Sabres Report: Amerks Younger and Tougher

By Ken McKenna

Following a season in which the Rochester Americans generated little excitement of any sort on the ice, Buffalo GM Darcy Regier and Rochester GM Jody Gage set about the task of adding some talented youth and muscle to the Amerks 2002-03 lineup. Regier and Gage hope the fruits of their labor will be apparent when Rochester opens their 47th season this evening against division rival Albany.

Rochester coach Randy Cunneyworth will start the season without some of the better youngsters from last year’s squad, including goaltender Mika Noronen, defenseman Henrik Tallinder and center/winger Ales Kotalik. Noronen should remain a Sabre for the foreseeable future, since he will be backing up Buffalo starting goaltender Martin Biron. Tallinder and Kotalik may not be permanent fixtures in Buffalo, however, although Tallinder has certainly looked right at home on the Buffalo blueline.

To make up for the shortfall in young talent in Rochester, the Buffalo Sabres signed several of their prospects in the off-season. New faces in the Amerks lineup for the 02-03 season will include former MSU star goaltender Ryan Miller, 2001 draft picks Jiri Novotny, Jason Pominville and Ryan Jorde, and 2000 selections Paul Gaustad and Sean McMorrow. Also signed was 28-year-old Slovakian defenseman Radoslav Hecl, a 2002 draft choice. In addition to these seven newcomers, 2nd-year player Karel Mosovsky should see his first extensive action following an injury-aborted rookie campaign.

Perhaps the most significant additions to the 02-03 edition of the Americans will be size and toughness. Newcomers Gaustad (6’5″, 220 lbs.), McMorrow (6’4″, 225 lbs.) and Jorde (6’3″, 223 lbs.) should all provide youthful exuberance to go along with a willingness to battle. Other sizable players in the Rochester lineup include free agent acquisition Jason Botterill (6’4″, 220 lbs.) and 3rd-year-man Andrew Peters (6’4″, 224 lbs.). Clearly, there is no shortage of brawn on the Amerks, which will be a change from last season’s more finesse-oriented roster.

Following is a brief preview, by position, of what to expect from the 2002-03 Rochester Americans. Prospects are denoted by bold lettering.

Center– Chris Taylor (A), Francois Methot, Paul Gaustad, Jiri Novotny

A good mix of veteran savvy (Taylor, Methot) and emerging young talent (Gaustad, Novotny). Taylor will be the main catalyst on offense, with Methot also providing some playmaking ability. Both Gaustad and Novotny can play on the wing, while LW Denis Hamel can play center, so there is definitely some flexibility at this position for the Rochester coaching staff. In addition, Ales Kotalik, who is currently on Buffalo’s roster, could also be a candidate for the center position should he be sent down upon Maxim Afinogenov’s return.

Right WingNorm Milley, Milan Bartovic, Jason Pominville, Jaroslav Kristek, Sean McMorrow, Karel Mosovsky, Jeremy Adduono (not yet signed)

There is obviously no shortage of depth at this position, so it will be interesting to see which players emerge as regulars. Milley once again just missed making the cut in Buffalo, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to this latest disappointment. Bartovic often played the left wing for Rochester last season, so he could be used at that position again in 02-03. Pominville may be the most talented player in this group, but he did not have as strong a camp as he did in 2001. Kristek must show that he can a) stay healthy, and b) produce at the pro level. McMorrow will probably be the most feared fighter in the AHL by season’s end. Mosovsky, who was a bit of a power play specialist in juniors, could help bring some offensive spark to a Rochester power play unit that was absolutely dreadful last season. As for Adduono, he may see more time on the left side should he sign with the Americans.

Left Wing– Denis Hamel, Jason Botterill, Andrew Peters

Hamel certainly never expected to see the AHL again, but he was sent down by the Sabres to see if he can regain his form of two seasons ago. Denis should get plenty of ice time, and he will be counted on to score some goals for the Amerks. Botterill will provide some grit and perhaps a little offense. Peters had perhaps his best NHL camp, but it wasn’t good enough to keep him from being returned to Rochester. Andrew will have plenty of help as Rochester’s enforcer, so he might be able to concentrate on improving other areas of his game. As mentioned previously, other candidates for the left side include Paul Gaustad, Jiri Novotny, and Milan Bartovic.

Defense Doug Houda (C), Rory Fitzpatrick (A), Doug Janik, Peter Ratchuk, Radoslav Hecl, Ryan Jorde

Veteran Doug Houda anchors a solid group of defenders. Houda, Fitzpatrick, Hecl and Jorde should provide steady defensive play in their own end, while Janik and Ratchuk will have to provide some offensive spark from the blueline. One of either Henrik Tallinder or Brian Campbell could also be sent down from the parent club, with either player providing needed puck-rushing skills. McMorrow played defense in his junior days, so he could be pressed into service should the need arise.

GoalRyan Miller, Tom Askey

Probably the strongest area on this club. Miller’s college exploits have been well documented, with the lanky goaltender being an early favorite to be the AHL’s Rookie of the Year. Ryan had a strong training camp, and it’s likely he’ll carry the majority of the load for the Amerks this season. Askey also was sharp in camp, so the Amerks should once again have few worries between the pipes.

Given the number of new and inexperienced faces in the Rochester lineup, it will probably take this edition of the Amerks some time to develop team chemistry. Given their strength in goal, as well as their solid group of defenders, the Amerks should nevertheless be in most every game this season. To improve on last season’s mediocre performance, however, coach Cunneyworth will have to find a way to get the power play unit to produce at a much higher level. Players like Hamel, Milley and Pominville will be counted on to produce some goals, both on the power play and at even strength, so the offense is likely to be a key as to how far this team can go in the 2002-03 season.

Given the number of sleep-inducing performances turned in by last year’s squad, this year’s Amerks would appear to be a more entertaining, not to mention more robust, group of players. Indeed, the 2002-03 season is shaping up to be the most interesting for Rochester fans in a number of years.