It’s hard to believe it but the Rochester Americans are one game shy of playing the first quarter of the season, 18 games down and only 58 more to go until the end of the 2011/2012 regular season. If the season were to end today the Amerks would earn the eighth and final playoff spot available in the Western Conference. Don’t let “second place” in the division fool you. Playoff spots at the end of the season are handed out to the winner of each division and the next five teams based on points totals.
The position of the Amerks at this point of the season is something that was expected but it’s also something that should be of concern. This group of players is out there working hard but overall are short on offensive depth to give them that scoring threat against other teams.
Here’s a plus/minus ranking back and forth of different parts of the team:
Plus: The players are busting their tails and putting everything they have out on the ice every night. The coaching staff has them prepared and ready. They understand they’ve been short on players and even some have been put into positions they aren’t qualified for but they aren’t giving up. This us unlike the players of the past five seasons in Amerks uniforms (even previous Sabres) who would often just go through the motions and hang up their jock straps if the going got tough during a game.
Minus: Lack of depth, especially at center. Paul Szczechura missed the first ten games of the season recovering from a knee injury and has had an impact since his return. Colin Stuart has played at center but is a left winger. This is one position that the Amerks were short on from the start. The Sabres had to have known that Matt Ellis and Luke Adam would not be sent down. It would’ve been nice if they were but it was lip service expecting them to make it and neither was replaced. Travis Turnbull, Mark Voakes and Phil Varone aren’t playing poorly by any means but too much is being expected of them at a position they’re not quite ready for. A great puck moving veteran center would really help the young wingers develop their real scoring potential.
Plus: The pending return of Michael Ryan this coming weekend. When he’s healthy he can be a top forward in the American Hockey League. He’s been around the league and will likely be an asset to those around him.
Minus: Michael Ryan already missing 15 games this early in the season. He can produce when he plays but his history speaks for itself. This is where some big bucks could’ve been spent early in free agency to sign a top veteran forward with a better history.
Plus: Shaone Morrisonn and Joe Finley as the top two defensemen. They both started the season slow and not very impressionable but right now are playing standup defense that teams are not having much luck against. Morrisonn has settled into his role after being demoted and has said he’s having fun. Finley is a former first round draft pick that has battled injuries early in his career and is making himself known to get another shot.
Minus: The lack of a replacement for Ales Kotalik who was “expected” to be sent down to the Amerks but everyone knew it was very doubtful he would report to the team. This comes back to the lack of planning during free agency when there were a number of players still available that could have been signed.
Plus: The coaching staff. Ron Rolston, Chadd Cassidy, Jay McKee, Chris Taylor and Bob Janosz likely make up the best coaching staff this Amerks team has seen in a long time. They’re engaged on the ice every practice helping teach this young group of players how to be successful. The team could have lost focus already on the season but they haven’t and much credit is deserved for this staff.
Minus: Jay McKee is too tall and he often makes the seats behind the bench (mine included) “obstructed views” when the play is at the opposite end.
Plus: The goaltending. Drew MacIntyre and David Leggio are two goalies that everyone will agree have great potential. MacIntyre has been around the American Hockey League for a while. Leggio has put up great numbers from the ECHL to Finland and back to the AHL. They have a good chemistry and because of the skill they both have a competitive atmosphere exists. They’ll continue to push each other to play their best. Also, with MacIntyre currently called up and the goalie now backing up Leggio is Jeff Jakaitis. He looks great in practices and in seven games with the Gwinnett Gladiators he was 5-2 with a 2.27 GAA and 0.933 save percentage.
Minus: Neither goaltender really “stealing” a game up until this point. They’ve each had their wins but of the Amerks 10 losses five of them have been decided by one goal (2 overtime losses and one shootout loss). Neither has earned a shutout and both have let in their fair share of “soft” goals. Another minus related to goaltending is the back and forth rotation that Ron Rolston used in the first 14 games of the season. It was done to make the goalies earn the top spot but goalies like to have consecutive starts to get into their groove. During a five game losing streak neither was given the chance to “redeem” themselves the next night. On nights when the offense isn’t finding a way to score is when the goalie needs to stand on his head and steal a win.
Plus: At least six players on this team will be future NHL’ers. Take away any sudden slumps or injuries and Corey Tropp and Drew MacIntyre have already seen NHL action. TJ Brennan has been called up. Brayden McNabb, Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno and even Joe Finley will likely make it to the show at the rate they’re going.
Minus: Players that were just handed top roles out of training camp due to injuries instead of earning them. This is especially noticeable when the Amerks roster is at the bare minimum. Some players were signed right out of the prospects tournament and they deserved to be signed but didn’t have to work very hard to get onto the starting roster.
Plus: Those players mentioned in the minus above are working hard and giving everything they have which has resulted in goals here and there.
Minus: Slumps. Alex Biega streaks of five and six games without a point. Turnbull no points in five games before he went out injured. Derek Whitmore only has two goals in the past 10 games. Zero points in the past five games for Phil Varone. Mark Voakes only two goals in 18 games. Jacob Lagace no points in the past five games he has played in. Prior to scoring a goal in each of his last two games with the Amerks, TJ Brennan had gone six without a point. Shawn Szydlowski went five games without getting on the scorecard as well.
Plus: Going back to the character of the team and the coaching, those slumps in no way seems to have slowed them down. There isn’t one player out on the ice where someone can say “wow that guy stinks, sit him in the stands.”
Minus: Darcy Regier not being more active during free agency and making this team a shell of what the Sabres affiliate was last season. The team lost Mark Mancari, Luke Adam, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Paul Byron, Mark Parrish and you could even say Matt Ellis and Dennis McCauly. That’s a lot of scoring and leadership to lose in one off season and too high of expectations on too many unproven players.
Plus: Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno are so far having great rookie seasons each having scored seven goals already. Kassian also has one assist compared to one for Foligno.
Minus: The lack of a physical play from players like Zack Kassian and Brayden McNabb who were known for that at the junior level. This doesn’t mean going out there and fighting but besides a hit here and their they aren’t having a real presence on the ice. They’re strong and use their bodies but playing a more physical game could help change the pace of some games. It’s likely how Buffalo has asked them to play which is understandable but it’s an element of the game that could be a difference maker at times.
Plus: Take away the first two games of the season and the Amerks have been “in” every game. There have been times when it seemed like the game was going to be a blowout but they’ve made the games competitive and shown signs of being able to come back and win. A change of pace over the blowouts we’ve come to expect over the last five seasons as Amerks fans.
Minus: The lack of guys that you can expect to finish plays and score goals during those close games to pull out the wins instead of barely losing.
Plus: The attendance at games. There was a crowd of 6,717 at the game this past Friday and it was lively. Here’s the numbers for mid November Friday night games the past four seasons: 10/11 4111, 09/10 6092, 08/09 3397 and 07/08 8452. That last number is completely flawed as that was the last season of the Steve Donner era when attendance was never accurately reported. The real attendance was about half of that number. The 09/10 season had good attendance because the team at the time was unstoppable and playing exciting hockey. The Sabres being back in town have had an obvious impact and a competitive team has also helped as well.
Overall: I’d give this team a B- rating. They’re staying competitive in games and staying near the top of the division but second place in the division may not be good enough to make a run at the Calder Cup. The team has improved from the start of the season and is showing a great work ethic that’s carrying them this far. As long as injuries and call ups don’t start tearing the team apart they should be able to stay near the top. How far this team goes will all depend on how they play as the halfway point of the season nears and if they start going in the opposite direction in the standings it’ll be up to Darcy Regier to make moves to turn things around.
There are reasons to be concerned about the next 58 games but the season is also still young and this group is showing a lot of potential. This isn’t a team torn apart by a dual affiliation (07/08 and 06/07 teams), bad coaching (Benoit Groulx) or a parent team not showing any real concern for giving players tools to improve (Florida Panthers). The players are working hard, having fun, and getting along great off the ice.
Look for some players to get out of scoring slumps as the second quarter starts, the goalies stealing games and some third and fourth liners stepping up and then we can improve the grade for the next quarter.