The Rochester Americans are into the second half of the season and have been a top team in the league since the end of October. A key architect behind the turnaround this season is Amerks GM Randy Sexton. The word culture is repeated often and while it can be thought of as a buzz word it’s necessary for success.
Randy Sexton left the Pittsburgh Penguins organization for the challenge of rebuilding the Rochester Americans. He could have stuck around in Pittsburgh but he loves to build and this was a great opportunity for him with committed ownership and a GM like Jason Botterill.
The last four seasons the Amerks were a bottom five team in the league. They’re a top three team in the league right now. The reason for that is leadership, that culture and simply finding the right players.
Management believes that a big part of development is winning tough tight games followed by winning playoff games. The Amerks have had a lot of tight games and even though many have been losses in overtime or shootouts they’re earning points to get closer and closer to the playoffs. Once they’re in the next part of success will be winning playoff games and going beyond the first round.
Was chasing a top spot expected?
“It was hoped for but we didn’t know. There’s so many new players, brand new coaching staff, new management staff, a couple of new equipment people. We did a massive overhaul here. We felt that we had assembled the right kind of people and we thought we had a good team but until the coaches have a chance to spend time with them and they have a chance to gel as a team we don’t ever really know.”
What have you thought of the season so far?
“We’re pretty please with how things have gone thus far. To start the season and we were trying to create a new culture here and we brought in some veteran leadership. Some guys that we needed to help establish that. I think thus far that’s been our biggest success because everything stems from there. Our leadership group and our veterans deserve a lot of credit together with our coaching staff to make that happen.”
Talking more about credit going to the combination of both coaches and leadership..
“There aren’t many hold overs from last year so with a large group of new players, a new leadership group, and a whole new coaching staff there was a lot of work that had to get done. A lot of communication that had to take place to make sure we could get off to the right start and most importantly establish what our goals were as a team and what our culture was to be as an organization and as a team I think our coaches and players have done a phenomenal job on that.”
I asked how Chris Taylor has done and where he was initially in the coaching search..
“Initially he was top 5 guys that we interviewed and from there he very quickly established himself as the leading candidate. Once that got shaped and we got into the position where he and I could sit down and spend a lot of time together it was very clear to me that he was absolutely the right kind of person and absolutely the right kind of coach for what we wanted to accomplish here and I don’t think he’s let anyone down. He’s done a phenomenal job.”
In the 10 seasons that I’ve been writing about the Amerks this is the first group that has said the word fun a lot. It’s not only after they win a game but it’s after practices, even the tough practices. The players enjoy coming to the rink every day.
Is it a good thing that they’re often saying the word fun?
“Absolutely it is. Hockey is a game, it should be fun. There’s a lot more at stake at the professional level. I hate to keep pounding on culture but part of our culture is to have fun. Chris and I and the coaches told our players at our first meeting here that we’re going to work hard, play the way we want to play, compete hard and we’re going to have fun because this is a tough game and it’s a tough business. If you can’t have a few laughs every day and have some laughs together why bother.”
Zach Redmond was acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadians just two days before the Amerks season started and he was immediately assigned to Rochester. Two weeks later the Amerks signed Stuart Percy and they’ve both been in the lineup as defensive partners almost every game since. They attempted to sign Mark Zengerle but he had to pass through waivers and the Milwaukee Admirals were able to sign him.
Are those moves a sign you’ve been looking for changes or opportunities since day one?
“We’re really looking to add first and foremost the right kind of people. Zach and Stu are the right kind of people, they fit in wonderfully here. They’ve been part of our veteran core that’s helped show the way to our younger players. Steve Moses chose to leave which was fine. Mark Zengerle we would’ve loved to have but unfortunately had to go through waivers and we wish him nothing but the best. We’re always looking to improve but it’s really with the caveat that first and foremost they’re the right kind of people to be a member of the Sabres organization and to be a Rochester American, be the right kind of professional, and secondly can they help our team address an issue that we feel we may or may not have.”
Regarding Matt Moulson, this has been discussed before and didn’t come up in our conversation. Jason Botterill, Randy Sexton, Matt Moulson, his agent and family discussed the situation and they felt that playing for the LA Kings organization would be the best situation for him.
So, what is the right player? Is it a mind set? Work ethic?
“It’s a lot of things, part of that is our secret sauce so I don’t want to give it away but they have to have the right attitude, obviously have to have a fundamental skill base, have to be willing to compete and they have to be of strong character.”
Chris Taylor has talked a lot about the internal competition within the team..
“Our coaches and our players have done a great job. You watch some of our players who aren’t in the lineup every night they work their tale off here every day at practice, have a smile on their face, work their tale off in the weight room and they’re good teammates. That’s not an easy job for those guys. Playing every night that’s fun, not playing every night that’s not fun but I think those players that are here have done a terrific job. We need them. We need them to be a part of our organization. I can guarantee we’re going to need them down the stretch and I can guarantee we’re going to need them in the playoffs. They’ve done a great job being great pro’s in a difficult situation but that’s part of being a good teammate.”
Justin Danforth is signed to an AHL contract with the Amerks and is currently playing with the Cincinnati Cyclones. He’s third in the ECHL with 22 goals and third in the ECHL in points with 22G+22A in 38 games.
I asked Sexton about Danforth…
“I talk to our coaches in Cincinnati three to five times a week so we know how he’s playing. We’d love to get him some games here if we could. We just, knock on wood, haven’t had a lot of injuries which is part of it but would hope to get him an opportunity if it presents himself.”
What have you thought about the development with someone like Alexander Nylander?
“Whether it’s Alex or anyone else we just want them to work at their game every day. We want them to follow the instructions and the guidance that our coaches and our development people and our management give them because we’ve been through it before. We know what it takes. It’s not just skill, it’s not just hockey sense, it’s not just compete it’s a lot of things. Younger players, particular in Alex’s case he’s a very young man. It’s a tough league, a good league the American League. All we ask is that they show up with an open mind, show up ready to go work every day. We’ll give them the guidance they need and they have to put in the work.”
This is why Nick Baptiste was recently called up to the Buffalo Sabres. He wasn’t lighting up the scoreboard but he’s showing up, listening, putting in the work, following the instructions and guidance and he was rewarded. He’s working on his overall game.
When fans of a struggling NHL team see players on the farm team having success they want to instantly call them up but having a few good games doesn’t mean a player is ready for the NHL. Prospects are hyped constantly every time they show up on a score sheet or simply seen flying down the ice. It’s been proven every season across the league that calling players up too early when they aren’t ready can lead them having to deal with failure and then having to work on building themselves and their confidence back up. Sometimes players never build themselves back up.
The goal with the Amerks is to develop, win hockey games and also allow mistakes to happen. Sexton talked about players being able to come to the bench, get instruction and go right back out on the next shift.
Is there a long term approach to development?
“Our approach and our belief is that every player develops at their own rate. Our second belief is that every player here wants to get better. Our focus can’t be just on the young guys. We’ve got guys here on American League contracts who’ve played in NHL games, they want an NHL contract. We have a responsibility and a commitment to help them get there. That’s what we’re trying to do for those guys. The development is for everybody, not just the young guys. We really believe philosophically and we’ve seen it in the past in Wilkes-Barre if you make that commitment to every player and you have the right people the individual players will improve and collectively our team will improve and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Patience is tough to sell to fans of last place teams but Sexton would rather make the mistake of leaving a player in the AHL too long instead of making a mistake by rushing a player into the NHL too fast. Management and coaches want players to play at an elite level in the AHL and then the player will be put into a situation where they have the opportunity for success in the NHL.
Just because CJ Smith is a leading rookie scorer and Brendan Guhle is a top rookie defenseman it doesn’t mean they’re ready to be called up full time.
The exception to all of this is when players are called up out of necessity due to injuries, illness or even suspensions. They aren’t ready to open up a full time roster spot in the NHL for a player from the AHL until the timing is right.
Is there anything you’re looking for more of out of the Amerks?
“I don’t think we have any glaring weaknesses. Sure we’d like a few more goals here or there but I really like the makeup of this group. I think our coaches have done a great job bringing them together as a team. When I walk through the room and talk to the players they seem happy, seem to be having fun. They get along very well which is important. We’re not looking to make massive changes but if the right opportunity comes along we’ll always be ready to act on it but I don’t feel there’s any major type of player needed. In the second half we want to continue the consistency that we’ve built in the first half. We want to get ourselves into the playoffs and we want to get ourselves ready to have a hard push in the playoffs.”
Is playing time guaranteed for anyone?
“No. You have to earn it. That’s what internal competition does. That’s what depth does. When you have the right guys who show up every day and willing to work and compete for their spot it keeps pressure on everyone else. We don’t hand anything to anybody. That’s part of our motto, part of our philosophy, part of our culture.”
“This is a very difficult competitive business and if you’re not working your tail off everyday to get better individually and if your group isn’t working hard every day to get better collectively you’re going to get passed by.”
With the trade deadline quickly approaching they don’t plan on making any big changes with the Amerks roster unless it involves again the right players. Sexton said that if players are called up they’ll be coming back to Rochester if they’re eligible for the playoffs.
I asked if Evan Rodrigues is a player that has earned a full time NHL job or there’s a chance we could see him back here for that hard push in the playoffs and he said that’s a question that is better for Jason Botterill or Phil Housley. Rodrigues only has 20 more NHL games (as of writing this) before he’d have to clear waivers to join the Amerks roster again.
The chemistry within the Amerks locker room is excellent and outside of someone like ERod who’s been a part of it already they’re being very cautious about disrupting anything. That goes back to the right kind of player mentioned above.
Every Sabres fan knows the name Casey Mittlestadt right now. He was excellent in the recent World Juniors tournament and is having a great freshmen season in college. Randy Sexton was interviewed on The Sports Bar on ESPN Rochester and talked about Mittlestadt.
They asked if Mittlestadt was one and done?
“Probably a bit early for the one and done. If he continues to progress at the rate that he has we’ll have discussions with him and his family and agent at the end of the year. I don’t want to put undue pressure on him but Casey Mittlestadt is an outstanding young prospect. He embodies everything that we believe a player needs to bring to on ice performance and more importantly he embodies everything we believe is important thing to be a Sabre. Off the ice his character, his personality and those types of things.” [ Listen to that interview here ]
Culture is a requirement for on ice success and in a short amount of time the foundation has been set here in Rochester. Every player loves it here in Rochester (well, every player that’s here now) and Sexton thinks they’re either ahead of schedule or it could have simply been a case of low expectations to start the season.
They believe they’ve turned the Amerks around from where they were in previous seasons, they’re going in the right direction and believe they’ll get the Sabres turned around as well because the two go together.
Success in Rochester will lead to success on the ice in Buffalo over time.