What Went Wrong Last Night? The System Isn’t Broken, The Players Are.

Ask a dozen fans about what went wrong last night and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some have already been quick to blame “the system.” Blaming the system might be the easiest excuse but is it actually the problem? Not from where I stand. Housley and Taylor aren’t asking for anything revolutionary. They’re not even asking for something new. The style of hockey they want their respective teams to play has been around as long as the game has been played. What they refer to as their system is what many refer to as old-time hockey. So what’s keeping the Sabres from winning? What broke the Amerks season opening winning streak? Let’s take a look at what’s plaguing the teams.

Saying the players weren’t ready to play is a cop out. Shoot the puck, crash the net, and bury the puck. These aren’t unusual requests to make of players. Yet if you watched last night’s game vs. the Utica Comets you saw the Comets’ crease well guarded and the slot devoid of Amerks. Was Utica that effective at keeping players out of the shooting lane? Not really, the Comets just made it a punishing place to be, and few players were willing to pay the price. While the Amerks managed to register 33 shots—3 more than the Comets—the majority of those shots came from outside and many were at bad angles. Had someone been in the slot there were opportunities to bury the puck. No one was there. Instead, players hung out along the boards, safe from the physical play that the slot demanded. It’s not that players weren’t ready to play. They weren’t willing to play.

Last night the best chances came from Bailey and Baptiste. Nick Baptiste took 8 shots. Bailey took 3. That’s a third of the team’s game shot total, which makes it no surprise that they had the best scoring opportunities of the game. Baptiste was absolutely robbed by the Comets’ goalie Thatcher Demko on a one-timer. To Baptiste’s credit he definitely tried to make up for a slow start to the season. Bailey thought he scored. While he played it safe by skating behind the the net he managed to flip a puck up and over Demko. The puck was flipping towards the far top-corner, ultimately missing it’s mark—but not before Bailey threw his hands up in the air. It was a fairly good attempt but had Bailey been willing to stay in front of the net it very well might have been a goal. Instead the shot came from a sharp angle and ended up sailing to the opposite corner of the ice. The two scoring attempts had one thing in common though—both chances came from near the net. Not from along the board or the top of the zone.

Chemistry is a problem. There’s a lot of new blood in the organization. It’s going to take time for lines to develop chemistry and to find defensive pairings that work well together. Right now the organization is plagued by lines that aren’t meshing. There’s no magic solution to this problem. If the organization can’t build chemistry, trades will be necessary. There’s little doubt that Botterill and Sexton have already discussed potential moves.

It’s time to make the opponents pay a price. We’ve seen a couple of guys step up. Colin Blackwell picked a fight with Joseph LaBate, who has 7 inches and 30 pounds on Blackwell. The fight went exactly as the stats would predict. Blackwell was quickly tossed to the ice, but not before he got in a few shots on LaBate. While Blackwell stepped up to the challenge, his team didn’t rally behind him. There wasn’t an increase in intensity. There wasn’t an increase in physical play. Aside from stick taps as Blackwell returned to the bench, you’d be hard-pressed to spot a change in the way players approached the game. I’m sure Blackwell intended to rally the troops, but the troops need to be receptive to encouragement. The Amerks need to make opponents pay the price for breaching their zone. That requires big hits and punishing players hanging out around their own net. While the Comets made the area around their net a difficult place to be, the Amerks were not willing to hand it right back to them. It’s not a matter of coaching. Whether in practice or in a press conference both Housley and Taylor have reinforced this point.

So how do you summarize the problems? Players need to dig in at the opponents net. They need to aggressively clear the area around their own net. Right now they are not doing either. The problem isn’t the system—it’s that players aren’t willing to play the system they’re being asked to.

Chris Schiffner is the man behind the Amerks Extra Twitter feed and the chief editor of AmerksExtra.com. When he's not writing about hockey he's playing the game himself. Check out his personal Twitter account at @ChrisSchiffner.

The Amerks Look To Build On Early Success, Nylander Update, and What’s Up With Gionta

The Amerks have started the season off on the right foot. They won their first preseason game against the Toronto Marlies 3-2 in overtime, pulled out a 3-2 win against the Marlies in their second preseason game, beat the Syracuse Crunch 3-1 in their season opener, and pulled out a 3-2 overtime win against the Crunch in their second regular season game. Tonight they face the Utica Comets, where they’ll look to extend their winning streak.

In the first preseason game we saw the Amerks register a whopping 40 shots on goal. Though sloppy at times, they executed the new system quite effectively—applying lots of offensive pressure with the help of a more involved defense. In the three games that followed the Amerks have had less offensive success, averaging just 20 shots on goal. So far this hasn’t had serious consequences but they’ll need to apply more pressure and take more shots to ensure this doesn’t turn into an area of concern.

The Amerks have had some trouble breaking out of their zone. Even when effectively covering the points, the Amerks have found themselves outmuscled. This was especially evident with Nick Baptiste during the first regular season game. Baptiste elected to play the body on at least three occasions during one shift and was unable to push his man off the puck. After successfully holding the Amerks in their own zone, the Crunch went on to score, breaking Ullmark’s shutout. In response, coaches focused on breakouts during practices this week.

We’re seeing some new acquisitions make an impact on offense. C.J. Smith has 1 goal and 2 assists, Kyle Criscuolo has 1 goal and 1 assist, Zach Redmond has 2 assists, and Kevin Porter has 1 goal and 1 assist.

Some returning players have one more shot at NHL success. Bailey made a statement in the season opener by scoring twice and picking up an assist, but found himself off the score sheet the following night. Bailey needs to put up some big numbers if he wants to earn a spot in the NHL and he knows it. Baptiste is trying to prove he can play a more physical game. While he’s certainly making more of an effort to throw his weight around, it hasn’t been effective. His focus on the physical aspect of the game has kept him off the score sheet.

Goaltending has been a bright spot. We’re seeing far more composure in net than we’ve seen in previous seasons. Ullmark has managed to correct some of the mobility issues that plagued him last season and his positioning has been spot-on. He also seems to be better at keeping his head in the game. Both Ullmark and Wilcox have looked sharp.

Alexander Nylander has not been skating. According to Chris Taylor he’s still considered week to week and is still listed as having a (vague) lower body injury. Since Nylander is not skating but is considered week to week, I’m guessing he’s dealing with a sprain of some sort. Considering the amount of time he’s been off the ice I don’t think we’ll see him in a game for at least a couple of weeks.

Gionta started practicing with the Amerks this week. Don’t get your hopes up for an appearance by the ex-NHL’er. Gionta’s simply keeping his legs fresh before heading overseas for some international play, after which he’ll focus on making it to the Olympics. It appears this is the organization’s way of making up for not signing him this season. Aside from the additional press coverage during his first day of practice, he has not been a distraction. He even sat out today’s game-day practice to avoid getting in the way of game preparation.

The Amerks play the Utica Comets tonight at 7:05pm at the Blue Cross Arena.

Chris Schiffner is the man behind the Amerks Extra Twitter feed and the chief editor of AmerksExtra.com. When he's not writing about hockey he's playing the game himself. Check out his personal Twitter account at @ChrisSchiffner.

It’s Opening Night in Rochester

The ice is prepped, the glass is clean, and the players are ready. In a few hours the Blue Cross Arena will be packed for the start of the 2017-18 Rochester Americans hockey season. You’ve probably picked up on the buzz surrounding this season on Twitter. If you haven’t followed preseason coverage, you’re in for a treat tonight. This is not the team you’ve known for the last decade.

From the moment the puck drops you’re going to notice a different style of play. Gone are the days of robotic players standing in all the wrong places performing a carefully choreographed exercise in futility. Dan Bylsma’s system revolved around players getting to a predetermined location with the expectation that some magical force would will it the right spot to be. Phil Housley’s system focuses on speed and shooting. Pick-up the puck, get it down the ice fast, and shoot. Shoot as many times as possible. Defense is encouraged to join the rush. Offense is encouraged to find the front of the net and bury the puck. When in the defensive end, the goal is to clear the zone as quickly as possible. This means you’ll see defensemen starting more rushes and joining the play in the offensive zone. When the defense pushes up, a forward falls back to cover their defensive position. This is one of the reasons Botterill and Sexton have focused so heavily on building depth at defense. Not only do they have the responsibility of protecting their goalie and limiting scoring chances, but they are an integral part of a strong offense. Expect to see a simpler game when in the offensive zone. You’re not going to see dozens of passes (and dozens of passes getting picked off). You’ll see smarter passing—designed to find the open player who won’t hesitate to fire the puck on net. Instead of looking for that one perfect shot, they’re going to take any shot that looks like a viable scoring opportunity. If this sound familiar there’s good reason. It’s a classic system that revolves around dominating play with speed and force. It’s a system that wins games.

By the end of the 1st period you’re going to notice a change in attitude amongst everyone in the organization. During the preseason games I saw more smiles from the ice in one game than I observed all last season. After winning their first game, some players were downright giddy (here’s looking at you Nelson!). The players are having fun again! Last weekend, during the season ticket holder coaching staff Q&A, I asked Chris Taylor what he attributed the rapid turnaround in attitude with. His answer was jolting—“We treat them like human beings.” He went on to explain how they help players adjust to their new surroundings in Rochester by building a support system. They help with housing, adjusting to the city, and by communicating with the players as openly as possible. I found the answer startling for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because of how quickly he replied with an overwhelmingly strong statement. It does not paint a pretty picture of what life was like inside the organization with Murray/Bylsma at the helm. Whatever has contributed to the change, the old culture is a thing of the past. Seeing so many happy players was incredible.

We’ll have an entire season to discuss each player and their role(s), but I’d like to mention a few key players. Kevin Porter has been selected to be team captain, while Nathan Paetsch and Taylor Fedun have been selected as alternate captains. Paetsch and Porter are not only providing leadership on the ice, but they have also joined Taylor and Gord Dineen in providing leadership off the ice. Good work ethic can make you a good player. Combining good work ethic with knowing what it means to wear the legendary Amerks crest can make you a great player. Each of these guys wants an an organization filled with great players.

Fedun will provide leadership on the power play. He has a quick and deceptively dangerous shot coupled with superior puck moving skills. When Fedun steps on the ice to lead the power play he’s better likened to a quarterback than a hockey defenseman. I could write an entire article on a Fedun led power play but I’ll cut it off with this thought—Fedun makes power plays fun.

Linus Ullmark will lead the Amerks in goal this season. While the Amerks as a team did not fare well last season, Ullmark had a breakout year. With new management this season and a different approach to development (slower), he’s not expecting to make the NHL this year. Botterill, Sexton, Housley, and Taylor have all conveyed his role in the organization. Continue to improve your game and help lead the Amerks through their first playoff run in several seasons. Then join the Sabres as a winner. Ullmark understands his role and has embraced it. He’ll be backed by Adam Wilcox, who looked fantastic in the preseason opener at RIT. Wilcox is a reliable back-up that will be able to give Ullmark a night off or fill in when Ullmark is on recall with the Sabres or injured. Likewise, Jonas Johansson will lead our ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones. Johansson has looked pretty good in his AHL games and playing first string with the Cyclones will help him improve his game. He’ll top the recall list to join the Amerks when Ullmark or Wilcox are unavailable.

An interesting note about this year’s Amerks roster. 15 of the 27 players currently assigned to the Amerks are American born players. That’s roughly 55% of the active roster. While that number may drop a bit as injured players in Buffalo get healthy and push players down to the Amerks, it’s still an impressive number of American born players. It certainly fits the team’s proper name!

This may be putting the cart before the horse, but in my opinion the Amerks playoff run begins tonight. I hope you’re as excited for the rebirth of Amerks hockey as I am!

The Rochester Americans face-off against the Syracuse Crunch tonight at 7:05pm at the Blue Cross Arena in Downtown Rochester, NY.

Chris Schiffner is the man behind the Amerks Extra Twitter feed and the chief editor of AmerksExtra.com. When he's not writing about hockey he's playing the game himself. Check out his personal Twitter account at @ChrisSchiffner.

Amerks win pre-season opener in overtime, 3-2.

C. J. Smith gave the fans something to be excited about tonight with a two-point night, including the overtime game winning goal, to help the Rochester Americans defeat the Toronto Marlies 3-2 at RIT’s Gene Polisseni Center. Smith’s (1 goal, 1 assist) earned tonight’s first star leading the team in scoring.

The first period was scoreless but the Amerks dominated offensively with a 17-8 advantage in shots. The Amerks were much more aggressive in the offensive zone which resulted in several scoring opportunities.  The defense did a much better job on the blue line keeping the puck in the offensive zone, something that has been a problem in the past few seasons.

Hudson Fasching opened the scoring with about 6 minutes remaining in the 2nd period. Kyle Criscuolo soon added another to the Amerks lead. At the end of the 2nd the Amerks continued to show dominance with a 2-0 lead and a 30-13 shot advantage.

The 3rd period was a different story. The Marlies started the period in desperation mode and the Amerks seemed to take their foot off the accelerator.  Late in the third the Marlies finally got on the board with a power play goal from J. J. Piccinich on a top-shelf sharp angle shot. With just over a minute left the Marlies pulled their goalie and scored with the extra attacker. Adam Brooks took advantage of an awkward bounce off the boards and beat Jonas Johansson to tie the game at 2.

The Amerks were able to take advantage of a 2 on 1 in overtime when C. J. Smith ripped a shot from the top of the face-off circle and beat Marlies’ goalie Matt Hackett for the win.

Overall this Amerks team looked energized and hungry for the win through the first two periods. Again we have to question whether or not they can keep up this high level of play for 3 full periods every game.  Obviously many of the players on the ice tonight will not be assigned to Rochester so we can only hope that the players on our final roster will show this level of play or even more in our home opener on Friday, October 6.

Training Camp Wrap-up — Pre-Season Game Day!

As training camp drew to a close, Coach Taylor called everyone to center ice. He declared that it was time to get into game mode. Don’t think of tonight’s game as preseason, get the win. Get two points. It’s a definite change of tone from the past few seasons where winning was a secondary concern.

While I had my doubts about bringing Chris Taylor on as head coach, he’s beginning to win me over. He’s authoritative and involved during practices and has the ear of his players and assistants at all times. It’s a visible change from the last couple of seasons where head coaches almost took a backseat to the dominant personality of an assistant coach. Since this is Taylor’s first stint as a head coach, I expect there will be some growing pains but I like that he looks (and acts) confident. Tonight we’ll get our first look at how he manages his bench.

Training camp ended without any real surprises. If I had to sum camp up in one sentence I’d say that the level of intensity was higher and the importance of winning was stressed more frequently. The only real surprise was that Kevin Porter only made one appearance. There is no information available as to whether he’s injured or had off-ice issues such as a family emergency. I’ve been pushing the Amerks front office for media credentials, which if awarded will help with obtaining information like this.

What will happen tonight is anyone’s guess. In reality tonight’s preseason game has little impact on the season. Points aren’t actually up for grabs and the rosters are not finalized. We’ll see some pairings that will probably make it to regular season and we’ll get a look at some players that will play with our new ECHL affiliate – the Cincinnati Cyclones. Even so, it would be nice to start with a win. The goalies who saw the most ice-time today were Johansson and Wilcox, so I expect to see them suit up tonight.

The Amerks first preseason game is tonight at 7:05pm at the Gene Polisseni Center at RIT.

Chris Schiffner is the man behind the Amerks Extra Twitter feed and the chief editor of AmerksExtra.com. When he's not writing about hockey he's playing the game himself. Check out his personal Twitter account at @ChrisSchiffner.
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