Buffalo Sabres AHL affiliate exudes toughness

By Tony Musso
Photo: Corey Tropp has been on the shortlist of injury call-ups this season, appearing in 15 NHL games and 13 in the AHL. (Photo courtesy of NHL)

As the AHL affiliate for the severely underachieving Buffalo Sabres, The Rochester Americans are ironically doing the opposite. With a young core group of players devoid of any real superstars, they have managed to pull themselves into the playoff discussion under new coach Ron Rolston. Unlike their NHL brethren in Buffalo, they have established a very real identity as a tough hard-nosed hockey club.

There are many new faces this season including some eagerly anticipated debuts by a few of the Sabres most popular prospects.

AHL

Corey Tropp, RW, 22

As the poster boy for the back and forth Buffalo to Rochester shuffle, Tropp has impressed in the call-ups he has had with the Sabres this year. Though he has battled through injuries this season, both with the Sabres and while in Rochester, it’s easy to see why he should be a solid third line winger in the NHL someday. He works hard, has a nose for the net and finishes his checks, something that Buffalo has been lacking this season. Statistically Tropp is having a down year compared to his rookie campaign but the injuries and the back and forth have likely taken there toll.

Shawn Szydlowski, C/RW, 21

Though he is only in the first year of the entry-level contract that he signed with the Sabres at the start of the season, Szydlowski hasn’t been able to regain the scoring touch that he displayed in juniors. With zero goals in 37 games this year, the 21-year-old winger has a long way to go to get to the next level. He possesses very good size and is a decent skater but he hasn’t had many opportunities this season playing limited minutes. Szydlowski fits in well with the Amerks as a third or fourth line banger and with more confidence and experience he could fill that same role for the Sabres in the future.

Zack Kassian, RW, 21

Kassian started his rookie year in Rochester on fire with 22 points in his first 28 games. His strong play coupled with the Sabres suffering a rash of injuries lead to his first NHL call-up on November 25th. Though his play tapered off towards the end of his 18-game-stint with the big club, it was easy to see why the organization and the fans are excited about the rugged winger.

Though Kassian has been criticized recently for his unwillingness to drop the gloves or ramp up his physical game, the bottom line is that he is still producing offensively. It’s no secret that Kassian will need to play a hard nosed game to make a real impact in Buffalo but it should be noted that he is still figuring out the nuances of his game at this level. That being said, he will likely being watching from Rochester until his game morphs into more of the fear inducing variety he played in junior.

Kassian was recently recalled to the Sabres, where he has made several more appearances.

Maxime Legault, RW, 22

Legault has recovered well from off-season shoulder surgery but was sidelined for the first ten games of the season as he conditioned to get back into the lineup. Legault signed a one-year AHL deal with the Americans this summer as he slots perfectly as the right-winger on the fourth line. His high-energy game makes him a great asset to have in the bottom six and should garner him consideration for another one-year contract with the Amerks next summer.

Jacob Lagace, LW, 22

After a tumultuous year where he signed his first pro contract only to play himself into a demotion to Greenville of the ECHL, Jacob Lagace was happy to come into the 2011-12 season refreshed and ready to prove to the Sabres that he could play with consistency. After over 40 games, he is on pace to better his totals across the board from last season. His 10 goals matches his total from all of the 2010-11 season and he has played a more disciplined game in both ends of the ice resulting in more playing time

Lagace plays with a lot of passion and he works hard every night. He has an above average shot and decent speed and should improve over the next two seasons. His entry level contract with the Sabres runs out after the 2012-13 season but if his recent progression is any indication of his future, he could be a bottom six call up for the Sabres as early as next season.

Drew Schiestel, D, 22

At some point Schiestel’s luck will have to change for the better. After turning a lot of heads last season with his AHL all-star worthy play, his season was ended when he tore up his right ACL and was sidelined for the rest of the season. After rehabbing all summer and putting in a very solid camp, Schiestel was poised to regain his previous form but was knocked out of the first game of this season with what turned out to be a an MCL strain on his left knee. Schiestel pushed himself to get back into the lineup and after missing ten games because of the injury he has slowly built his confidence and is showing flashes of his former self.

It’s tough to come back from a major knee injury let alone two major knee injuries but Schiestel has shown tremendous resolve to become elite. Though he is in the last year of his entry-level deal and has struggled at times with his consistency, he is still considered one of the Sabres top defensive prospects and should get resigned this summer.


T.J. Brennan, D, 22

Brennan is one of the players that have benefitted most from the Sabres injury epidemic this season. His 17 points in 29 games is still tops for defenseman on the Amerks even though he has been with the Sabres either on the ice or in the press box for much of the season. With the Sabres defensive corps slowly getting healthier, Brennan will likely find himself back in Rochester manning the point on the power play and logging top pair minutes.

Though he’s played limited minutes while in Buffalo, he’s demonstrated that he is a legitimate NHL prospect and he will have a very good shot at making the team next season in what promises to be an intense competition on the blue line for the Sabres youngsters.

Alex Biega, D, 23

Biega has been Rochester’s iron man this season, playing 44 of the Amerks 46 games. His strength is in his skating ability and his consistency on the blue line. He is very patient with the puck and he moves it with good speed. He has never been a huge scorer from the blue line but he has good vision with the puck and he is good at finding the open passing lanes.

His point totals have risen, largely due to the fact that he is getting more ice time with all the call-ups to Buffalo. He has equaled his goal total of three from last season in just 40 games and he should have a respectable 25-30 points by season’s end. There are several players ahead of him on the call-up chart, Biega will eventually get his shot and he could surprise people at the next level with his intelligence on the ice.

Nick Crawford, D, 21

Along with Alex Biega, Crawford has been one of the more dependable defenseman for the Amerks this season. He is on pace to finish well off his points totals from last season, however it’s obvious that his overall game has improved. Crawford has a very fluid stride and he moves the puck well on the breakout. His defensive game has improved, particularly in his positional play down low where he has gotten noticeably stronger.

Crawford will continue to be one of the leaders on defense for the Amerks and probably get overlooked in the promotion department until a few of his teammates become NHL regulars. He slots in as a middle pair defenseman in Rochester and probably tops out as such in terms of potential in the NHL as well.

Dennis Persson, D, 23

There were high hopes for Persson entering this season after he signed a one-year deal with the Sabres and finally started to live up to his potential last season by making real progress in his game. Unfortunately, in a practice after the first game of the season he blocked a shot with his ankle and was sidelined for two months. To make matters worse, if he had been healthy, he likely would have been one of the Sabres first call ups during the great injury plague of 2011-12 and could have further proven to the Buffalo brass that he is worthy of further development.

In spite of the missed opportunities, Persson is still a restricted free agent next season. When in the lineup he has shown that he can be an asset for the Amerks so he should be back for another season. The issue for Persson is that his peers are starting to surpass him, moving him further down the depth chart and potentially out of the running for a spot with the Sabres in the future.


Brayden McNabb, D, 21

There is no argument over who the best player in Rochester has been this season as Brayden McNabb has stolen the show. As a rookie, McNabb leapfrogged over other highly regarded defensive prospects in Buffalo’s system in getting called up to fill in for injured Sabres defenseman. He performed admirably in Buffalo earning the respect of his teammates and the fans while carving out a spot for himself on the Sabres blue line. The only thing that could slow him down did, as he has been sidelined with a concussion since January 13th.

McNabb has earned a spot with the Sabres and it would be a surprise to see him relegated back to Rochester if he can continue the pace he was on before the injury. He represents a type of defenseman that the Sabres system has been sorely lacking in recent years with his tenacious play defensively and his appetite for destruction in the neutral zone. The Sabres may have found the Ying to Tyler Myers‘ Yang, a scary good proposition to say the least.


Marcus Foligno, LW, 20

Foligno is part of the young Rochester core that seems to get better every night. Foligno has really stepped up his game, particularly when he saw increased minutes with Kassian, Tropp and occasionally others filling in with the Sabres. His 26 points in 44 games is 3rd on the Amerks in scoring and his 57 penalty minutes are second to only the behemoth Joe Finley. At his current pace, Foligno is line for about 40 points, respectable total for a player many assumed would be a fourth liner at best in the NHL.

He has shown that he can contribute offensively but his real strength is in his defensive play. He could be a very good shutdown winger at the next level and his leadership abilities are unquestioned. Though he played in his first NHL game this season, appropriately against his brother Nick and the Ottawa Senators, Foligno is still developing and won’t be an NHL regular until 2012 at the earliest.


Matt MacKenzie, D, 20

MacKenzie got off to a great start in 2011-12 by first signing an entry level deal with the Sabres and then securing a spot in Rochester because of his stellar play in camp. As a 20-year-old he was eligible to play one ore season with Tri-City in the WHL but his intelligence and maturity kept him with the Amerks. His season took a turn for the worse on December 3rd when he suffered a deep cut above his knee from a skate and has been out of the lineup ever since. It is unlikely that MacKenzie will come back this season unless the Amerks go deep in the AHL playoffs.


Philip Varone, C, 21

The Sabres had nothing to lose in signing Varone to what is essentially a one-year tryout contract. After a stellar junior career in which he scored at more than a point per game clip over his four seasons in the OHL, Varone impressed Sabres management enough to get his shot. So far he has not disappointed them as his 24 points are good for second on the Amerks and his speed and skill has helped ease the loss of some of the teams top offensive players to Buffalo for much of the year.

It would be a surprise if Varone didn’t earn himself a two-way deal after the season considering how well he has adjusted to the pro game. When he was drafted by the Sharks in the 5th round of the 2009 draft, the biggest knock on him was his lack of size but he has quelled that thinking with his fearless play and willingness to go into the dirty areas of the ice.

Jonathan Parker, RW, 20

Though he went undrafted in his draft year of 2010, Parker’s scoring tripled the following season and in this past summer there was no shortage of teams that wanted him to come in and audition at training camp. He chose to give Buffalo a try and through his hard work and undeniable skill set he was rewarded with a three-year entry-level deal from the Sabres.

Unfortunately for Parker he has had a tough time adjusting to the AHL game thus far. His scoring is way down, not that surprising for a young player in their rookie season but he has had opportunities and hasn’t yet been able to really showcase his tremendous shot. There is a learning curve for any young player that is trying to make the jump form junior to the pros. If he can produce at the same level as he demonstrated in his final year in the WHL, the Sabres may have unearthed a hidden gem.


Riley Boychuk, LW, 20

The other surprise signing by the Sabres this offseason was that of former WHL bruiser Riley Boychuk. After making a name for himself last season during the WHL playoffs by pounding on the opposition and being a general nuisance on the fore-check, Boychuk earned an entry-level deal with the toughness-challenged Sabres organization.

He was demoted for a four game stint with Gwinnett of the ECHL this season and he hasn’t gotten much playing time when he’s been with the Amerks. However the early signs from Boychuk are encouraging, He is a physical winger who loves to throw his body around and drop the gloves. He also has a surprisingly deft set of hands and can chip in offensively as well. It would be a stretch to put Boychuk’s upside at anything higher than that of a third line winger but he could be a very effective one at the next level with his size and particular skill set.

Corey Fienhage, D, 21

After playing out his final year of eligibility with Kamloops of the WHL last season, Fienhage came into Buffalo’s training camp hoping to earn an entry-level deal with Sabres. While he didn’t exactly get what he wanted, the one-year minor league deal he signed with Amerks at least gives him a platform on which to prove his worth for next season. So far he has played well while starting the season in Gwinnett and getting called up to Rochester during the injury shuffling of the past three months between Rochester and Buffalo.

Though he hasn’t lived up to the player that the Sabres envisioned when they drafted him in the third round of the 2008 draft, Fienhage does have a skill set that could be beneficial to the Sabres in the future. He is punishing hitter that doesn’t shy away from fighting when he needs to and his skating has greatly improved from his draft year making him a an intriguing commodity if he can play enough to get noticed this season. It will be interesting to see if the Sabres give him an entry-level deal this summer or continue to play the one season and re-evaluate game with him.


Joe Finley, D, 24

Finley has been quite a find for the Sabres this season, showing that his bad string of injuries since being drafted in the first round of the 2005 entry draft by the Washington Capitals, is behind him. At 6’8 tall and 245lbs, Finley is a force on the ice. He is a steady defensive defenseman with a surprisingly smooth skating style for his size. He leads the Amerks with 85 penalty minutes and nine fighting majors, showing that he willingly drops the gloves and at his size he is a nightmare for opposing forwards on the fore-check.

Finley has already been called up by the Sabres twice and faired well in both stints. He has stood up for teammates and shown a heart that has been lacking from an oft-times lackluster Sabres defensive corps. Finley has a legit shot next season at being a regular with the Sabres and with his injury history hopefully behind him and a three-year entry-level deal already signed, he has the benefit of time in his development. The Sabres brass is excited about what they may have uncovered in the gigantic blue liner.