Sabres Report: Third Time Lucky?

By Ken McKenna

Buffalo sports fans can attest to the agony of having one of their teams’ make it to the championship round in consecutive years, only to end up the loser, as the Buffalo Bills did in the early 90’s. Rochester has experienced this feeling the last two years, as they watched their Rochester Americans lose twice in the Calder Cup finals. The hope was that the 2000-01 edition of the Amerks could at last finish the job, but early returns suggest that this team may not be up to the task.

It is probably no surprise that the Amerks have struggled this season, as they are missing the likes of J.P. Dumont, Maxim Afinogenov, Dimitri Kalinin and Denis Hamel, all players currently with the Buffalo Sabres who were involved in last year’s run to the AHL finals. In addition, offensive star Domenic Pittis has moved on to the Edmonton organization, which has further depleted Rochester’s firepower. In addition to the loss of some highly skilled players, the Amerks 99-00 MVP, goaltender Mika Noronen, has been just average so far this year.

The talent drain shows in Rochester’s current team statistics, as they are currently 3rd in the AHL’s Mid-Atlantic division, and 12th overall. The Amerks power play is ranked 13th (out of 20 teams), while their penalty killing unit is 14th in the AHL. Offensively, Rochester is tied for 12th overall in goals scored, which is a further indication of the erosion of talent.

The main focus of this article will be to update the play of some of Buffalo’s legitimate prospects currently playing in Rochester. Some of these players may never wear the red-and-black of the parent team, but for now they’ll be considered as possible NHL material. Players included in this report will be 22 or under, with the players being broken down into 3 categories (goal, defense, forward).

Goal

Buffalo is expecting big things from top goaltending prospect Mika Noronen, but Mika has so far not been able to live up to the high expectations he created for himself during his wonderful AHL rookie campaign. Mika has been the winning goaltender in just one game, which is not surprising considering he is sporting a bloated 4.02 GAA, as well as a weak .830 save percentage. Not all of this is Mika’s fault, as the defense in front of him is not as strong as last year’s unit, but clearly Noronen is not yet ready for prime time. Mika must improve his concentration, as he does tend to be caught flat-footed at times, which is a problem that plagued him early last season. The good news is that Mika will receive plenty of work playing in Rochester, something that would not have happened had he stayed in Buffalo, so he should be able to work himself out of his current malaise.

While Mika has struggled, Martin Biron made it clear that he is the heir apparent to Dominik Hasek’s starting position with Buffalo. Biron provided a dazzling display of goaltending during a 3 game conditioning stint with Rochester, during which he posted a stingy 0.67 GAA. Martin has since re-joined Buffalo, where he will likely see little playing time as Hasek’s backup.

Defense

The only Buffalo defensive prospect of note in Rochester is offensive-minded Brian Campbell. Brian had another good training camp for Buffalo, but he was returned to Rochester for further development. So far this season, all of Brian’s offensive contributions have come in the form of assists (15 GP, 0G, 7A), which is at least partly because of his role as a power play QB. Were Brian to continue this pace, he would finish with about 40 points, which would be a decent season, but maybe not as good as Buffalo’s management is expecting from the youngster. Brian is fairly responsible in the defensive zone, but his lack of size and style of play virtually ensure that he will always be somewhat of a defensive liability.

Brian’s big chance will likely come when one of either Alexei Zhitnik or Jason Woolley is moved in a trade.

Forwards

Buffalo has a solid contingent of prospects at the forward positions currently playing for the Amerks. While there may not be a potential star amongst the bunch, the Sabres should have the necessary bodies to fill future openings on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines.

Francois Methot appears to be the only true prospect at the center position, but he is a marginal talent, at best. Methot’s game is offense, with expectations being that he would play a bigger role offensively following Pittis’ departure, but Francois has so far struggled this season. In 14 games, Francois has just 6 points (4G, 2A), with 2 of those goals coming on the power play. Francois is known more for his playmaking ability, so his total of 2 assists is disappointing, indeed.

Rochester’s left wing features the varied talents of Jeremy Adduono, Darren Van Oene and Andrew Peters. Adduono is the most offensively accomplished of the three, as he is amongst the top four scorers on the Rochester roster (15GP, 5G, 6A). Jeremy had a good training camp with Buffalo, which led to his quick start offensively for the Amerks, a start that included a 5 point game back in October. Since then, however, Adduono has struggled to create offense along with his fellow Rochester teammates. Van Oene received a look from Buffalo’s coaching staff during training camp, but Denis Hamel and Eric Boulton took the LW openings on the Buffalo roster. Darren would appear to be a prototypical 3rd or 4th line player, as his main attributes are his size and hustle, but he also can chip in offensively (15GP, 2G, 2A, 43 PIM). Andrew Peters’ main talent appears to be fighting, which is disappointing considering that he was a high 2nd round draft choice. The Sabres had hoped that Andrew would develop a bit of a scoring touch, but Peters simply does not possess good offensive instincts (10GP, 0G, 1A, 46 PIM). Buffalo may have been better served by saving the money they used to sign Peters to instead pay Barrett Heisten.

Buffalo’s most promising forward prospects in Rochester patrol the right side, with AHL rookies Norm Milley and Jaroslav Kristek playing well for the Amerks. Of the two ’98 draft picks, Milley appears to be the more accomplished, as he is amongst the top scoring rookies in the AHL. Milley (15GP, 3G, 8A) has shown himself to be a versatile player, as he has scored on power play as well as shorthanded situations (1PPG, 1SHG). Kristek is showing that he has some goal scoring ability (15GP, 5G, 2A), and in particular has shown a knack for scoring game-winners (2GWG). Both of these players would appear to have definite NHL potential, but the Sabres’ depth at this position virtually ensures that they will both receive plenty of development time in Rochester. One other RW prospect, Craig Brunel, plays the role of enforcer, so he could perhaps be a replacement for Rob Ray once Ray decides to hang up the skates.