After finishing eighth and losing out to the eventual Calder Cup champs in 2006-07, the Buffalo Sabres wing of the Rochester Americans is one year older and should help the team contend for the Cup this season. The second oldest franchise in the AHL, the Amerks will initially ice 11 Sabres and 14 Florida Panthers including last year’s leading scorer Clarke MacArthur and the core of Buffalo’s future defense.
Coming back for his ninth year, coach Randy Cunneyworth was a serious candidate for assistant coaching duties in Florida this summer but lost out to former NHL coach Mike Kitchen. That’s good news for the Panthers and Sabres who retain the services of one of most productive development coaches in recent history. Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Tomas Vanek Jason Pominville and many more NHL standouts have played for Cunneyworth in Rochester.
Cunneyworth intends to start the season with 25 players and has no immediate plans to cut down the roster size despite only being able to dress 19 for each game. Given the current numbers and the productivity of the Sabres prospects, all of the cuts are likely to be Panthers property.
Sabres prospect Adam Dennis split time with former Florida prospect Craig Anderson last season. Dennis, 22, had an 18-17-0-0 record with a 3.34 GAA and an .894 save percentage. Dennis, who started well last and finished poorly, will share goaltending duties with Florida prospects Tyler Plante and David Shantz. Dennis, an unorthodox goalie, had his share of growing pains in his rookie pro season but continues to be on the Sabres radar despite being taken with a low pick (182nd overall) in 2005.
It looked like Andrej Sekera was headed to the Queen City for the season but a last minute demotion was probably the best thing for the young blue liner’s development. Both Sekera and Michael Funk didn’t embarrass themselves at camp but it appears the Sabres are opting for a slower development schedule for their young defenders. That’s good news for Rochester, as Funk added 10 pounds of muscle to his 6’4 frame over the summer while Sekera led all Amerks defensemen with +14 last year.
The Sabres signed bruiser Mike Weber to a pro contract over the summer. The 6’2, 200-pound defenseman likes to hurt people and he has the skating ability to deliver his hits fairly. Weber will face a learning curve this year but if he develops, will fill a huge need on Buffalo’s blue line one day.
Marc-Andre Gragnani has the skills to be Buffalo’s next power play quarterback. Despite his youth, Gragnani will be a fixture on Rochester’s power play later this season. Mike Card spent time in the ECHL last season which you would expect from an eighth round pick. Not expected however, was Card’s play when he was recalled late in the season. Another Sabre defensive prospect with only one year of pro experience, Card has all the tools to excel at the pro level.
If recent history is any indication, it’s going to be an up-and-down year for Clarke MacArthur. Like Sekera, it looked like MacArthur would start the season with the Sabres while Ales Kotalik recovered from a right knee injury. The Sabres opted to send MacArthur down now rather than have him play seven minutes on the fourth line for one game. MacArthur’s last minute demotion is an indication he’ll be the first recalled if any Sabre forward suffers a serious injury. That’s good news for MacArthur as Drew Stafford, the Sabres last cut in 2006-07, spent half of last season in the NHL and made the cut easily this fall.
Mark Mancari, the Amerks third leading scorer last year has an unusual skill set. Despite spending much of the summer working on his skating, Mancari plodded his way through the Sabres 2007 training camp. Mancari’s 6’4 frame, the reach that goes with that, his good hands and above average hockey sense are almost wasted because he lacks NHL quickness. Fortunately for Rochester, he can and will produce at the AHL level.
Marek Zagrapan came to camp in excellent shape, played well and did everything asked of him. He’s just not NHL-ready yet. Expect Zagrapan to see lots of ice time, power play time and perhaps even the occasional call-up. Don’t expect him to play many NHL games this season as the Sabres want him to be the go-to guy in Rochester so that he can gain confidence. Zagrapan should excel in Rochester this season.
Dylan Hunter and Patrick Kaleta are both checkers but for entirely different reasons. Hunter has nice hands and good hockey sense but needs to improve his skating. Kaleta can skate and really likes to hit but needs to improve his puck skills. Between the two of them they make up an excellent AHL third line.
The Amerks open their 52nd season in the American Hockey League against the Syracuse Crunch on Friday, Oct. 5th at 7:35 p.m. at The Blue Cross Arena.
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