Rochester Americans 60th Season Primer
In a few hours the Amerks will take to the ice to open their historic 60th season. With a renewed focus on winning the organization hopes to make reparations for a disastrous 59th season. Last season’s “situation” in Buffalo trickled down to the Rochester Americans, which in turn trickled down to the Elmira Jackals. Players suffered, fans suffered—but that’s all ancient history now. With new coaching staff in Rochester and Buffalo coupled with bolstered rosters, the 2015-2016 season is already looking brighter. So what can we expect in Rochester? Let’s take a look.
Following the 2014-2015 season the Amerks terminated head coach Chadd Cassidy and assistant coach John Wroblewski, replacing them with Randy Cunneyworth and Paul Fixter respectively. This marks Cunneyworth’s second stint as head coach of the Amerks, previously coaching the Amerks between 2000-08. Cunneyworth has also coached the Hamilton Bulldogs, Atlanta Thrashers, and Montreal Canadiens. Before coaching, Cunneyworth played for the Amerks and Sabres from 1980-85 and 1998-00. Paul Fixter joins the Amerks for the first time but has previously coached the Hershey Bears (assistant and head) in addition to CHL and OHL experience as both assistant and head coach. Bob Janosz returns as goalie coach. Chris Taylor returns as assistant coach, in charge of special teams.
So how will the coaches lead the team this season? For that we’ll take a look at the Question & Answer session the Amerks hosted last weekend. Regardless of the question asked one thing was evident—winning is a much higher priority than in the past few seasons. When asked about goalie rotations both Cunneyworth and Janosz confidently replied that they would ride the hot goalie. Cunneyworth was careful to add that with 9 three-in-three series this season it’s unlikely the same goalie would play all 3 games back-to-back. Another thing that was clear is that players will be held accountable for their actions. If a player isn’t producing don’t be surprised to see them benched. When questioned about what style power play the Amerks would use Chris Taylor replied that they’d continue to use a 1-3-1 style vs the more conservative 2-3 (Not sure what a 1-3-1 power play is? Click here). While 1-3-1 power plays generally lead to more scoring chances they also result in more goals against. As for locker room culture, Coach Fixter places a high value on camaraderie and communication. With more “grass-roots” experience, this is Fixter’s first time using the advanced video review and player monitoring systems the Sabres organization uses. He’s likely to inject a bit of old-school flavor, which is a good thing. Chris Taylor mentioned in response to a question about how technology has changed the game, you don’t want your players becoming robots by endlessly watching game video. Sometimes you need to take the technology away and let the players think for themselves. Fixter went on to reinforce his commitment to communication and camaraderie, pointing out that the core elements of the game have not changed that much. Having an old-school influence from Fixter should help players on and off the ice—especially with communication and a sense of family.
Bob Janosz indicated that Nathan Lieuwen appears to have his “issues sorted out”. If healthy, Lieuwen is the Amerks number one goaltender. Lieuwen missed most of last season with lingering post-concussion symptoms. Andrey Makarov returns this season and will likely fill the backup slot. Due to Sabres injuries it’s possible we’ll see less of Lieuwen to start the season. Lehner left the Sabres season opener with what’s being reported as a long-term lower body injury and Ullmark is not yet cleared to play. The Amerks will likely lose Lieuwen and possibly Makarov (on a rotating basis) until Ullmark is cleared to play in November.
Once all players are returned to their respective teams, Goaltending remains a wildcard for the Amerks. Lieuwen can be excellent but he has a history of concussions and seemingly hid them from coaching staff last season, playing in the first few games of the season while apparently seeing double. Makarov played an amazing game when first called up to the Amerks from Elmira but seems to be ineffective as of late. Some of that is attributable to the fact that teams have learned his weaknesses and are successfully exploiting them. Makarov is devoted and focused. He intends to be the very best goalie he can be—elevating his game through an exceptional work ethic. This season will determine whether he can elevate his game to the level necessary to make it in the AHL and beyond.
The current defense is comprised of Josh Chapman, Chad Ruhwedel, Jerome Leduc, Spiro Goulakos, Colby Robak, Matt Prapavessis, and Brady Austin. Chapman has yet to prove he belongs in the AHL. If determination was enough he’d be an all-star but in the pre-season games he was outpaced and ineffective. Leduc is coming off a bit of a break-out season. He played better D than he had in seasons past and made generally smarter plays. As bad as the Amerks were last season, Leduc managed to elevate his game and he proved to be the most reliable defenseman on the roster having not missed a game. That being said he did finish the season a -11. Some of that is attributable to more ice time and a weak team, but the only defenseman that finished lower was Austin at -16. Ruhwedel and Robak represent the current “backbones” of the defensive core. There’s not much of a physical presence in this defensive roster and while Chapman has demonstrated his willingness to throw-down he’s not the enforcer we need. I fear the lack of depth at D will haunt the team throughout the season. Especially as injuries mount up at the Sabres.
Cal O’Reilly, Jason Akeson, Nick Baptiste, and Justin Bailey all bring a renewed focus on scoring. These additions coupled with returning players like Phil Varone, Jerry D’Amigo, Tim Schaller, Dan Catenacci, and Matt Ellis position the Amerks as a bit of a scoring powerhouse. Expect Justin Kea to take on some of the physical duties—a role he’s proven he can fill. Will scoring be enough to make up for a shallow defensive core and questionable goaltending? Only time will tell. I suspect we’ll see many more close high-scoring games than we’ve seen in seasons past.
Cal O’Reilly has been named the Amerks captain. The assistant captains have yet to be announced but I expect we’ll see Matt Ellis and Phil Varone each wearing an A. I do have questions about selecting O’Reilly as captain—not because he’s unfit for the job but because he’s likely near (or at) the top of the Sabres recall list. Would it have made more sense to give the C to someone like Matt Ellis who will almost certainly spend the season with the Amerks? It all depends on how many recalls there are and how long they last for.