After three consecutive years of playoff futility that saw the Rochester Americans ousted in the first round of the AHL playoffs, the club made a nice run in the 2003-04
postseason only to fall in the Western Conference final to their new nemesis, the Milwaukee Admirals. Although a series loss on the brink of the Calder Cup final was no doubt some hard medicine for the Amerks, the upside was that the team experienced some success with a roster that included several young NHL prospects.
Many of those same young prospects are returning to the 2004-05 edition of the Amerks, with some additional highly touted young guns added to the mix.
Rochester’s parent club, the Buffalo Sabres, signed two first round selections in the offseason, including 2002 selection and former Guelph Storm star Daniel Paille, and former Frozen Four MVP and 2003 top pick Tomas Vanek. In addition to those two highly anticipated signings, the Amerks also inked young Sabres defenseman Jeff Jillson to an AHL contract, which adds three former first round picks to a lineup already sporting some emerging young talent.
The foundation for the Amerks success last season was the special teams units, which included a power play that ranked first overall in the AHL plus the eighth-ranked penalty killing contingent. The power play unit should be even stronger this season with the addition of Vanek, along with the return of forwards Derek Roy and Jason Pominville.
The strength of the Amerks lineup may be its forwards,
but goaltending would be a close second. In addition to adding top prospects Vanek and Paille to the mix up front, the Amerks also boast some solid young talent plus a sprinkling of veteran savvy.
At center, 2001 Sabres draft pick Derek Roy and veteran Chris Taylor provide a solid 1-2 punch down the middle, with both players having solid two-way skill. Roy already has made a good impression at the NHL level, but the lockout will further allow him to develop his game in the AHL. Rounding out the center contingent are third-year prospects Paul Gaustad and Sabres’ 2001 first round pick, Jiri Novotny. Gaustad’s offensive totals were down from the 2003-03 season, but his size and grit make him an intriguing prospect. Novotny, on the other hand, has yet to display the talent expected of a first round pick, so improvement is necessary for the young Czech to quiet the "first round bust" whispers.
Patrolling the right side will be the vastly improved Jason Pominville, who is coming off a season where he was second in scoring for the Amerks during the regular season, and first during the playoffs. Joining Pominville will be Sabres 1998 pick Norm Milley, who has yet to break through as a NHL regular, along with 2001 selection Chris Thorburn and tough guy Sean McMorrow. Thorburn turned in a solid, if unspectacular, rookie season, and will be looking to build on that performance. McMorrow, meanwhile, will continue his role as the team’s main enforcer.
Newcomer Tomas Vanek already tops the Amerks depth chart at left wing, which may be the team’s deepest position. Vanek will draw a lot of attention from the opposition, media and fans due to his high profile as a top-5 draft pick. Jason Botterill returns to provide some size and garbage goals, while Milan Bartovic will continue honing his defensive game while still seeking to regain his scoring touch. Rookie Daniel Paille and versatile second-year forward Mike Ryan round out the left wing candidates for what could be the Amerks strongest position. Paille has two-way skills, but may see limited action early on given his rookie status. Ryan missed nearly half of the 2003-04 season due to an injury, but showed some of his ability in the Amerks 2004 preseason games.
All told, the Amerks forward contingent possesses a good mixture of offense and defense, making them one of the more formidable units in the AHL.
If the forward unit is the Amerks main strength, the defense is not far behind in terms of quality depth. The team will start the season with eight defensemen, five of whom played for the Amerks in 2003-04, while the three new additions have solid pro resumes.
AHL veteran David Cullen, the Amerks top offensive defenseman, quarterbacked the top power play in the AHL last season, and should fill that role once again this season. Sabres 1998 second round pick Doug Janik provides leadership and steady play, and may be on the brink of a NHL career. Nathan Paetsch, a 2003 selection of the Sabres, had a strong preseason for the Amerks, leading the club in points. Paetsch should get an opportunity to show his skills on defense after spending a good portion of last season on the wing.
AHL veterans Steve Lingren, Brandon Smith and Todd Rohloff help solidify the Amerks defensive unit, with each player bringing a different skill set to the club. Lingren, who played in 69 games for the Amerks last season, mixes toughness with some offensive ability. Smith, a former AHL First Team selection with some NHL experience, brings some puck-moving ability to the blueline. Rohloff, another player with NHL experience, is more of a stay-at-home defenseman who will make the safe play. Tough guy Ryan Jorde has seen limited action since joining the Amerks in 2002, and he may have a tough time cracking the lineup given the club’s solid depth.
Rochester received some surprising help early in camp with the signing of former first round pick Jeff Jillson. Jillson was able to sign an AHL contract
despite the time he has spent in the NHL, so the Amerks defensive unit should be the better for it. The former San Jose Shark and Boston Bruin is looking to harness his considerable-but-raw talent to take his game to another level, so he should benefit from increased ice time in the AHL.
The one player on the Amerks roster that may benefit the most from the arrival of Tomas Vanek could be starting goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller has received a great deal of scrutiny since turning pro due to the expectations created by his stellar NCAA career. He has mostly lived up to those expectations, but a handful of rocky NHL starts last season led to a return to the AHL, as well as to some talk that Miller might be a bit overrated. The former Michigan State star silenced some of his critics with some solid play in the season’s second half and into the playoffs, but he’ll need to continue improving his game to completely silence his critics. The arrival of Vanek should allow Miller to go about his business with less scrutiny, however.
Backing up Miller in 2004-05 will be veteran goaltender Tom Askey. Askey has provided mostly solid relief work for the Amerks the past three seasons, so 2004-05 shouldn’t be any different.
With a lineup that should improve over last season’s strong playoff showing, the 2004-05 season should prove to be an exciting one for fans of both the
Americans and of the Buffalo Sabres. Should the NHL lockout remain unsettled for as long as anticipated by some, the Amerks could
have a formidable lineup throughout the course of the season, one featuring several potential future Buffalo Sabres. The team certainly has the talent to challenge for a division title, and could be strong enough to take a run at the Calder Cup.
Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not
duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.