Last season was one to forget for the Rochester Americans, with one of the AHL’s most historic franchises finishing in last place.
But much has changed over the summer. The Amerks are now the exclusive affiliate of the Florida Panthers, ending what had previously been the league’s longest standing AHL/NHL partnership with the Buffalo Sabres. As a result, the Panthers have the ability for the first time to bring in all of their own personnel, including on the bench. Benoit Groulx, having coached the QMJHL Gatineau Olympiques to three championships in the last six seasons, was hired in early August. It all gets started Oct. 10.
Entering Panthers training camp, most might have assumed that there would be little or no surprises up front in the Amerks lineup. Now with the preseason drawing to a close, it appears not to be the case.
Anthony Stewart’s perennially disappointing play at the NHL level has seemingly become a thing of the past. The 23-year-old has appeared to turn a corner in the past couple of weeks, leading the Panthers in scoring during the preseason going into their final game. Stewart has lasted just as long as the two frontrunners to make their rookie debuts with the Panthers, Michael Frolik and Shawn Matthias. And yet, time will tell, Stewart may yet outdo one or both of them; his production so far has been no fluke — by all accounts, the same player once questioned for his work ethic has been one of the most noticeable Panthers on a game-to-game basis.
The top four scorers for the Amerks last season, and five of the top six, all belonged to the Buffalo Sabres organization. Stefan Meyer and Anthony Stewart were the top contributors from the Panthers, who combined for 71 points. If Stewart does cross the threshold into the NHL, a lot of offensive responsibility will be thrust upon Frolik and/or Matthias, should they fail to make it themselves. Where the three begin their season is still undecided, but what is known now, regardless of where they end up, the team has brought in help from the junior ranks.
Michael Repik joins the Amerks for the first time in 2008-09. The 2007 second-round draft pick arrives in pro hockey in his first year of AHL eligibility. He brings loads of skill and tenacity to his new team — almost as tenacious as Mike Duco, who comes to Rochester from the OHL. The former Kitchener Ranger, whose most impressive stat prior to 2007-08 had always been his penalty minutes, flourished in an offensive role under Peter DeBoer. Both Repik and Duco are smaller players, both at 5’10. Their ability to handle the more physically strenuous professional game and translate their success from junior hockey will be dictated by their grit and determination.
Kenndal McArdle will be back, looking for a spot among the top six forwards. And Janis Sprukts, somewhat surprisingly, returned to the Panthers organization after spending a year playing in Finland. Sprukts signed a one-year contract in August with the team that drafted him in 2000. He will have his sights set on becoming the team’s top center.
The Americans defensive unit is still up in the air. It is likely, however, to include several new names. Peter Aston should be back, and joining him, potentially, are Luke Beaverson, Michael Caruso, Keaton Ellerby, Rory Fitzpatrick, Jason Garrison, Jordan Henry, Franklin MacDonald, and James DeLory. The latter three seem to be the most likely to be demoted to the Florida Everblades, but there are no givens at this stage. Caruso and Ellerby, officially cut from the Panthers preseason roster on Sept. 28, are still young, and could also potentially find themselves elsewhere.
The Panthers would like to see Ellerby bring his puckmoving skills to the Amerks defense which provided little in the way of offense in 2007-08. Ellerby demonstrated his mobility during training camp, earning a comparison by GM Jacques Martin to Jay Bouwmeester. He has the ability to make the first pass and initiate the rush. As does Jason Garrison, signed by the Panthers fresh out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Garrison is a smart player, with good quickness and acceleration, and a relatively experienced power-play quarterback. All are reasons why the Panthers plucked the junior from the Bulldogs line-up a year early, beating out a few other teams in the process.
Luke Beaverson, also an NCAA product with the University of Alaska-Anchorage, should enter the fold and play a key role. Beaverson can log extra minutes, and plays a stabilizing role which should be welcome on what was a chaotic blueline a season ago. Similarly, veteran Fitzpatrick was brought in to share in that goal. Fitzpatrick, now entering his second stint with the Amerks, is sure to be a prominent figure on the backline. The 33-year-old’s leadership and experience will be heavily relied upon among his counterparts, the eldest of which is only 24 years old.
During the last two seasons, it was Adam Dennis who saw the better amount of playing time in between the pipes for the Amerks. Now that the Sabres are no longer affiliated with Rochester, Dennis has moved on, and the responsibilities will fall on the duo of Chris Beckford-Tseu and Tyler Plante in 2007-08. The newly-acquired Beckford-Tseu is the more seasoned of the two, from spending multiple years in the St. Louis Blues organization. Plante has not yet managed to establish himself at the AHL level, and 2008-09 will be the first step toward doing so. And then, in time, he will certainly be called upon to play a more prominent role. But for the time being, the starting goaltender position is Beckford-Tseu’s to lose.
There are plenty of question marks surrounding this year’s Rochester Americans, but there is nowhere to go but up for the team after 2007-08. The 2008-09 roster is filled with high character players who will be eager to establish a new team identity. Fresh young talent, a new coach and a new system will be the catalysts for that rejuvenation effort.