Sabres Report: Dial “M” For Mediocre

By Ken McKenna

The early portion of the 2001-02 schedule has seen the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and their AHL farm team, the Rochester Americans, leading parallel lives. Both teams have been flirting with the .500 level all season, seemingly stuck in an endless "win one, lose one" loop.

The reasons both teams are struggling are similar, as well, with both Buffalo and Rochester faring from mediocre to poor on special teams and in goal. The Sabres and Amerks, in fact, may well have the worst power play organization-wide, as both teams are at or near the bottom their of respective league rankings in that category. The end result is that both teams are currently wallowing in last place in their respective divisions, with tough road schedules looming just around the corner.

Focusing on the Amerks, a quick look at the team statistics tells this tale of mediocrity. Rochester currently sits in last place in the Central Division of the AHL’s Western Conference. Their record is currently 6-8-4-1, with their record over the past 10 games being 4-5-1- truly consistently inconsistent. The Amerks have netted 47 goals, while giving up 58 markers. They have a losing record both at home and on the road, with the aforementioned league-worst power play being a major factor in Rochester’s struggles. The penalty-killing unit has struggled, as well, hovering around the middle of the pack, with their current AHL ranking being 19th overall.

Rochester’s struggles are not a complete surprise, as coach Randy Cunneyworth has had to use many 1stUP>- or 2nd-year players who are still finding their way in the pro game. Given the new setup in the AHL, however, the Amerks are not the only team that has to deal with this issue. The general consensus is that as some of these green players get used to playing with one another, the Amerks will start to play better as a team, and hopefully make a move up the division and conference standings. The next 20-25 games, then, should be a good indicator of the kind of progress (or lack thereof) that Rochester is making.

In terms of prospects, the youngster that has performed the best so far for the Amerks is C-RW Ales Kotalik. After starring for Budejovice of the Czech league last season, Ales quickly became the Amerks best offensive forward, as he led the team in scoring until recently. The Sabres rewarded Kotalik’s effort with an early-season call-up to Buffalo, where Ales did not disappoint. Kotalik has good speed and stickhandling ability, and he is willing to use his body to make a play.

Another 1st-year player who has given a decent showing is D Doug Janik. Doug played for the University of Maine the previous 3 seasons, but decided to turn pro during the summer. So far, Janik has displayed some offensive ability, registering 7 points (2G, 5A) in 19 games. He has good speed, and appears to have a take-charge approach when he is on the ice. Doug is built solidly enough that he should be able to handle the rigors of the pro game, but he will not be a player that will put opposing forwards through the boards.

There are other Buffalo prospects on the Amerks possessing some promise, but who have struggled so far during the 2001-02 season:

  • G Mika Noronen, voted by The Hockey News to be the best minor league prospect the past 2 seasons, is once again struggling at the start of a season. If past history is any indication, however, he should come on in the season’s 2nd half as he helps Rochester make a push for the playoffs.
  • RW Norm Milley had a strong showing in training camp, and was one of the last cuts from the Buffalo roster. The combination of the disappointment at coming so close to an NHL roster spot, as well as an early-season injury, have led to Milley’s disappointing 01-02 campaign. Norm has played better of late, however, so his struggles are most likely just a bump in his road to the NHL.
  • LW Milan Bartovic has shown great speed and quickness, as well as a feisty side to his game. Milan has 7 points (3G, 4A) in 19 games, and has one of the better +/- figures on the Amerks roster.
  • Defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Luc Theoret have finally made their first appearances in a Rochester uniform. Tallinder, in particular, is logging a good bit of ice time, but he is still a work in progress. Illness and injury have dogged Theoret since he turned pro, so it will be interesting to see where he is at in his development (he has played in just 7 AHL games so far).
  • There are several interesting prospects on the left side, but no player has stood out above the others to this point. Taylor Pyatt (not a prospect according to the HF guidelines) was another late cut from Buffalo’s camp, and, like Norm Milley, has struggled since being sent to Rochester. Darren Van Oene received a good look from the Sabres in camp, and has played well in Rochester so far this year, but he needs to play a more physical game to catch the attention of the Buffalo brass. Jeremy Adduono has continued to work hard while chipping in both offensively and defensively, but he hasn’t done enough to make the jump to the next level.
  • Former 2nd round picks RW Jaroslav Kristek and LW Andrew Peters have been disappointing so far this year. Kristek has registered just 1 point in 17 games, while Peters has reluctantly filled the role of enforcer while appearing in just 12 games. RW Karel Mosovsky has had his season ended early due to a knee injury.

Overall, Sabres’ management has to be a little concerned with the performance of some Rochester prospects. It is expected that players like Noronen, Milley and Pyatt will eventually come around, but some of the other youngsters need to step up in order for Buffalo to remain competitive in the coming years.