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.