By Brian Duff for Sabres.com
In two years as general manager of the Rochester Americans, Randy Sexton has seen the club improve from the 67-point team he inherited to 91 and 99-point teams under head coach Chris Taylor.
As expected, roster turnover has been significant. We might be looking for a new adjective after this summer.
"It's certainly a bigger challenge this coming summer than it was last summer," Sexton admitted. "And that's because we now have some young players kicking the door to try and earn a full-time spot in Buffalo.
"C.J. Smith played well in Buffalo when he was there. [Victor] Olofsson handled himself well. Will Borgen was a tremendous, wonderful surprise the way he handled himself in Buffalo. [Alexander] Nylander showed he is right there. So we're creating a culture in Buffalo that you earn everything that you get and so that won't change.
"But it is a management challenge to balance. Do we keep a spot open or two for these younger players or do we fill it with a shorter term, older more experienced guy and expect that the player either has to beat him out or is going to Rochester to start the year?
"We haven't had those meetings as an organization yet, but in terms of stocking the team in Rochester, it does present a greater challenge than it has in the past. But it's a fun challenge because we're at the point now where we have some of these young players who are close.
"That's exciting! And it should be exciting for our fans and certainly will be exciting for everybody if and when they get there."
Olofsson, Nylander, and Tage Thompson are the only forwards still on entry-level contracts moving forward who dressed for both the Amerks and Sabres during the 2018-19 season.
C.J. Smith, Sean Malone, Remi Elie and Eric Cornel are restricted free agents.
Rasmus Asplund, Andrew Oglevie and Matej Pekar are the remaining forwards on entry-level deals.
Asplund showed terrific growth over the course of his first season in North America. Concussions limited the 24-year-old Oglevie to just 28 games in his first year as a pro while the rambunctious Pekar - who will be returning to the OHL as a 19 year old - made the most of his late-season rehabilitation assignment after injury halted his campaign with Barrie after only 33 games.
"We were very, very excited about the time he spent in Rochester," Sexton said, "and truth be known, we originally intended for him to be there about 9 or 10 days. But he was fitting in so well, his attitude and work ethic was so infectious on everybody, we had veterans coming to our coaches, and coaches coming to me saying, "Why don't we keep this kid around a little bit longer, he's great!'
"So that was wonderful. We kept him around another 7 or 8 days and he ended up being there almost three weeks and he enjoyed every minute. He soaked it all in and that was part of the strategy obviously for these younger players to start to indoctrinate them into life as a professional player without the risk and the grind of the daily professional player."
One player of organizational intrigue is recently signed Finnish center/winger Arttu Ruostsalainen.
Sexton laid out his situation like this:
"If his club team in Finland [Ilves] is prepared to let him stay in North America, if he doesn't crack the Buffalo lineup, he has the ability to stay. So, it's not completely 100 percent [that] if he doesn't stay in Buffalo he must return.
"But clearly, he's coming to Buffalo not to play in Rochester. He's coming to Buffalo to try and earn a spot [in the NHL] and we're going to give him every opportunity to earn a spot.
"We'll see how his summer unfolds, we'll see how his camp unfolds and he'll start off like everybody else. He'll be in our Prospects Challenge in September which will hopefully be a good tune up for him to get to training camp and we'll see how he progresses from there."
So that leaves Danny O'Regan, Wayne Simpson, Kevin Porter, Taylor Leier, Kyle Criscuolo, Yannick Veillieux, Dalton Smith, Tyler Randell, Judd Peterson, Pascal Aquin, Vasily Glotov and Myles Powell as unrestricted free agent forwards who played at least a game for Rochester this past season.
The blue line has far greater clarity with 10 players currently under contract, including Lawrence Pilut (out five-to-six months following shoulder surgery), Borgen, Brandon Hickey, Devante Stephens, Casey Fitzgerald, and Jacob Bryson on entry-level deals.
Zach Redmond, Kurt Gosselin, Justin Baudry and Tobie Bisson are on AHL deals.
Jack Dougherty is a restricted free agent while Matt Tennyson, Andrew MacWilliam, Nathan Paetsch, and Arvin Atwal are all unrestricted.
That's a long list of players who in some way contributed to 46-win season, the Amerks highest total since 2006-07, and that's not lost on Sexton.
"From a big picture perspective there were lots of positives: We had a stronger regular season, we were more consistent in the regular season while we continued to plow more younger players into the lineup," he said.
"That was all very positive… Obviously our inability to get to the second round of the playoffs was disappointing. There's no other way to state it. We felt we had all the pieces, but we just didn't come together and get it done… Our performance in the playoffs didn't check any boxes.
"So, time to rethink that a little bit. But certainly, we're not going to abandon the players we have or the plan that we have just because we didn't get to the second or third round of the playoffs."
Sexton added, "Often times in order to learn how to win you need to understand what it's like to lose and that's how I really think about this season… That's a real learning process for everybody, from me, to the coaching staff, to the players.
"And I can tell you in the exit meetings - to a man - everybody was thoroughly disappointed. I'm fairly optimistic we can keep a good chunk of our team together for next year and for the guys who are back we will not forget what it was like to lose to Toronto."
Goaltending was a factor in the season-ending sweep to the Marlies. Both Scott Wedgewood and Adam Wilcox are UFAs, while 23-year-old Jonas Johansson and 20-year-old Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (out up to six months following hip surgery) are on their entry-level contracts.
Luukkonen was recently named the Ontario Hockey League's Most Outstanding Player.
"He deserves a lot of credit," Sexton explained, "because often times young players in Europe, they're playing professionally and as a result they review it as a step backwards to go to junior. But he embraced the opportunity to come to Canada and play in the Canadian Hockey League and I don't think anybody could argue with the benefit that it had for him and the positive impact it's had on his game.
"So, hats off to him for having the courage to do it. He invested in himself and the results speak for themselves, but he deserves a lot of credit and we're obviously really excited about the path that he's on.
"We don't have anything penciled in. He's going to have to come in and earn a spot and like every player he'll have to earn his starts and we'll take it from there. Some players are able to jump right into the American League and some need time in the ECHL. We're not going to push him in any particular direction. His play will dictate where he is."
And whether it's Luukkonen, Bryson, or a name not yet on their radar, Sexton's message to all is consistent.
"We tell our first-year players every year you better have a lot of respect for the American League because it's a very good league. It's full of high draft picks, its full of hungry players, it's full of people who feel they are only one step away from the National Hockey League…it doesn't matter if you played in the Swedish Hockey League, or the ECHL or the Big Ten or Canadian Major Junior.
"And for all of our first-year players [this year], they all said to me at the end, 'It took me a little bit longer to get accustomed to this league, I couldn't believe how good it was.' So, it was their acknowledgement of how good the American League was that, A.) it told me they were listening and B.) it told me that they were ready to recognize that the advice we were giving them was accurate, yet in that context they all had really strong years.
"So, the commentary back to them was that's great that you recognize that, accept it now, you better have a great summer of training to get yourself ready to not have a good year in the American League next year but to have a great year. Or not to get three games in Buffalo next year, to get 15 or 20 or 80! That's what your focus needs to be on this summer."