schedule, predicting the 2021 Amerks season is likely a fruitless endeavor.
As a result of COVID-19, the AHL has vastly altered their scheduling for this season, both in the name of player/personnel safety as well as in an effort to reduce costs, as all teams will play to empty arenas. As such, the Amerks will play a limited schedule of 32 games against only three different opponents. Yes, you read that correctly; the Amerks will only play games against the Utica Comets (Vancouver), Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay), and Cleveland Monsters (Columbus).
That breaks down to 14 games against Utica, 12 games against Syracuse, and 6 games against Cleveland. Interestingly, none of these teams have affiliates in the temporarily aligned NHL East Division, so none of these future Sabres will gain experience playing against short-term NHL foes.
Roster - Who’s Out and Who’s In?
As to be expected with a new GM on the scene, the Amerks have a lot of new faces. Of the 25 players who spent significant time with the Amerks last season, only 9 currently remain on the roster with 4 more on the Sabres’ Taxi Squad. The brass in Buffalo has made it clear that they intend for the team in Rochester to exist ultimately for the benefit of the Sabres - with a focus on player development - rather than chasing wins and Calder Cups. That’s not to suggest that those things are mutually exclusive, but it’s too early to tell how this extremely young team will come together in the face of tremendous global adversity.
Following 2020’s shocking dismissal of the coaching staff that had brought the team back to levels of success the Amerks hadn’t seen in years, new Sabres GM Kevyn Adams moved quickly to announce Seth Appert as the new head coach in Rochester. Appert brings two decades of experience coaching players on the younger end of the spectrum, having spent a decade as the head coach at RPI as well as the past 3 years as the head coach of the U17 and U18 teams in the US National Team Development Program.
Joining Appert behind the bench are a couple names that are very familiar to Sabres fans: Mike “Tank Commander” Weber and Adam Mair will step in as assistant coaches to replace the outgoing Gord Dineen and Toby Peterson. This is Mair’s first time behind the bench in a professional capacity, while Weber rejoins the organization after spending the past 3 years as an assistant coach with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.
Take a deep breath... this is quite a list of veterans:
- Jarrett Burton (F) - AHL - Iowa Wild
- Eric Cornel (F) - DEL - Nürnberg Ice Tigers
- John Gilmour (D) - KHL - CSKA Moskva
- Andrew Hammond (G) - NHL - Minnesota Wild
- Brandon Hickey (D) - AHL - Chicago Wolves
- Taylor Leier (F) - DEL - Adler Mannheim
- Andrew MacWilliam (D) - DEL - EHC München
- Sean Malone (F) - AHL - Chicago Wolves
- Casey Nelson (D) - Retired
- Nathan Paetsch (D) - Retired
- Kevin Porter (F) - Retired
- Tyler Randell (F) - Retired
- Zach Redmond (D) - DEL - EHC München
- Scott Wilson (F) - AHL - Syracuse Crunch
In no particular order (NHL contract unless noted):
- Brandon Davidson (D) - Sabres’ Taxi Squad as of this writing
- Arttu Ruotsalainen (F)
- Steven Fogarty (F)
- Dominic Franco (F) - AHL
- Patrick McGrath (F) - AHL (PTO)
- Patrick Polino (F) - AHL (PTO)
- Jack Quinn (F)
- Dawson DiPietro (F)
- Matej Pekar (F)
- Brandon Biro (F)
- Ryan Jones (D) - AHL
- Mattias Samuelsson (D)
- Griffin Luce (D) - AHL
- Oskari Laaksonen (D)
- Dylan Blujus (D) - AHL
- Nicholas Welsh (D) - AHL
- Dustin Tokarski (G)
In no particular order (NHL contract unless noted):
- C.J. Smith (F) - Sabres’ Taxi Squad as of this writing
- Jean-Sébastien Dea (F) - Sabres’ Taxi Squad as of this writing
- William Borgen (D) - Sabres’ Taxi Squad as of this writing
- Jonas Johansson (G) - Sabres’ Taxi Squad as of this writing
- Rasmus Asplund (F)
- Brett Murray (F)
- Andrew Oglevie (F)
- Remi Elie (F) - AHL
- Dalton Smith (F) - AHL
- Jacob Bryson (D)
- Casey Fitzgerald (D)
- Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (G)
- Michael Houser (G) - AHL
As of this writing, all current Amerks players are waivers exempt except for Steven Fogarty (F) and Dustin Tokarski (G); Taxi Squad players C.J. Smith, J.S. Dea, and Brandon Davidson would also need to clear waivers.
On the NHL side, Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt, and Henri Jokiharju are all still waivers exempt, in the event that the Sabres need to send them to Rochester for any reason.
For the first time in several years, the Amerks will not have any worries about obeying the AHL’s Veteran Rule. They only have one true Vet and a few Exempt players currently on the roster.
On Thursday morning, coach Appert named Steven Fogarty as the team captain for the 2021 season, joined by Andrew Oglevie and Dalton Smith as the alternates.
The Amerks will get some live and tape-delayed TV time in the Rochester market this season. Details below:
The Rochester Americans, in conjunction with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, announced today that the team will televise eight of its 16 home games locally on CW Rochester during the upcoming 2020-21 American Hockey League season.— Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) January 27, 2021
Read more here ➡️ https://t.co/RfTdhCSn8X pic.twitter.com/2mjOQ8wMwU
In addition to those broadcasts, all games will stream both live and on-demand on AHLTV. Packages are quite affordable and the service last year was quite good.
Players To Watch
I’ll break this into two categories: A) returning players who we hope will show noticeable improvement and take the next step in their careers, and B) new faces who we’ve been eagerly looking forward to watching.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. This list has to start with UPL. After winning the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player award in 2018-19, UPL had a rough start to his professional career last year. His strong play with Cincinnati of the ECHL did not translate when he was called into action with the Amerks, and in the end he posted a paltry 3.15 GAA and .874 SV%, going just 3-4-3 in his 10 games with the team.
As the crowned “goaltender of the future” for the Sabres, the organization needs to see more out of the young Finn this season. He showed signs of promise while on loan to TPS of Liiga this year, going 6-3-4, 2.52/.908. Now we’ll see if he can carry that momentum over as the de-facto #1 man in net for this Amerks squad, which features an extremely young set of defenders in front of him, including the next guy on my list.
Jacob Bryson. Bryson may be small in stature but he plays a big game. He showed steady but dramatic improvement as last season progressed and he was well on his way to earning my award for most-improved Amerk. Putting up 4+23=27 in 61 games and adding 34 penalty minutes, he proved that size isn’t everything. At 23 years old he is now the oldest of the true Sabres defensive prospects still in Rochester and the team would love to see the left-shot defenseman demonstrate that he’s ready to step into a bottom-four NHL role sometime within the next two years.
Brett Murray. Murray did not take a typical path towards earning his first NHL contract, bouncing from the USHL, to the NCAA, and then back to the USHL before earning a PTO with Rochester to start last season. The 22 year old had a good season for the Amerks, putting up 9+15=24 in 55 games with the team, which was enough for the Sabres to sign him to an ELC over the summer. We’ll look to see him build on his progress from last season. I’d like to see him stronger on the boards and with a bit more hustle. At 6’4”, I could see him carving out a role as an eventual bottom-six NHL guy, perhaps replacing a guy like Kyle Okpos..
Oskari Laaksonen. It’s no secret that the Sabres’ drafting has left much to be desired over the past decade. It shocked pretty much everyone when former Sabres GM Jason Botterill picked the essentially-unknown Laaksonen 89th overall in the 3rd round back in 2017. However, in the years since, Laaksonen has grown into one of the organizations brightest prospects, putting up strong offensive numbers in Liiga while steadily improving his skating and defensive play. As a right-shot defenseman, he faces the same uphill battle as some of his teammates; the Sabres continue to be well stocked on the right side. A strong season in Rochester will be incredibly important as he tries to carve out a place in the Sabres’ long-term roster plans.
Arttu Ruotsalainen. Setting aside the obvious fact that “Roots, Bloody” Ruotsalainen* should be on the Sabres’ Taxi Squad - at the least, if not on the actual NHL roster - there is nothing but excitement about getting the chance to see what the Finnish center can do against AHL competition. After a mediocre start to his professional career in Finland, he showed impressive improvement with each successive year before truly exploding during his loan in 2021. He was still leading that league in goals up until just a few days ago, even after spending over a month in Buffalo/Rochester after his loan expired. Amerks fans shouldn’t expect him to be in Rochester for very long, and if he plays up to expectations, then we should buckle up and enjoy his skill set while we can.
*You and I can be friends if you get this reference without the help of a search engine.
Jack Quinn. Following a quiet, bordering-on-disappointing, performance in the recently completed World Junior Championship, Sabres fans everywhere are wondering if their fears on draft day were valid. Did the Sabres make a mistake in choosing Quinn over Marco Rossi? It’s probably far too soon to have that argument. With the status of the 2021 OHL season still up in the air, it gives Quinn a perfect opportunity to start his Sabres career in Rochester. Expectations should be tempered as the kid enters a difficult league. We know all too well from recent history that not all 19 year olds are prepared to play in the AHL nor is it the right place to develop every young player - perhaps especially not for skilled young pure goal scorers - but if the OHL doesn’t have a season we should look for Quinn to be groomed in Rochester under the guidance of a coach who the organization hired specifically due to his experience in developing young players.
If I’m being completely honest, I’m not confident the league will actually make it through this season. We’ve seen how quickly the NHL season has been derailed (in no small part due to the ineptitude of the league itself) and the AHL is a league with significantly fewer resources. While the NHL clubs certainly want to keep their young prospects skating and competing in game situations, it might not be long before an outbreak wreaks havoc on the AHL as well. With the schedule as compact and unique as it is, especially for the Amerks’ division, if one team has an outbreak and is forced to cancel games, it would be virtually impossible to reschedule them.
The league has yet to even breathe a word about the potential for playoffs, so even if a season does happen it may end up being just a bunch of glorified scrimmages and practices. Considering the risk involved to the players and the staff, one has to wonder if it’s even worth it. The NWHL couldn’t even make it through 2 weeks, in a bubble environment, before pulling the plug, so I’ll be very surprised if the AHL can make it 3+ months.
But just for fun, let’s say the season goes off without a hitch...
Five (not very bold) Predictions:
- UPL rebounds from his rookie struggles and leads the league in all goalie stats.
- Ruotsalainen watches more NHL games on the Sabres’ Taxi Squad than he plays for the Amerks.
- The Amerks “win” their 4-team division and earn a “playoff” spot.
- Matej Pekar leads the team in scoring at around .75 ppg while amassing about 35 penalty minutes.
- Rasmus Asplund is moved in a package deal before the NHL trade deadline as the Sabres try to bolster their roster while in the thick of a playoff hunt.
What Do You Think?
Let me know in the comments what you’re most excited about for this upcoming Amerks season. Which players are you most excited to see? What expectations do you have for them and for the team as a whole?
Let’s go Amerks!