Change is the theme that has overtaken the Sabres organization from top to bottom since Terry Pegula took over in February. In addition to the obvious team building philosophy shift at the NHL level, the decision was made to create a more seamless transition for players going from the AHL to the NHL as well. The solution was for the Sabres to re-affiliate themselves with the Rochester Americans who are a mere 75 miles east of Buffalo. By purchasing the Amerks, Pegula is ensuring that as long as he is around, the Amerks will be solely linked to the Sabres. The marriage of the two franchises has a storied history that will continue for the foreseeable future.
The Amerks will look a lot different in 2011-12 than their predecessors in Portland, as nearly half the team is comprised of new bodies. Six rookies debuted on the opening night roster so the onus will be on a veteran defensive core and a well balanced offensive attack to pile up wins this season. Coach Ron Rolston will employ a similar style to the Sabres with an emphasis on the transition game. The Amerks group of smooth skating defenseman will be the key to making that happen.
The Americans will ice a very young group of forwards in 2011-12. They will depend on some rookies to make a difference on the score sheet as the top four scoring forwards from last season are gone. Top point getter Mark Mancari was let go in free agency this summer along with veteran winger Mark Parrish, while the speedy Paul Byron was traded to the Calgary Flames in a package to acquire Robyn Regher. Perhaps the most notable loss is that of 2010-11 AHL rookie of the year winner Luke Adam. Adam was a revelation for the Pirates last year and will look to make the permanent jump to Buffalo this season.
Not all is lost however as the crop of new forwards is a promising one. The Amerks have a lot more grit up front than in years past with the additions of Marcus Foligno, Zack Kassian, and Riley Boychuk to go along with the tough yet talented Shawn Szydlowski. Both Kassian and Foligno will try to build off of a summer of training in Buffalo and a Traverse City tournament that along with Luke Adam, they dominated. Boychuk was a standout player for the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL finals last season and his hard fore checking and big body should help the Amerks bottom six this season.
The Sabres also acquired former Amerk and AHL all-star, Michael Ryan and signed talented free agent OHLer Jonathan Parker to a three year entry level deal after a stellar rookie camp this summer. Parker led the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL in scoring last season with 45 goals and 86 points and Michael Ryan is a former AHL all star who will be counted on to add scoring punch in the top six. The Amerks also signed former Erie Otters centerman, Phil Varone to a one year AHL deal. Varone is coming off an injury shortened season where he put up huge numbers. His 81 points were good for second on the team and he did it in only 55 games.
Rochester will return a group of talented veteran wingers from the 2010-11 Sabres AHL affiliate in Derek Whitmore, Colin Stuart, Jacob Lagace, and Corey Tropp. Tropp will look to build off of a promising rookie season in which he posted a respectable 40 points in 76 games. The Sabres expect him to be one of the leaders on this team and an uptick in offensive production is likely. Also returning in 2011-12 is former ECHL standout Mark Voakes and bottom six energy player Travis Turnbull.
The glut of strong defensive prospects will be on display this season as five of the Amerks top six defenseman were drafted by the Sabres. The only exception is NHL veteran and current cap casualty Shoane Morrisonn.
With the elevation of Marc-Andre Gragnani to the big club this season, it will be up to T.J. Brennan and Drew Schiestel to pick up some of the scoring slack from the blue line. Both have shown that they can score at the AHL level and by season’s end should garner some attention as potential late season call ups to Buffalo.
Unfortunately, with the opening night injury to Schiestel’s knee, the Amerks will need to dig into their defensive depth right away. The likely choice to fill his spot is surprise healthy scratch, Nick Crawford. Joining Crawford on opening night in watching the team from the stands were recently signed behemoth defenseman Joe Finley and standout rookie Matt MacKenzie. Finley is coming back from two injury plagued seasons and if he can stay healthy he could surprise people with his deceptive speed for his size. MacKenzie had a stellar camp in Buffalo and earned an entry level deal and a stay in the pros. Either Finley or MacKenzie will join the Sabres new ECHL affiliate in Gwinnett as the Sabres brass does not want both players sitting for any length of time.
2006 first rounder, Dennis Persson will try to build off a much improved season in 2010-11 and earn a longer term contract with the Sabres. Former Harvard Crimson captain, Alex Biega has lived up to his reputation as a natural born leader and a fearless competitor as he was named as one of the Amerks assistant captains this year.
Finally, the player with perhaps the most upside of any of the Sabres defensive prospects is former Kootenay Ice standout Brayden McNabb. McNabb is known for his surly attitude and his ability to get the puck up ice with authority. He is bound to make mistakes this season, but he could be a shutdown defenseman in the NHL in the not too distant future.
The goaltending duties will be shared this season between David Leggio and newly signed AHL veteran, Drew MacIntyre. Leggio played admirably while Enroth filled in for Ryan Miller but he hasn’t had to shoulder the load of an entire AHL season. He had 22 wins in 36 starts with a 2.80 goals against and .911 save percentage, very respectable totals but not overwhelming. MacIntyre is a solid goalie who played with the Chicago Wolves and the Hamilton Bulldogs last year and posted a 2.31 goals against to go along with 24 wins in 41 combined games. They should make a solid if unspectacular tandem for the Amerks.
Opening night backup Jeff Jakaitis will likely spend time in Gwinnett now that MacIntyre has returned from his emergency role on the European trip with the Sabres.
With the departure of former Sabres AHL affiliate bench boss Kevin Dineen for the greener pastures of the NHL this year, the Sabres have entrusted their future to former US NTDP head coach, Ron Rolston. Rolston has been an assistant coach at many of the top college hockey programs in the country, including Lake Superior State, Harvard, and Boston College. For the past seven seasons he has been the head coach of the US NTDP national team program. This will be his first coaching opportunity in the pro ranks.
Rolston will be joined by Chadd Cassidy who will serve as his top assistant, Jay McKee who will coach defenseman, Chris Taylor who will focus on player development, and Bob Janosz who will coach the goalies.
With the Sabres notable offseason additions, space on the big club’s roster was limited at best. Marc-Andre Gragnani was a good bet to make the jump this season after a standout performance in the 2011 NHL playoffs. Gragnani picked up right where he left off by showing that his game has grown tremendously in the past year, particularly in his own end.
Besides Gragnani the players that turned the most heads during camp this season were last year’s AHL rookie of the year, Luke Adam and scrappy winger Corey Tropp. In Adam’s case, his scoring prowess is his ticket to longevity in the NHL. He has to continue to minimize his mistakes and make the most of his offensive opportunities. His great camp and his play in Europe to kick off the NHL season have made it impossible for coach Lindy Ruff to send him down to Rochester so it is highly unlikely that he makes the I-90 drive this season.