By: Brian Duff
Esprit de corps.
Fortifying the development model.
A helluva blueline.
Those are just three of the talking points from Rochester Americans general manager Randy Sexton that lead us into the season preview of the Amerks.
While pleased with the progress made last year in terms of building the culture and improving on ice under the guidance of first-year head coach Chris Taylor, expectations are higher for a team that - like its parent club - will see significant additions.
"We've got a lot of new faces and we've got a good list of players for the whole organization," Taylor said. "The roster will be a little bit different, but I think we've gotta build off of what we built from the beginning of last year. We brought a lot of key players back from the leadership group and that's the foundation you start from."
Zach Redmond. Nathan Paetsch. Andrew MacWilliam. Taylor Fedun. Matt Tennyson. All veteran defensemen who fit the Amerks' mold, according to Sexton.
"We think we're going to have a helluva blueline in Rochester this year, we really do," Sexton said. "We've got skill, we've got depth, we've got experience, we've got youthful enthusiasm, and most important, we're going to have heavy competition for minutes.
"Nothing causes guys to play to their capability more than competition, and we think we're in great shape. We want our younger players to understand what it's like to have to compete every minute of every day in practice."
Will Borgen. Lawrence Pilut. Brandon Hickey. And maybe Brendan Guhle again. At this point, it's hard to know who will be in the mix for the Amerks, and that's perfect.
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"The same way that the young guys have to compete for minutes, it's great because they are going to be right on the veterans' ass every day, which we really like," Sexton said.
If it seems like too many veteran defensemen and potentially not enough ice time, the coach says don't worry about it.
"It gets a little dicey sometimes, but that's why we brought them in, and they understand that sometimes they're not going to be in the lineup, and that's why we signed them because they're really good people," Taylor said.
"They understand what's going on, what we need to do, the changes around here, what we need to do as an organization. That's an example of Randy and Jason [Botterill] and Steve [Greeley] bringing those quality people into our dressing room."
The presence of so many Sabres and Amerks at informal skates this month at Harborcenter has also been duly noted. But it doesn't end there.
"We've gotten really positive feedback from our performance staff about the work that our young guys are doing in the gym in Buffalo this offseason," Sexton said. "And kind of the esprit de corps - the way they are pushing each other, the competitive nature in the gym - we know that that will happen in Rochester in the gym and we believe that it will translate onto the ice. It's a double victory for the organization when everyone is competing, whether you're a veteran or a rookie or a youngster."
A GM's job is never done, as evidenced by a recent flurry of signings to round out the Amerks roster, along with ones that will bolster Cincinnati. But despite the inevitable infusion of first-year talent that doesn't make the Sabres roster, Sexton sees a place they can still improve.
"We really would like to add a very good offensive center in Rochester, but you know they are hard to find and we certainly don't have any solutions at this point," he said. "[That being said], sometimes the best deals you make are the ones you don't make.
"There's going to be a tremendous opportunity for some of our young guys to try and step up and grab that spot. Whether they do it, time will tell. But our approach is that we are always trying to get better as long as they're the right kind of people but we're not going to slam someone in there for the sake of slamming someone in there."
Young players you might presume to be in the mix for that center spot: Rasmus Asplund, Sean Malone, Andrew Oglevie, and Kyle Criscuolo.
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There is likely to be 50-percent turnover in the crease with Linus Ullmark poised to become a full-time Sabre. Enter 26-year-old Scott Wedgewood, who spent time in the Devils, Coyotes, and Kings organizations last year.
"Our pipeline isn't as deep in nets as we would like it to be," Sexton said. "So there really is a tremendous opportunity for Scott to challenge Linus and pick up where Linus left last year, and if Scott doesn't make it in Buffalo to continue on in Rochester. Everybody talks about fit and often times it's not a mutual fit, but in this case, we think it really is a mutual fit."
And the GM was really happy to see Adam Wilcox return for a second season in Rochester.
"That's a tough position at the American League level to be the quote 'backup goalie,' but if you were there on a daily basis and you watched the way he worked in practice, the way he worked in the gym, the way he carried himself as a teammate - the enthusiasm, the energy, the fun that he brought to our team was incredibly invaluable. And we're thrilled to have him back again this year. This guy is a cultural guy, just outstanding."
One area that required no change was the coaching staff. Taylor returns for his second season, along with assistants Gord Dineen and Toby Petersen. Sexton is looking forward to Taylor's continued growth.
"Until you're a head coach for the first time, you have these beliefs that you think, 'When I'm the head guy this is what I'm going to do, and it will work.' But until you're actually in the spot and you do it and it does work you're not really sure if it is going to work. So, a lot of Chris' philosophies and beliefs as a head coach were proven out last year, so coming into this season he doesn't worry about that. He knows that he can count on our guys to do certain types of things, so it allows him more time, and more coaching time to focus on doing other things.
"Number two - coming from Chris' background into our organization he really embraced and understands how critical development is and we've talked at length over the summer how to further enhance and fortify our development model in Rochester, so I think he's got some new challenges there, things that he and the staff are excited about. What we're talking about will bring greater focus on an individual basis both coaching and player perspective and certainly will be easier to measure.
"And I think the last thing - I mean he is such an incredibly humble guy - but I think that going into this season he'll know the league better, and he'll know areas whether it's bench management, whether it's line matching, whether it's prep, he'll have a better sense about how to do certain things against opposing coaches or opposing teams. Personally, I thought he did a helluva job last year, but I think he'll be even better."
"There's a lot of things I can improve," said Taylor, an Amerks Hall of Famer (Class of 2015). "Just watching some video of different coaches and how they work, going to coaches' clinics, talking to other coaches, everything about being a coach you can always improve.
"I can keep improving my communication with the players. There's never enough communication, there's never enough teaching, there's never enough understanding of what they're going through outside of hockey. And for me that's something I have to keep focusing on, keep getting better, keep building relationships, and knowing that we're behind them and we want to get them to the place they want to go."
The Amerks finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 37-22-11-6, good for third in the North Division, before bowing out to second-place Syracuse in a three-game first-round sweep.
They led the league with 29 overtime games, winning 12 and losing 17 (including a 3-6 record in shootouts). That's a large sample size of games and Taylor knows it.
"I think a lot of times we just didn't want to lose, and we weren't playing to win. We lost way too many extra points in the overtime and definitely we're going to focus on that at training camp. We have to make sure that we don't want to go to overtime, anytime. We want to make sure we take care of all 3 periods.
"We need to instill in these players to keep going after them. If you're in the offensive zone we don't have to play defense. Just keep the puck. We want puck control and puck possession, so we want to make sure that we're letting the guys know, just keep playing the same way."
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Taylor praised the hockey staff for doing a terrific job with video and analytics, the latter which he found very useful for tracking time in the offensive zone, which players excelled on zone entries, puck retrievals, overall possession, etc. While in the defensive zone it brought further clarity to which pairings got first touches on pucks, leading to better exits. And all this information allows them to teach more individually within the team dynamic at practice.
"We're going to focus on specific needs that they need to work on. Sometimes you do team stuff during practice, after practice, and it kind of gets away from that individual concept so I think we're going to emphasize situations and make sure they get more individual attention."
For now, the attention turns to the Prospects Challenge starting Friday, Sept. 7 at Harborcenter.
The Sabres' main training camp opens Sept. 13. Two weeks after that marks the Amerks' first preseason game - Sept. 27 against Toronto at Harborcenter.
The uncertainty of this year's roster is overshadowed by its potential.
"I've watched the American League for a thousand years," Sexton said. "These days the teams that have a chance to go deep in the playoffs are the teams that have the right kind of veterans, but they've got those young, talented players who bring the young legs and the speed, and the energy come playoff time. That's really exciting for me."