Rochester Americans 2006-07 season preview

By William Slawter

After making 16 consecutive trips to the playoffs, the Rochester Americans found themselves at home at the end of the 2005-06 season. The storied AHL franchise, with six Calder Cup Championships to its credit, will look to some fresh faces when the season opens Oct. 6 against the Albany River Rats at Blue Cross Arena.

The Amerks, a long-time affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, will also be the AHL home of the Florida Panthers organization again this season. Under the terms of their agreement, the Panthers will send a minimum of nine players to suit up in Rochester this year. Many of the Panthers’ top prospects are expected to play strong roles with the team.

Forwards

Despite not having any players in the AHL’s top 30 in scoring, the Amerks featured a balanced attack which led to 14 players registering more than 25 points last season. Leading scorer Jiri Novotny made the Sabres roster and Chris Thorburn was claimed off waivers by Pittsburgh, but Michael Ryan returns. Last season’s second leading scorer, Clarke MacArthur returns, as does Drew Stafford.

Bolstering the attack for the Amerks will be highly-rated Florida prospect Anthony Stewart. The talented right winger scored three points in 10 games for the Panthers in 2005 before being sidelined for the season with a wrist injury. A late cut from the Panthers training camp, Stewart will use his time in Rochester to retool his game before a likely call-up to Florida sometime this season. Stefan Meyer returns after posting 28 points in 68 games en route to being named the Amerks Rookie of the Year. Selected by Florida in the second round of the 2003 Draft, the 21-year-old improved his point total in each of his four seasons while in the WHL. His 139 penalty minutes help make evident the type of aggressive play he has to offer.

Kamil Kreps, Rob Globke, and Drew Larman also return for a second stint in Rochester. Kreps led the charge among Panthers prospects for the Amerks last year, scoring 13 goals and 19 assists in 61 games. Globke is a 23-year-old former Notre Dame standout who already has 18 NHL games under his belt. He had 15 points in 52 games, and picked up an assist during three preseason contests with Florida. Larman, who signed with Florida as a free agent in 2005, also scored 15 points for the Amerks. He is coming off of a strong Panthers rookie camp in which he scored four goals in four games.

After four seasons at Michigan State University, David Booth signed his first professional contract with Florida in July. He has followed an impressive senior year in which he scored 35 points in 36 games by having a strong preseason as well. He scored two goals and an assist in four rookie tournament games and went on to play five preseason games with the Panthers, scoring a goal. The 2004 selection is listed at 6’1, 217 pounds, making him a good fit in a power forward type of role.

Janis Sprukts also hopes to make an impact with Rochester this season. He has shown to be a capable playmaker at the pivot position, despite being an eighth round selection in the 2000 Draft. The Panthers rewarded the 6’3, 235 lb. center with a contract in May after he scored 28 points in 35 games while playing for HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish league last year. He took part in five preseason games for the Panthers, scoring a goal during a 4-2 loss to Detroit on Sept. 24.

Defense

Rochester fans can expect to see some big changes to the Amerks blue line this season, as the top five defensive scorers from 2005-06 are likely gone. Leading defenseman Nathan Paetsch has all but secured a spot with the Sabres, David Cullen is in Europe, Doug Janik is now in Tampa Bay, and Jeff Jillson refused to return when asked to do so by the Sabres. This will leave Brandon Smith, Mike Card, and Michael Funk to share duties with several players from the Panthers organization.

Leading the defensive corps will be veteran Europeans Alexei Semenov and Ari Vallin. Both can be expected to spend time with Florida this season in injury call-ups. Martin Lojek, a fourth round pick in 2003 from the Czech Republic, could emerge as a consistent presence with the Amerks this season. He played 45 games with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL in 2005-06, posting 14 points while earning a +13 rating, and was called up to Rochester for 15 games.

Panther prospects Jeremy Swanson and Bret Nasby also attended Amerks training camp. Swanson suffered from concussion problems throughout most of the 2006-06 campaign while splitting time between the Americans and the Everblades. He sustained yet another head injury in the Panthers rookie camp, and his status remains uncertain. Nasby is coming off a strong year in the OHL, where he scored 31 points in 52 games. He will start the season with the Everblades.

Defenseman Frank MacDonald’s strong tryout in rookie camp led to his signing a contract with Florida on Sept. 14. The 6’ 195-pound blueliner has spent the last four seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. His short time with the Panthers has been impressive, as he notched a goal and four assists in the four games of the rookie tournament. In a preseason game for the Amerks against Syracuse, he tallied one regulation and two shootout goals in a 4-3 win. MacDonald hopes to remain in Rochester, however, he could still start the season with the Everblades.

Goaltending

Last year, Michael Leighton and Jean-Marc Pelletier split time to cover the Amerks in net. With Leighton now a member of the Ducks, and an influx of netminders in the Panthers organization, a lot of uncertainty remains as to who will backstop Rochester this season. Florida can only have one goalie with the team, and with Ed Belfour and Alex Auld manning the net at the NHL level, either Craig Anderson, Pelletier or rookie David Shantz will be in Rochester. Rookie Adam Dennis of the Sabres is also with the club. It is likely that Shantz will go to the Everblades for further development, and either Anderson or Pelletier could take the spot of an injured Auld or Belfour.

Outlook

Not wanting a repeat performance of the 2005-06 season, the Americans will have plenty of new faces to help them get back into the playoffs. Much of their success will depend on how quickly the new players can adjust, and to what degree the younger talent continues to develop. All eyes will be on the progression of Stewart, whose steady production could land the Amerks deep into the playoffs or simply land the 2003 first rounder back into the NHL. Their good mix of proven veterans and promising youth could combine for a strong season in Rochester.


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