AMERKS REFLECT ON SEASONíS END AS PLAYERS RETURN HOME FOR SUMMERFeatures | 5/13/2013 4:48:07 PM | Warren Kosel
Last Friday’s gathering among the Rochester Americans players wasn’t like any normal day of work at The Blue Cross Arena. The players reported to the rink like they normally do, but the circumstances surrounding the day presented a much different feel as the disappointment of another season’s end lingered throughout the halls and weighed heavy on the minds of Rochester’s team.
And less than 36 hours later, barely even enough time to digest their second straight early exit from the postseason, all that was left was for the Amerks players was a locker to clean out and a ride home to catch.
For the better part of the last eight months, over 30 players from five different countries called Rochester their home and forged what at the start of the season was a collective group of individuals into a close-knit brotherhood – one that only truly can be found in professional sports, especially hockey. Friday’s final reunion brought the Amerks family together for one last time as the players packed up their belongings and said their good-byes before returning home for the summer, but of course, not without one last exchange of friendly locker room banter.
But when all is said and done, the feeling of a season’s end is bittersweet as the players went their separate ways and embarked on their own journeys home, leaving behind their hockey family and a sense of familiarity. For some, it was perhaps the last time they would ever be in the same room together, let alone the same continent. But nonetheless, the sentiment of falling short of your goal remains constant as the organization shifts its gears into offseason mode where rebuilding will be the main focus when the puck drops again in the fall.
“I think (Thursday) was probably the worst day, because you come into the rink and you’re kind of waiting for the guys to come in for practice and you realize again you’re not going any further,” said Amerks interim head coach Chadd Cassidy, who guided Rochester to a 43-29-3-1 (second place, North Division) record in 2012-13 and a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs for the second straight year.
“We had a great group of guys this year and I’m going to miss coming to the rink for the next little bit,” added Cassidy. “It stings because I thought this team was good enough to play a lot more hockey, but unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.”
Thus, the rebuilding phase begins. That’s not to say the Amerks had an unsuccessful season by any means as there were several moments over the course of the last eight months that really showcased the character of the team. On the surface, it may have appeared that Rochester was bounced from postseason play early, but the Amerks’ first-round series against Toronto marked the third time in four years they qualified for the playoffs and the 43rd postseason appearance overall in the 57-year history of the franchise. Not a bad track record for the American Hockey League’s second-oldest team when all things considered. The Amerks went 7-3-0-0 over their final 10 games of the season and finished with 43 wins and 90 points, representing the first time since the 2009-10 season Rochester reached the 90-point mark in a season. From an organizational standpoint, though, there’s always room for improvement and that’s something both the Amerks and Sabres will examine closely heading into the summer months.
“For us, the rebuilding phase will be a plan that’s outlined with management in Buffalo,” said Cassidy. “I’m sure we’ll be getting together in the coming weeks to start our initial meetings and evaluations of where our rosters are at right now and the needs we need to address and that obviously starts with the Sabres lineup and works its way into ours.”
The first order of business was done last week when the Buffalo Sabres removed the interim tag from Ron Rolston and introduced the former Amerks bench boss as their new head coach for the 2013-14 season. The Sabres promoted Rolston to serve as their head coach on an interim basis on Feb. 20 following the dismissal of Lindy Ruff, the all-time winningest coach in franchise history and the then-longest tenured coach in the NHL, who was relieved of his duties after 16 years behind the Buffalo bench. Rolston becomes the 16th head coach in Sabres history after compiling a 63-56-5 regular-season record over 1 ½ seasons with the Amerks, who he led to the Calder Cup Playoffs in just his first season as an American Hockey League coach. He officially made his NHL coaching debut in Buffalo’s 3-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 21 at the Air Canada Centre and closed out the campaign with a 15-11-5 record at the helm of the Sabres in first stint at the National Hockey League level.
The departure of Rolston to Buffalo in February, however, meant the elevation of Cassidy as the new top guy in Rochester. Cassidy, who previously worked alongside Rolston for five seasons at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, became the 30th head coach in Amerks history and the first to take over the position as a midseason replacement since John Van Boxmeer was appointed the title midway through the 1984-85 season. Cassidy made his American Hockey League head coaching debut in Rochester’s 5-1 loss to the Texas Stars on Feb. 20 and earned his first win in a 2-1 overtime victory over the Syracuse Crunch on Mar 2. He went 16-11-1-0 as head coach, and since Mar. 2, guided the Amerks to an incredible 16-7-1-0 record and a second straight playoff berth.
Although it’s always difficult to accept defeat, especially given the abundance of talent that comprised the Amerks dressing room, the early dismissal from the postseason also provided some time to reflect on the last eight months. Despite the overwhelming disappointment of their first-round departure, there are still plenty of positives the players are focusing on that will carry them through the summer months and into next season.
“It was a great year for us,” said veteran forward Matt Ellis, who took over as team captain for the final two months of the regular season. “Sitting here, digesting on how the season went, I’m really proud of the way our team battled in our series against Toronto. It’s unfortunate we’re sitting here packing our bags instead of playing hockey, but at the end of the day, I really thought we did a heck of a job and really gave them a pretty good run,” said Ellis, who finished the season with 12 points (7+5) in 32 games with Rochester.
The Amerks shouldn’t be too disconcerted, however, as there were several players who were responsible for making this season a successful one – none more so than goaltender David Leggio. A year after single-handedly guiding the Amerks into the postseason, Leggio again had another big year between the pipes for Rochester after making a repeat performance as team MVP. The 2012-13 campaign saw the fifth-year netminder finish the regular season as the AHL’s leader in wins (38), saves (1,957), shots against (2,119), minutes played (3,800), and games played (64) while ranking fourth with a .924 save percentage. In addition, the Williamsville, N.Y, native, also captured his third straight 20-win season and became just the seventh goaltender in franchise history to win at least 35 games in a season.
Since Feb. 22, 2012, Leggio has started 92 of Rochester’s 105 regular-season and playoff games and has earned 51 of the team’s 56 wins. He ended the season having set new AHL career-highs in all goaltending categories, including goals-against average (2.56), save percentage (.924), wins (38), saves (1,957), shutouts (4), minutes (3,800) and games played (64) and led all AHL netminders with a 9-1 shootout record. He also challenged the AHL record for saves in a season (2,005), established by Mike O’Neill with the Baltimore Bandits in 1995-96, but came up shy 48 saves.
Leggio, though, attributes much of his success this season to that of his teammates, who aided him in key situations and helped the Amerks get much-needed wins down the stretch.
“Definitely the wins,” said Leggio on what he claimed was the most important and meaningful to the Amerks this season. “That’s the most important stat to the team are the wins. If you have a good game as a goalie or a forward or a defenseman, it doesn’t matter if you don’t win. No one is going to be happy, so it was nice to get those ‘Ws’,” said Leggio, who manned the pipes for 64 of Rochester’s 76 regular-season games in 2012-13.
For one player, the season represented a unique opportunity to return “home” where it all began. The return to Rochester proved to be quite the homecoming for veteran forward Mark Mancari, who had another successful season as an Amerk since joining the organization as a rookie for the 2005-06 campaign. The eight-year pro led the Amerks in all offensive categories in goals (22), assists (39) and points (61) and ended the season ranked 11th in scoring among the AHL’s top point-getters. Mancari also finished tied for ninth in assists, which included the 10th-most on the power-play with 18. His 279 shots on goal were also tops in the AHL and were 36 more than the next closest player.
Entering this year, Mancari ranked 46th all-time in scoring amongst forwards in franchise history with 156 points (62+94) in 215 career games in the red, white and blue, but has since climbed to 24th on the list, surpassing some notable names like Dane Jackson, Scott Nichol, Jason Pominville and most recently, Wally Boyer, along the way. Mancari added another personal milestone at Toronto on Feb. 27, scoring his 200th pro career goal and recording his 200th point as an Amerk, becoming just 30th player in team history to reach the mark. After hitting the 57-point mark for the third straight season with the Amerks, a feat he also accomplished during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 campaigns in Rochester, Mancari ended this season surpassing the 60-point plateau for the fourth time in his career.
“It was nice to be back in an organization where I’ve been for a long time and also close to home, so it was a good overall year,” said Mancari, who completed his fourth season with the Amerks in 2012-13.
Despite all the ample downtime the summer months provide, the offseason also brings with it a period of wonder and uncertainty as many of this year’s players will test the free agent market in the hopes to secure employment for another season. The process is a stressful and nerve-racking one, but nonetheless a formality that athletes are forced to endure over the course of their professional careers. With the case of Rochester’s veterans, however, they instead approach the offseason with the mindset that it’s also an opportunity to return to the Amerks for another year, where they can still play the game at the second-best level and aid in the development of Buffalo’s up-and-coming top prospects.
“There’s unfortunately nothing any of us can do at this point, except see what the future holds,” said Leggio on becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Ellis, who also enters the offseason in search of a job for the 2013-14 season, echoed Leggio’s testaments on the uncertainty of it all. Having played over 700 professional games, including 267 NHL appearances with Detroit, Los Angeles and Buffalo, Ellis has undoubtedly experienced his fair share of strenuous moments over his 11-year career.
“It’s just one of those things where uncertainty is in the air, but something I’ve been through before,” said Ellis. “It’s just something you live with. It’s all part of the package when you sign up to be a professional hockey player. They’re only so many guys that get the big long-term deals that have that security and know what’s going on day-to-day, but you take things one day at a time and talk to the right people. This organization is definitely a place I’ve called home and they’ve been great to me over the past five years.”
“My heart has really grown here in Rochester and under the Sabres organization,” added Ellis. “They’ve treated me well and I think I battled hard for them. It’s a place where my family really likes it and I do professionally as well, but we’ll see what happens.”