Season Preview: Elite Playoff Team or Bust

The Rochester Americans begin their 63rd season on Friday night with expectations higher than ever for the season ahead. It’s one thing for fans and the media to dish out predictions and set the bar high but when management, coaches and players all do it there’s an increased level of accountability.

Throughout training camp and practices leading up to the start of the season the focus has been on moving forward but the wounds are still fresh from last year’s playoff series loss to Syracuse. The team started the 2017/2018 season out with the goal of making the playoffs. By the end of December the talk shifted towards a deep playoff run. Syracuse brought a dose of reality by winning the first round in a three game sweep.

It’s a new season and the Rochester Americans have added some toughness to the roster to address last season’s weakness. A deep successful playoff run is how the Amerks are starting off talking about the 2018/2019 season.

Starts and Overtime Games

Last season was a clean slate in making changes within the organization and how they played. They have a season of experience now to build off of what was started and there’s two areas that have been discussed – Friday night games and overtime games.

One way they hope to make a change in how weekends are started is with practices during the week.

Taylor referred to last season saying, “I thought we were always better on Saturday and Sunday, has a lot to do with the way we practiced. Maybe going a little too hard at the start of the week and tapering off.”

As a second year coaching staff they’ve learned a lot and are taking ownership of the way the team played. Taylor has said they’re changing practices around to make sure they get off to the starts that they need on Friday nights and then build off of that through the weekend and not having to rely on bouncing back.

Another area of concern was tying a league record for the number of overtime games in a regular season with 29.

Taylor addressed the overtime games, “We talked about that earlier and I think at that point in our first year we always went into games and didn’t want to lose. If we had a 4-2 lead we kind of sat back. As coaches we want them to keep going but they wanted to make sure we won and it backfired on us and took us to overtime. Sometimes we were down 2 or 3 goals and came back because we wanted to win so bad.”

“To me it was good character on our players with what their intentions were but this year obviously we want to correct and not going into as many times as we did.”

Added Toughness

Added toughness will be one area of the Amerks spent time on addressing over the summer. After being pushed around all last season by Syracuse and then swept in the first round it was a weakness that had to be addressed. The team signed Tyler Randell and Yannick Veilleux. They also brought back Dalton Smith along with Andrew MacWilliam for a second year.

Randy Sexton made a bold declaration at the start of training camp that Randell and Veilleux would become fan favorites for the way they play. They can play the game of hockey along with letting other teams know there’s always someone watching. Dalton Smith had that job on the team last season but he couldn’t do it all by himself so they brought in some extra muscle.

Toughness often equates to dropping the gloves but in 2018 you have to also be able to play hockey. The days of a goon with only one purpose are over.

Experienced Rookies

Always hype the prospects. The seven rookies on the team this season are from two places – Swedish Elite League or American college hockey. The average age of the seven rookies is 22.7 years old. These aren’t teenagers just leaving a billet family home.

Rasmus Asplund (1997/12/3) – The youngest of the rookie group played four seasons in the Swedish Elite League.

Victor Olofsson (1995/7/18) – Five seasons in the Swedish Elite League.

Lawrence Pilut (1995/12/30) – Five seasons in the Swedish Elite League. Also named defenseman of the year.

The three Swedish players above were also key pieces of the Swedish team at the World Junior Championships.

Andrew Oglevie (1995/2/16) – Three years at Notre Dame

Will Borgen (1998/12/19) – Three years at St Cloud State

Brandon Hickey (1996/4/13) – Four years at Boston University

Myles Powell (1994/7/24) – Four years at RIT

Adjusting to North America

Adjusting to the North American game and smaller ice surfaces may still take some time for the Swedish players. Head coach Chris Taylor has playing experience with adjusting his own game and can relate to the what the new players are going through. Taylor had to adjust when he played three seasons in Germany before returning to the Amerks to finish his on ice playing career. Along with the timing on a smaller ice surface there’s also the differences in the playing style.

Talking directly about the Swedish players he said, “I think they’ve done a great job. Development camp, prospects camp, training camp and our own camp getting used to it. I think they’ve had some time and they’re better prepared than they were two months ago. We’re going to be patient with them but we want to make sure they’re going right off the bat.”

Natural Goal Scorer

Victor Olofsson aka Goalofsson is described as a natural goal scorer and has an opportunity ahead of him to fill a role that has been empty for some time in Rochester. There are guys who score goals every season but it’s often distributed throughout the lineup. The team expects him to score goals and continue with the offensive habits that he’s known for. Expect Olofsson to be on the first power play unit with everyone looking to feed the puck to him with a shot that will leave you in awe.

Chris Taylor said, “We’re going to put him in position to make sure he has those opportunities to succeed. He’s earned it the way he’s played in prospect camp and NHL training camp and the two games here.”

His shot is talked about the most but shouldn’t take away from his play making skills in freezing defenders and goalies while passing the puck to a teammate.

Added and Returning Depth

Two to three seasons ago players like Arvin Atwal, Vasily Glotov and Judd Peterson would be playing decent minutes in Rochester. With the depth of players available on the roster they’re playing in Cincinnati. That speaks highly to the potential those three players have, not that they aren’t deserving to play on an AHL team.

Offensive success will come down to whether the prospects and rookies at forward are truly prospects. We’ve become so skeptical and bitter here towards hyped prospects because overall they’ve been so poor and underwhelming for so long. There’s been an emphasis on different types of players and people where guys like Asplund, Olofsson, Ogelvie, Hickey and Pilut will hopefully present a core of prospects that shines again.

They’ve lost Colin Blackwell, Seth Griffith and Sahir Gill but will gain a full season of Danny O’Regan, returning Amerks rookie of the year CJ Smith and an experienced Wayne Simpson. In a 76 games season we should expect a combined 60 goals from that trio.

The leadership group this season will consist of Kevin Porter as captain along with Kyle Criscuolo, Zach Redmond, Nathan Paetsch, Taylor Fedun and Andrew MacWilliam as assistants. Those six players have NHL experience, playoff experience and Calder Cup wins. These guys will keep the locker room on the right path, like it was last season, and keep everyone from hanging their heads if something doesn’t go the right way.

Defensively this is the best core on paper that we may have ever seen. Lawrence Pilut was a star in the Sabres preseason, Brendan Guhle is a step away from the NHL and Olympian Will Borgen will be showing his true potential in his first full pro season. There’s a lack of patience with fans when it comes to development but we’ll always point to Brian Campbell who played two and a half seasons in the AHL before cracking the NHL roster and never looking back.

Sean Malone starts the season on the injured list (left knee) and is expected back at the end of October. He played 73 straight games last season and was relied on from start to finish in his role as a shut down player. He has talked about trying to take on more of a scoring role but has a setback at this time due to an unfortunate injury.

Alex Nylander enters his third pro season and is now closer to the age a typical rookie would be starting out. He has more to prove than anyone else on the roster. His first season was poor to mediocre, second season had a lot of flaws but he was also dealing with a lingering groin injury and he was barely seen in the playoffs. Credit where it’s due, he showed up to the Sabres training camp and looked like a new player. Nylander has earned the right to be on the top line compared to the third line last season. His weaknesses have been turnovers and puck battles, we’ll see this weekend if he’s turned those into strengths.

Justin Bailey is entering his fourth season as a Rochester American and even though it’s not the career path he’s hoped for he’ll here ready to play. Bailey was the one of the best forwards for the Amerks down the stretch last season and the best forward in the playoffs. Don’t write him off just yet as not being able to play in the NHL. Jason Pominville played three full seasons and a partial fourth with the Amerks before earning a promotion and never looking back. Another name is Scotty Nichol who played six seasons in Rochester (the last 3 ending in injury) and another in the IHL before embarking on a successful 12 season, 662 game NHL career.

In goal, we have Scott Wedgwood, who opened last season as the #1 goalie for the Phoenix Coyotes.  Wedgewood sported an impressive .933 saves % for the Albany Devils in the 15-16 campaign and started 11 Calder Cup playoff games for them that season as well. Experience resides in the depth as well as Adam Wilcox returns as the #2 and Michael Houser starts the season in Cincy.

Projected/Predicted Opening Night Lines

Alex Nylander, Kevin Porter, Wayne Simpson

CJ Smith, Kyle Criscuolo, Andrew Oglevie

Victor Olofsson, Danny O’Regan, Justin Bailey

Eric Cornel, Rasmus Asplund, Tyler Randell

Extra: Yannick Veilleux, Myles Powell, Dalton Smith

Brendan Guhle, Will Borgen

Zach Redmond, Lawrence Pilut

Taylor Fedun, Brandon Hickey

Extra: Nathan Paetsch, Andrew MacWilliam, Jack Dougherty

Goalies

Scott Wedgewood, Adam Wilcox

* reminder that MacWilliam has to sit out the first two games as part of a carry over suspension from last season.

Power Play:

Porter, Olofsson, Simpson, Redmond and Pilut

Nylander, CJ Smith, O’Regan, Guhle and Asplund

Expect the penalty kill unit to be lead by Bailey, Oglevie, Fedun, Randell and Hickey at times.

Chris Taylor believes in equal playing time and rolling four offensive lines and three defensive lines. It’s not necessarily top line and fourth line minutes. Time can be earned and time can be taken away.

Gone From 2017/2018 Home Opener

Steve Moses, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fashing, Garret Ross, Sahir Gill, Casey Nelson, Barry Goers, Colin Blackwell and Linus Ullmark

Expectations

This team should be an elite team in the Eastern Conference by the half way point, a repeat of last season. In the second half of the season they should be expecting to win games, not struggling to win games which is what happened in 2017/2018.

Taylor, “We want to put ourselves in a better position going into the playoffs, not just making the playoffs. Home ice advantage, those sorts of things. Better prepared going into the playoffs.”

“We understand what we need to do during the year to make the playoffs. It’s not an easy route, it’s very hard. It’s a demanding season. We have to make sure we’re ready for that and the guys realize that.”

My prediction: The season will be a disaster if they don’t make the playoffs. It’ll be a bust if they’re swept in the first round.

Management, coaches and players are talking about a deep playoff run – that’ll be the measure of team success.