The 2005-06 edition of the Rochester Americans has been a roller coaster ride of injuries and call-ups, but it has also been highlighted by the emergence of a crop of promising Buffalo Sabres prospects that helped Rochester play .500 hockey through the first 30 games.
In their first season of dual affiliation with the Florida Panthers, the Sabres started the season with nine forwards and two defensemen on the farm. An early season thigh injury to veteran favorite Chris Taylor has called for greater responsibility to be spread among the youthful squad. At the same time, the surging parent club has experienced a few key injuries of their own, leaving the door open for a pair of forwards, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, to log solid minutes in the NHL, and in turn affording many on the Rochester roster the opportunity to show their wares on the AHL stage since no veteran replacements were sought.
Roy entered the Sabres training camp looking to prove that he belonged at the top level. When he was sent to Rochester as part of the Sabres final cuts, he immediately took his frustration out on the opposition, notching the first of three five-point games he would have in the month of October on opening night against Toronto. He eventually would be called back to Buffalo for some NHL trick-or-treating on October 30th, but not before lighting the lamp seven times on the power play and scoring 20 points in just eight games played. The second-leading AHL scorer at the time of his call-up, Roy has appeared in 21 games, scoring three goals and adding nine assists while seeing the occasional penalty-killing shift. Being just his third professional season, the Strathroy, Ontario native can move freely between Buffalo and Rochester without going through the waiver process, so a future appearance in an Amerks sweater this season is still possible despite his contributions to the top club.
Like Roy, Jason Pominville arrived in Buffalo this fall ready to make his mark and cement his status as a bona fide NHL regular. With the parent club having an abundance of contracts at the forward positions, the numbers game forced the French-Canadian sniper back through waivers to Rochester after an impressive camp showing. A masterful piece to the power play, Pominville set the league on fire with a league-leading 19 goals in 18 games, including nine with the man advantage. He set a team record on October 21st versus Cleveland with a five-goal performance, one of two hat tricks and five multi-goal games he would have in his brief AHL stint. A late-November abdominal injury to J.P. Dumont summoned the nifty winger to Buffalo for a second time, where he immediately skated a regular shift and saw time as an aggressive point man on the power play. Averaging over 14 minutes of ice time in 11 games, Pominville has shown great hustle and a much-welcomed shoot-first mentality en route to three goals and five assists. Since he has played in 10 NHL games this season, Pominville would have to pass through waivers if the Sabres elected to send him back to Rochester, a scenario representing a risky proposition at best.
With Roy and Pominville looking like they’ll be sticking for a while in Buffalo, the remaining Sabres prospects have taken the increased availability of playing time and ceased the opportunity to show the front office that their development shouldn’t go unnoticed.
On the Amerks blue line, no one has been better than third-year pro, Nathan Paetsch. In fact, statistically speaking, no one in the AHL has been better offensively than the Saskatchewan native. A seventh-round pick in the 2003 draft, Paetsch has collected 24 assists and a career-high 27 points already this season, making him the league leader for defensemen in both departments. He settled into the role of power play quarterback after Pominville left for Buffalo, and has used his excellent vision to become a reputable assist machine. With experience as a forward rounding out his fine all-around polish and game intellect, Paetsch is tops on the call-up list if Buffalo were to lose any of their puck-moving rearguards.
Mark Mancari has been a pleasant surprise for the Amerks since signing his three-year deal on October 16th. Possessing nice hands and excellent puck control in corners and along the boards, the London, Ontario native is at his best when using his massive 6’3, 225-pound frame to bang bodies and create screens when parked in front of the opposing net. The winger has embraced greater responsibility as the season has progressed, especially on the power play, and has yet to disappoint by averaging a point in three out of every four games. Usually injecting the team with energy, Mancari notched the first four-point game of his career on December 2nd with a goal and three helpers against Manitoba. With more experience, the Sabres should have themselves a serviceable two-way player who’ll do anything to win.
Employing a rugged style, big Chris Thorburn is turning a few heads this season with an efficient all-around game and leadership. A very balanced player who uses his 6’3, 220-pound body to his advantage, Thorburn has hit, fought, and scored his way to a solid campaign thus far. Currently the third leading scorer among active Amerks, he is on pace to surpass his previously highs offensively. In a brief, two-game call to duty in Buffalo thanks to a banged-up Maxim Afinogenov, the 2001 second-rounder saw limited bottom line action. He managed to score his first NHL point (an assist) and engage in fisticuffs with Cody McCormick in a little over five minutes of action in his second outing against Colorado on December 4th before being sent back to Rochester.
Perhaps the greatest benefactor from an increased role resulting from the Taylor injury and promotions of Roy and Pominville is Jiri Novotny. The fourth-year pro stepped up to the plate as a leader with the Amerks, and is putting up career numbers in all categories. His 22 points are currently second among active Amerks. Manning the pivot on the top power play unit, he had his best game as a pro with a two-goal, two-assist effort on November 27 against Toronto. While the former first-round pick has matured and is showing signs of consistency, he still has room to grow in terms of using his teammates better and simplifying his game. Seeming a tad overzealous at times, the Czech centerman often tries to do too much on his own, opting to stickhandle his way out of jams instead of finding an open man, or simply dumping the puck down ice.
It didn’t take long for defensive forward Daniel Paille to be bitten by the injury bug, suffering a broken jaw in a September 16th training camp practice. The stout six-footer turned in an impressive showing in his first Sabres training camp, with a mix of scoring and solid checking. Always strong on his skates, Paille returned to action on November 4th and in typical fashion garnered a short-handed assist. Just when his legs were finally back in game form after four games, the Welland, Ontario native was sidelined for another 10 games with sore ribs. Paille has since returned as an effective checker and penalty killer, posting a season total of three goals and four assists in 11 games.
With a more watchful eye on clutching and grabbing, speedy winger Mike Ryan has been given a better chance to display his value in a more open style of play. The Massachusetts native got out of the gate quickly in the 2005-06 season, posting six points in the first five games while skating on a line with Derek Roy and Chris Thorburn. Used mostly in a defensive role throughout his first two seasons in Rochester, Ryan has been put in position to succeed a bit more this season as evidenced by his successful shootout attempt to ice a victory against Binghamton on November 5. Despite being hobbled by an ankle injury since late-November, all signs points to him eclipsing his careers highs of 11 goals and 11 assists when he returns to action.
Despite recently being added to the list of fallen Amerks with a shoulder injury, Alberta native Clarke MacArthur has found success in his first full season of AHL hockey. The playmaking skills that made him a star in Canadian junior hockey were on display during a five-game stretch in late October, as the feisty winger racked up seven assists and his first professional goal (a game winner) during the span. His vision and puck skills earned him time on the first power play unit before his injury, while he was also called upon to kill penalties from time to time.
The Sabres only other defensive prospect in Rochester, Doug Janik, has turned in another steady performance in the early goings of 2005-06. The team’s alternate captain, Janik has consistently shined on the back line, and is a major contributor to the Amerks penalty killing efforts. Formerly an unsung hero for Rochester, the secret is out that Janik is tough in his own end and rarely gets beat. The Massachusetts native earned a mid-November call-up from the Sabres as a precaution, but did not see any action.
Pugilist extraordinaire Sean McMorrow has dressed in 14 games this season, taking on just four opponents as part of the AHL heavyweight circuit. Bothered by a sore hip in the early part of the season, the Vancouver native has amassed 45 PIM and scored one goal in a limited role. He showed well in two bouts with incumbent enforcer Andrew Peters in Sabres training camp, but was relegated to duty in the minor leagues and will likely remain there this season.
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