It’s unclear whether the Florida Panthers and Rochester Americans will still be affiliated beyond this upcoming season. However a new head coach, an improved offense, a couple fresh, young faces on defense and the addition of highly-touted goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom mean that if this is the final year of the two teams’ partnership, it should be a competitive one.
The Amerks finished second in their division last year with a 44-33-2 record but failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Rochester’s offense took a bit of a hit this off-season with the loss of Graham Mink and Jeff Taffe. The unexpected acquisition of Michael Nylander from the Washington Capitals will certainly help to fill the void though. Although Amerks fans would like to see Santorelli get sent down, it looks as though he’ll make the big club.
Chris Taylor, former team captain, will make his first appearance in three years with Rochester after playing in the DEL with the Frankfurt Lions. With the departure of Rory Fitzpatrick, it’s possible he’ll take over the captaincy role again.
Evgeni Dadonov, Michal Repik, Kenndal McArdle, Mike Duco and Brady Calla will be the returning forwards from last season. Joining them as new additions will be Andrew Peters, Eric Selleck, Bill Thomas, Scott Timmins, Marty Reasoner and the aforementioned Nylander. Peters, a pest who will be relied on to get under the other team’s skin rather than score goals, comes to Rochester after playing last season with the New Jersey Devils. Selleck has attended the Panthers’ development camp the past two years and he’ll finally get his chance to prove to the organization that he can stick in the pros. Thomas is another forward who needs to prove himself. Once a promising prospect, Thomas slipped in his development. Last year he was cut from the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp and spent time with both the Springfield Falcons of the AHL and Lugano of the Swiss National League A. Reasoner, who was acquired from Chicago this off-season, grew up close to Rochester. He was traded to Chicago in the Dustin Byfuglien deal before being sent to Florida. Timmins will make the jump to the pro level after winning the Memorial Cup the past two seasons with the Windsor Spitfires.
A.J. Jenks is also expected to start the season with the Amerks after finishing up his junior career on a high note. Jenks, named the OHL’s most underrated player by the league’s coaches, has the potential to become a strong power forward with a nose for the net at the NHL level. He’s at least a couple years away from playing for the Panthers though. Assuming he starts in Rochester, it’s likely that he’ll play in a bottom-six role with an opportunity to move up should he perform well.
The Amerks defense shouldn’t look too different from last season with Rory Fitzpatrick being the only noticeable departure. Jason Garrison will remain in the organization but he’ll probably play for the Panthers unless Erik Gudbranson makes the team, in which case either Garrison or Nathan Paetsch could be sent down to Rochester.
Keaton Ellerby, Clay Wilson and Michael Caruso will return to patrol the blue line for Rochester. Colby Robak, one of Florida’s top prospects, will be joining the team after playing out his final junior year with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Robak, a mobile two-way player, scored 16 goals and 50 assists in 71 games last season. Adam Comrie is another two-way defenseman who will come to Rochester to begin his pro career. Comrie has 14 goals and 40 points in 79 games last year.
Jacob Markstrom will make his highly anticipated North-American debut this season. With Markstrom coming in, Alexander Salak was sent on loan to Farjestad BK of the Swedish Elite League so he could continue to get enough ice-time and develop properly after having a fairly strong season for Rochester last year.
The Amerks will have a new coach behind the bench. Chuck Weber, who spent the past four seasons coaching the Cincinnati Cyclones where he won two Kelly Cups, will take over for Benoit Groulx.
Jason Cipolla will return as assistant coach while Bob Janosz will be back as the team’s goaltending coach.
The Panthers seem content to be patient with their prospects as not many of them were given a chance to show their stuff in main training camp. Of 28 players in the team’s rookie camp, only 12 were invited to stay. Of those players, it was Gudbranson and Markstrom who showed the most promise.
Gudbranson, picked third overall by the Panthers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has yet to be cut and was offered an entry-level contract, with Panthers coach Pete DeBoer saying he had played well enough to earn more playing time. It looks as though Gudbranson might get a chance to play in some regular season games for the Panthers before the nine-game mark when the team will have to decide whether to keep him or send him back to juniors.
Markstrom had a solid camp as well. He stopped all 17 shots faced in his first preseason game. In his second game, which he played in its entirety, the team lost 4-1 but the score could have been more lopsided, as he made 36 saves.
The most disappointing prospect in camp was Michael Grabner. Grabner was acquired, along with Steve Bernier and a first-round pick, from the Vancouver Canucks in a trade for Keith Ballard. Grabner is a speedy forward with strong offensive skills and a good shot. He failed to impress the Panthers coaching staff though and has been placed on waivers by the team.