The Rochester Illusion

Is the Amerks’ recent success truly indicative of a brighter future for the Sabres?

Immediately after Jason Botterill was hired, fans of the Buffalo Sabres learned of his developmental philosophy to building an NHL roster. As a result, many turned their sights to the Rochester Americans and began tracking their progress under his watch.

The Amerks have done well. In Botterill’s first two years as general manager, Rochester qualified for the playoffs, and they had a good chance of going back for a third year in a row, had the 2019-20 campaign not been cut-short. Despite this, as we approach Botterill’s fourth season at the helm, the Sabres’ pipeline looks thin.

Let’s make one thing clear - the perception of a correlation between AHL success, and future NHL success is largely incorrect. Of course, there are examples where successful AHL teams are also chock full of NHL-caliber prospects (the 2017-18 Toronto Marlies are a good example), but more often than not, championship-level minor-league teams are built on the backs of fringe-level veteran contributors.

The Amerks are no different. This season, none of the top-five scorers in Rochester were under the age of 24. Sure, you would like to see bigger contributions from the actual “prospects” on the roster, but in a vacuum, it isn’t necessarily a problem.

The fact of the matter is, top-end players rarely spend more than a season (if that) in the AHL. We can test this assertion by looking at the development trackside top-six forwards in the NHL. In this exercise, we’ll take the top-two teams in each NHL division in 2019-20, and examined their six highest-scoring forwards. In total, the 48 players in the sample played 1,964 AHL games. That averages out to 40.91 games per-player (less than half a season).

The Vegas Golden Knights were an extreme outlier. Their top-six scoring forwards averaged 104 AHL games each. The Boston Bruins were also on the higher side, averaging just under 71 games each. The two lowest-averaging teams were the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals at 12.83, and 15 AHL games-played on average, respectively.

Next, let’s apply the same measure to each of the aforementioned clubs’ “next-six” scoring forwards (i.e. 6-12 on each team’s forward scoring rank). In this 48-player sample, there was a total of 4,457 AHL games-played, which averages-out to 92.85 per-player (a little more than one season). The Tampa Bay Lightning had the highest total at 1,127 AHL games-played among their ““bottom-six”. This isn’t really a surprise considering how well they’ve cycled out their offensive depth with inexpensive options developed through their system.

Which brings us to the over-arching theme here...

The best teams - dynasties, if you will - almost always do a good job of cycling their depth-scoring assets. When those assets produce and their contracts expire, they are replaced with the next man up from the minors. It’s how consistently good teams stay salary cap compliant, and highly-competitive at the same time. The best recent examples of this are the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and most recently, the Lightning.

When the Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups from 2010-2015, their AHL affiliate, the Rockford Ice Hogs weren’t very good. From 2007-2015, they missed the Calder Cup Playoffs four times. On the five occasions they did qualify, they won a total of two rounds, never advancing past the conference semi-final.

It didn’t matter. The Blackhawks were still able to develop young, cost-effective players (Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Ryan Hartman, etc.) to plug in when their incumbent scoring depth players were due raises.

On the other hand, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins have been wildly successful, missing the playoffs only once since 2003. During the Penguins hey-day (let’s call it 2009-2017), they were the best in the business at finding depth scoring contributors by developing them through the system, but how much of an actual AHL impact did those players have in that span?

From 2009 to 2017, Wilkes-Barre Scranton only had a top-scorer under the age of 24 on two occasions. The first time was when 21-year-old Dustin Jeffery (who played a grand total of 100 games for the Penguins) did it in 2009-10. The second time was when 22-year-old Conor Sheary posted 45 points in 58 games during the 2014-15 season.

In that span, Wilkes-Barre Scranton only had a player under the age of 23 appear in their top-five scorers list (in a given season) on eight occasions. That’s less than one per year. Like most AHL teams, their success was built on the backs of minor-league veterans, and fringe-level NHL assets.

The same is true for the Amerks. As previously mentioned, that’s not a bad or abnormal thing on its own. However, when combined with the fact that only a handful of NHL-caliber skaters exist beyond the veteran ranks in Rochester, it becomes worrisome.

The Sabres have historically been one of the worst examples of promoting and cycling assets from the AHL. Since 2005-06 (a year that saw several Amerks graduate to the NHL ranks following the lockout season), the players who have come up through Rochester to make an impact in Buffalo are few and far between. On the current Sabres roster, only five skaters have appeared in games for the Amerks. Of those five, none of them were drafted, or acquired by Botterill.

Granted, it has only been three years since his arrival, but how many current Amerks have a better-than 50-percent chance of being legitimate NHL contributors? Outside of the goaltenders, maybe five or six. Casey Mittelstadt is the best bet. Tage Thompson has a shot, as do defensemen Will Borgen, and Jacob Bryson. Rasmus Asplund is getting to the age where he really needs to prove it, but he has a chance as well.

But that’s it.

Adding an extra layer of despair is Botterill’s mishandling of Lawrence Pilut, a player who might have had the brightest NHL future on the Amerks’ roster. It was clear all season he belonged with the big club. With reports of a potential move to the KHL, the overly-patient approach backfired spectacularly if Pilut does indeed leave.

At this point, the “building through the system” approach that everyone talks about should be evident beyond “hey, Rochester is doing well”. Growth takes time, but even in 2020-21, the Amerks are only expected to promote 1-2 players to Buffalo. After that, it’s up to Oskari Laaksonen, Matej Pekar, and maybe Mattias Samuelsson to take a big next step into the AHL. Even if all three of them do, it’s not much, especially at forward, where the Sabres possess markedly less depth.

Any argument about “patience” and Botterill’s slow approach by building through the AHL is a farce. Times have changed, and with the growth of high-level leagues like the SHL, Liiga, and even the NCAA, the idea of a direct correlation between AHL success and future NHL prosperity is a myth. That’s not to say success (and by extension, establishing a winning culture) at the AHL isn’t important to an extent, but it in no way should give fans a warm and fuzzy feeling about the direction the GM is taking the franchise.

One last important thing to note is that teams like the Penguins and to a lesser extent, the Lightning, are exceptions to the rule. They have a track record of prospects spending multiple seasons at the AHL level. That isn’t always the case. In fact, it rarely is. As previously mentioned, Chicago had the same depth-cycling approach, but seldom did the next wave of contributors spend more than a season with Rockford.

In short, there’s more than one way to successfully develop through the system, but the key is having talent throughout the pipeline, AHL or otherwise. The Sabres don’t have much of it at any level, especially the AHL, and the success the Amerks’ have experienced under Botterill’s watch can’t erase that fact. Veterans like Zach Redmond, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Scott Wilson, and C.J. Smith are the main reason why the Amerks have been good, but they won’t help what ails the Sabres.

AHL Games-Played Data courtesy of Hockey-Reference