There was a time when years in Rochester were calculated between appearances in the Calder Cup finals but now we’re counting years since winning a first round playoff series. The franchise has now gone through 14 seasons without advancing beyond the first round with seven of those seasons missing the playoffs completely. Over the course of 63 seasons the Amerks have made it to the Calder Cup finals a total of 16 times with six of those appearances resulting in Calder Cup celebrations.
The last time the Amerks appeared in the Calder Cup finals was the 1999/2000 season when they lost to the Hartford Wolf Pack in six games.
Since then there’s been NHL lockouts, changes in development philosophy, dual affiliations, changes in ownership, changes in affiliations, poor drafts, ownership changes again, and now finally back to a place where winning is important again. The last two seasons have been regular season improvements but playoff performance has fell short with back to back sweeps in the first round.
When Jason Botterill was hired as Buffalo Sabres General Manager and he hired Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley as assistants they knew there was work to be done and they immediately got to work setting a new foundation.
“There’s certain foundations in place,” Randy Sexton said when I talked to him at the Sabres Development Camp. He added, “One our cultural foundation is in place. Two our standards and expectations foundation is in place. Now our responsibility now that we’re entering our third season as a management group we’re just finally getting an opportunity to plow some of you know our picks and our players into Rochester.”
They’ve also had the chance to push previous picks out of the organization by trading players like Hudson Fasching, Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, and Brendan Guhle. They also sent previous Sabres draft picks Eric Cornel and Brycen Martin into free agency by not extending qualifying offers to them.
The management group set a goal in the first season to learn how to win again and create a new culture in the minors after the Amerks had missed the playoffs completely in the three previous seasons. They made progress finding ways to win while also tying a league record for overtime games. Last season they set a goal of being an elite playoff team. They fell short of that goal being swept in the first round but they were a top four team in the league and set those standards and expectations.
Sexton talked about players this management group has drafted saying, “With Jacob Bryson and you know towards the end of the year I think you’ll see other players from college and junior that we’ve drafted and have developed that will come on. So I think we’ll be younger again this year in terms of age but we our expectation is that we will have another strong team and another strong season.”
A strong season is going to require winning games in the playoffs and advancing out of the first round.
Players like Victor Olofsson, Lawrence Pilut, Will Borgen, CJ Smith, and Linus Ullmark have had a taste of the playoffs and the heartbreak of losing in the playoffs. Winning in the playoffs is the next necessary step for the organization, players, and the City of Rochester.
In order to have a strong season there’s a lot of work to be done with the roster starting today when free agency begins and throughout the rest of the summer in setting up the roster.
There’s 22 players who were under at least an AHL contract last season that will be free agents heading towards the upcoming season. That’s a lot of potential turnover and a lot of roster spots to fill by management. That list includes players for both Rochester and Cincinnati.
The 22 players as of publishing this one July 1 are (listed by position but in no particular order): Vasily Glotov, Eric Cornel, Kyle Criscuolo, Danny O’Regan, Wayne Simpson, Yannick Veilleux, Judd Peterson, Alex Wideman, Dalton Smith, Myles Powell, Tyler Randell, Pascal Aquin, Nathan Paetsch, Eric Knodel, Tobie Bisson, Matt Tennyson, Arvin Atwal, Anthony Florentino, Jack Dougherty, Scott Wedegwood, Adam Wilcox, and Michael Houser.
This past week the Amerks signed Sean Malone and Taylor Leier to American League contracts for the upcoming season. Early reports are that the Sabres will be signing Curtis Lazar and John Gilmour to begin free agency (more on them later today).
For more on the Taylor Leier signing:
“We really like Malone and you know the potential that he has but you have to balance the risk there,” Sexton said when asked about Malone. “I had a good chat with him and he understands. He’s working hard and the weekly results we get in terms of his health and his progress are positive.”
Malone was drafted by the previous management group so the fact that they continue to put time into his development as he overcomes injuries speaks highly of what they see in his ceiling potential.
Those are great depth moves but where does that leave the team in terms of looking towards a successful season and more importantly post season success? There’s a lot of work to be done. The team needs at least two to three proven scoring forwards, depth forwards, some muscle, and a goalie.
Curtis Lazar will be one of those scoring forwards and John Gilmour will join Zach Redmond as a point producing defenseman. It’s likely that Victor Olofsson will be a Buffalo Sabres full time going forward and his scoring will be missed in Rochester. CJ Smith will require going through waivers if he doesn’t make the Sabres lineup and he’s shown just enough where another NHL team could take a chance on him if there’s an opportunity.
One type of player the organization will not have in Rochester is a high end forward prospect that they’ve drafted. That’s a sign there’s still a depth issue.
The key to any successful hockey season is goaltending and we’ll likely find out during the first day of free agency who will that will be. The Sabres need a #3 goalie in the organization while they wait for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to return to health following off season hip surgery and see if he’s the next top prospect.
One undrafted player signed by Buffalo that is not expected to play in Rochester is Arttu Ruotsalainen out of Finland. He’ll be at Sabres training camp but if he doesn’t make the opening night roster he’ll return to Finland. [ Story on Ruotsalainen ]
Heading into the third season of the Jason Botterill era the foundation is set with culture, standards, and expectations. Season one was assembling a new roster, learning to win, and making the playoffs. Season two was to be an elite playoff team which as mentioned they fell short of.
Two seasons of missing the playoffs in Buffalo and two seasons of being swept in the first round in Rochester is to be blunt pretty miserable. The pressure is on everyone from management level to the coaching staffs to return both teams to the post season and start winning playoff games.
It’s July 1 and the foundations are set. Is the roster set? No, it’s not. It’s also only July 1 and there’s a lot of time before the season starts on October 4.
To keep track of the roster throughout the summer keep the following page bookmarked and follow @LetsGoAmerks on Twitter.
Looking ahead two potential undrafted players we could see at the end of the season are Josh Passolt and Dawson Dipietro who have played at Western Michigan University. Sexton said that Passolt and Dipietro are two players that they’ve been tracking for a while. With a development camp invite for both of them they can fall under the future category of developed. Defenseman Mattias Samuelsson was drafted 32nd overall in the second round of the 2018 draft and also plays at Western Michigan which is no coincidence.
Brett Murray is another player that was at development camp and is likely returning to college for another season. His window is closing
Marcus Davidsson (2017 2nd round draft pick) plans to play one more season in Sweden before making the move to North America.
Matej Pekar (2018 4th round draft pick) is expected to return to juniors where he has one more season of eligibility.