Note: As Sabres Hockey Central expands our coverage of the Sabres we will be increasing our focus on the Rochester Americans, the AHL farm team of Buffalo. The Amerks play an important role in the future of the Sabres and long term will be crucial in producing quality players for the Sabres.
To start our look at the Rochester Americans we actually go to 2004-05 when the NHL was having their lockout. With the Sabres not playing, the Americans were the only game in town, featuring many prospects and future Sabre stars like Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Paul Gaustad. That team won the division crown and won their first round matchup against Hamilton only to lose to AHL Champs Milwaukee in the 2nd round. That was the last time the Rochester Americans won an AHL series and the last time the Americans were a true AHL threat.
Unfortunately, due to the Sabres bankruptcy and sale with the Regis’s, the Americans were sold away from the Sabres organization to local Rochester ownership. The Rochester ownership needed to raise funds and eventually signed with the Florida Panthers as a dual affiliate in 2005. This meant the roster was effectively split between Buffalo and Florida.
When Tom Golisano bought the Sabres and got them on stable footing, he tried to reacquire the Americans for the Sabres only, but he was denied by the local owner. In 2007 the Sabres switched their AHL affiliate to the Portland Pirates to regain a full roster while the Americans had limited success as the Panthers AHL affiliate.
Fast forward to 2011. The Terry Pegula-owned Sabres bought the Americans for $5,000,000. Pegula, to his credit, reestablished connections with Amerk alumni and reinvested in the team, helping the Americans re-enter the playoffs in 2011-12. While the Sabres were not doing great at the time, young prospects like Rasmus Ristolainen, Brayden McNabb, Joel Armia, Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno, Mark Pysyk and Zemgus Girgensons were all getting valuable time to develop and it started to look like the Americans would rebuild their strong prospect pool and veteran lineup.
In 2013 the American’s took two major hits that hurt their ability to produce as a strong AHL affiliate that only now they are starting to recover from. First, they promoted Ron Rolston to head coach of the Sabres. While Rolston was an excellent coach in the AHL who was able to get the most out of his players and help a lot of young players grow rapidly, he was simply overmatched in the NHL. The second hit to the Americans was the pillaging of the roster by the Sabres from 2013 to 2015. Many players like Foligno, Larsson and Girgensons were all rushed into roles too early.
When you develop players, the ability to let them grow at their own pace rather then rushing them into a role is paramount. You have to wonder what an extra season in Rochester would’ve done for Larsson’s development. Mikhail Grigorenko was at one point the Sabres top prospect, but Darcy Regier’s insistence that he play on the Sabres from day 1 ruined any chance of him having time to grow in Rochester. Ironically, the one season Grigorenko did play in Rochester, he did very well and showed some nice flashes of talent that was expected as a first round pick.
Additionally during 2013 to 2015 the Sabres needed roster players and very often an AHL lineup was put into the Sabres roster. Players like Kevin Porter, T.J. Brennan, Mark Mancari, Brian Flynn, Corey Tropp, etc.. all are mostly AHL caliber players who were forced to start for the Sabres and also traded away depriving the Americans of solid veterans for their roster.
These are nice players to have if you have injuries in the NHL and need a guy for a few games, they are not NHL starters. For basically two years the Americans saw their roster gutted and young prospects like Brayden McNabb & Joel Armia who were strong cogs in Rochester traded away.
While the Sabres saw an immediate reward from their losing seasons by adding players like Eichel and Reinhart in the lineup during 2015-16, the Americans only now have started to rebuild from ground zero.
So what can the Americans do to return to being one of the top AHL teams and a true strength for the Sabres in developing players? In hockey you want to have a strong prospect pool that produces a quality starter or two every year from the AHL and every 4-5 years a new core of these players emerge that can take the reigns up in Buffalo from some of the veterans.
The Americans have a quality coach again in Randy Cunneyworth who actually was the head coach of the last Rochester American division champion in 2004-05. Cunneyworth did an admirable job developing a ton of quality NHL players during his time, including Ryan Miller, Brian Campbell, and Thomas Vanek. The Sabres need to be patient with Cunneyworth and give him time to work with some of the younger players to develop their skills.
It’s important to keep replenishing the talent in Rochester and not to rush any of them to the NHL. Franchises like Chicago and Detroit are patient…not calling a player up too soon and heaping high expectations just because a roster spot is open. Buffalo needs to follow suit.
The AHL has a rule that limits how many players can play on the roster at 19 years old. Even with this rule it will be in Buffalo’s best interest to get players like this years number No. 1 pick into Rochester to grow and develop in time. There is a solid core of young talented forwards players like Justin Bailey, William Carrier, Evan Rodrigues and Nick Baptiste, currently.
Next year should be another year they can grow as a group in Rochester unless one of them truly forces their way onto the Sabres. The defense is a bit more limited currently now that McCabe is up with Buffalo, but Brendan Guhle is another young puck-moving defenseman that with some seasoning could be a nice top four defenseman in the future.
The other key during this will be the Sabres the right quality veterans for their current roster and not just giving a young guy in Rochester a spot he is not prepared for. The real strength of the 2005-06 Sabres is the transition of young studs like Miller, Vanek, Pominville and Roy playing with the veterans as an asset not a liability like we saw with Girgorenko, Larsson and Foligno.
One negative factor due to the Americans struggles has been a lack of interest and attendance in Rochester. When Pegula took over and Rolston was the coach the team was drawing very well (8,000-10,000). Since then, the interest in the Americans has taken a hit in Rochester given how long it has been since they had a good team. The fans in Rochester deserve better after seeing a decent young team ripped apart.
Overall, the Rochester Americans success will most likely mimic Buffalo’s improvement in the coming years. The future is very bright if the Sabres are patient and let their youngsters play in the AHL and develop. The goal in the coming years has to be strong improvement in all facets if the Sabres are to see continued success and the Americans return to their former glory.