After a rocky campaign in 2007-08, an injection of youth heading into last season brought optimism for the future. With young NHL prospects joining the fray, and for the first time sole affiliates of the Florida Panthers, the storied Rochester Americans franchise looked like it was on the right track.
But new, young players inevitably failed to meet expectations, and Rochester merely repeated their misfortunes from the year before. In a joint effort this summer, the Panthers and Americans were able to lure a number of established AHL players to the organization. The parent club headed to training camp with plenty of competition for jobs, resulting in a fair number of capable players not making the cut.
Reinvigorated by their presence, the proud Rochester franchise has set its sights on springing themselves from the bottom of the standings.
The Amerks were largely remodeled in the months that followed the conclusion of the 2008-09 season, their second consecutive losing season.
The team’s top scorer, rookie Michal Repik, is still in the hunt for a go-around with the Panthers. Where he will spend the majority of his playing time is as of now uncertain. Janis Sprukts, close behind Repik in total points and the owner of the best point-per-game percentage of all last year’s Amerks, has moved on to the KHL’s Riga Dynamo.
For the 2009-10 season, however, there will be a decidedly greater veteran presence. After a multitude of additions, no longer will the team need to rely on prospects with no professional experience to carry the load.
First, the Amerks acquired Jeff Taffe. The 28-year-old averaged over a point-per-game last season in the AHL with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Taffe lasted deep into Panthers training camp, but will suit up for the Rochester. He should assume the pivot position on the top line. Next, the club added Graham Mink, a two-time Calder Cup winner and one of the league’s premiere power forwards. Highly sought after as a free agent, Mink brings winning know-how, and in addition, is a proven 30-goal scorer. Last year, Karl Stewart was best on the team with 20 goals. Mink was also recently named assistant captain.
And then Rochester wound the clock back, bringing into the fold a familiar face: Chris Taylor. A former Amerks captain for a number of years, Taylor will provide invaluable leadership, and though the team’s most senior member at age 37, he is still an able offensive contributor. Taylor will wear the second ‘A’ on his jersey as the team’s assistant captain.
The club also welcomed Jamie Johnson, who has logged three AHL seasons, spending last year overseas, skating with TPS Turku of Finland’s SM-Liiga. And finally, veteran Mike York was added to the mix. York, who played six seasons in the NHL, was last a member of the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. He was his team’s leading point-getter in 2008-09, compiling close to 50 assists – 47 in all, and 11 goals.
Matthias was made perhaps into the biggest scapegoat of all last year, the big forward having had the biggest expectations. The 21-year-old arrived in Panthers training camp this year in much better shape and with a greater resolve. He dropped a significant amount of unneeded body weight – weight that he built up prior to last season in an effort to get stronger.
Matthias is still currently with Panthers along with Repik, as is Mike Duco. There is a fair chance one of those three could be sent down to Rochester eventually.
The Amerks will also look for a spark from Russian winger Evgeny Dadonov, who signed an entry-level contract in early September. Dadonov is a highly gifted offensive player. In his last two seasons in the KHL with Traktor Chelyabinsk, Dadonov scored a total of 18 goals and 17 assists in 83 games. He has a lot to learn in the way of defensive play and positioning.
Though not overhauled to the same extent as the forwards, the defensive corps has improved.
Clay Wilson is another of the established AHL players recruited in the offseason, and he’s considered to be one of the preeminent offensive defensemen in the league. He will occupy a spot with the Amerks, and Peter Aston, Luke Beaverson, Michael Caruso, Matt Duffy, Keaton Ellerby, and Jordan Henry are among those who may join him.
Ellerby, a quick learner last year, was cut fairly swiftly from Panthers camp, but the rookie will be a centerpiece of the Rochester defense. Along with Ellerby and Wilson at the top of the depth chart will be the veteran captain Rory Fitzpatrick. Few of the remaining spots are set in stone. However, Aston, Caruso, and Henry – all of whom played 2008-09 with the team – are the best bets.
Duffy, after completing four years with the University of Maine, showed up at the end of last season and more than held his own. He has an outside chance to make the team, though he is more likely headed for the ECHL and the Florida Everblades. Beaverson, also a four-year player in the NCAA, began the season with Rochester last year, his first as a pro. But he ended up with the Everblades, and can be expected to be there again in 2009-10.
Last season’s most productive defenseman, Jason Garrison, is still being carried on the Panthers roster. As one of eight defenseman, Garrison could very well be with the Amerks sometime soon. If he joins the Amerks, in the case of injury, he will be the defender the Panthers first call upon for the foreseeable future.
Last season, the Amerks put their faith in Chris Beckford-Tseu to man the crease. He was intended to be a reliable alternative to the unproven duo of Tyler Plante and David Shantz. Beckford-Tseu didn’t meet the challenge, however, and was supplanted by free agent signing Mike Brodeur. Brodeur was superb, but faced an impossible task to singlehandedly make the Amerks a playoff contender. His individual performance, which earned him a look in the AHL all-star game, also piqued the interest of teams around the league. Brodeur is now with the Binghamton Senators.
With Brodeur gone, Beckford-Tseu will vie for the starting job again this year after an impressive camp – albeit one in which he did not start any games. Plante has continued on a high note after finishing strong last year. The third competitor will be the Czech-born Alexander Salak. The 22-year-old was in fact a teammate of Jamie Johnson last season for TPS Turku. Salak excelled in Finland’s highest level of pro hockey with an aggressive, athletic – and sometimes acrobatic – style that will certainly keep him in the running. The Panthers are presently carrying three goalies on their roster. Once final adjustments are made, Salak will join the Amerks.
Prospects training camp summary
A total of six junior prospects attended Panthers training camp: Scott Timmins, Dmitri Kulikov, Adam Comrie, Garrett Wilson, Colby Robak, and A.J. Jenks. Of them, only Kulikov still has the potential to crack the NHL lineup. The rest have been returned to their junior clubs.
A first-round pick in the 2009 entry draft, Kulikov signed his entry-level contract with the team on the final day to do so. The 18-year-old will be given a shot with the Panthers to start the season. If he falters, he will be returned to his junior club. Kulikov is not currently eligible to play in the AHL.