This Sabres season has been a dumpster fire in every sense of the word. Expectations of a fast skating, puck-moving team have been reduced to hoping Jack Eichel does something good, and maybe Sam Reinhart or Ryan O’Reilly have a productive game.
But head an hour east down the interstate and the Rochester Americans quietly clinched their first playoff berth since the 2013-14 season. While they have struggled a bit the past two months due to numerous callups and injuries, the Americans have seen a strong, encouraging youth movement take hold.
Like the Sabres, the Americans were ravished by the tank; perhaps even harder than the Sabres as many youngsters and veterans were forced up into the Sabres lineup due to injuries.
Tim Murray never focused on improving the Americans the same way Jason Botterill has and was more than willing to let players like Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Nikita Zadarov and Mikhail Grigorenko just walk into the Sabres locker room rather than earn their way up.
Additionally, young players that were supposed to be part of the once future core like Mark Pysyk, Brayden McNabb and Joel Armia were traded. All of these things depleted the Americans from having the necessary youth to field a competitive roster that in turn creates a fiery competitive winning environment for young players to be molded in.
Success in the AHL does not necessarily need to be the Calder Cup championship for the parent club to see fruits of those experiences down the road.
The beloved 2005-06 Sabres were buoyed by a young core of Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville. They were all groomed in Rochester during the 2004-05 season when they won the division crown and lost in the AHL semifinals. That winning helped translate to the team above who had strong veterans like Danny Briere and Chris Drury expecting nothing less than the Stanley Cup.
Even the late 90’s Sabres teams, while led by Dominik Hasek’s insane goaltending saw the success of the Americans 95-97 teams help them down the road with players like Jay McKee, Dixon Ward, Curtis Brown, Brian Holzinger and Mike Wilson contributing to various levels.
When Jason Botterill took over as GM he made it a priority to return the Americans to that form. To Botterill’s credit, season one has already been a success.
Americans coach and former legend Chris Taylor has the team playing hard every night and only rewards players putting maximum effort with more ice time.
Former 1st round draft pick Alexander Nylander has went from being in Taylor’s doghouse to receiving top line minutes throughout this season. He has scored four goals and 11 assists in the last 17 games leading hope that he finally is rounding into the player Buffalo expected when he was drafted 8th overall in 2016.
Players like Brendan Guhle, Casey Nelson, and Nick Baptiste have been developing wonderfully in Rochester while getting playing in a winning environment. CJ Smith, the Americans leading scorer, is a late college bloomer who could end up being a decent 3rd line player for the Sabres if he keeps on his current trajectory.
Danny O’Regan, who was acquired in the Evander Kane trade, has done well since arriving with five goals and an assist in nine games. I would be remissed if I did not bring up Linus Ullmark’s sensational play and growth over the last three years as he already is being penciled in as the Sabres starting goalie in 2018-19.
The culture has been set and the foundation is finally in place for Rochester to be grooming young players that help become major pieces for the Sabres. This has to be welcomed news for Botterill after how dismal this season has gone. He desperately needs young, fast players that are hungry to win injected into this lineup.
Additionally, the winning environment is allowing the younger players to grow and gain needed experience for the future – something players like Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen never really experienced. For Sabres fans, the arrival of some of these kids in 2018-19 to the lineup full time should provide a refreshing breath of competitiveness and work ethic that is drastically absent from the current roster.