The Rochester Americans will kick off the 2014-15 season, their 59th in the American Hockey League, tonight.
Although the franchise has made it to the postseason 4 of the last 5 seasons, they haven’t won a playoff series since 2004-05, and they haven’t made it to the finals since losing in 1999-2000. Prior to that, they had advanced to the Calder Cup Finals an amazing NINE times in 18 seasons. (In their defense, the league was a lot smaller then, so advancing to the Finals was not as difficult)
This year’s version of the Amerks will be looking to restore some playoff glory to the franchise. How will they do?
Opening Night Roster: Luke Adam, Akim Aliu, Joel Armia, William Carrier, Dan Catenacci, Zac Dalpe, Matt Ellis, Mikhail Grigorenko, Colin Jacobs, Justin Kea, Johan Larsson, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Tim Schaller, Kevin Sundher, Phil Varone
Thoughts: The team has a wide variety of size and skills up front. Luke Adam will more than likely be the team’s leading scorer, as he has a knack for scoring lots of points on the power play. Phil Varone has proven that he can be a top scorer at the AHL level when given an opportunity. Johan Larsson and Zac Dalpe can be counted on for two-way roles on the team, with decent scoring. Additionally, they should be tough to play against, with tough guy Akim Aliu signed to a professional tryout contract, and Tim Schaller and Jordan Samuels-Thomas playing physical defensive-forward roles. Matt Ellis is the veteran leader of the group.
The key to this season will be prospect development though. Former first round picks Joel Armia and Mikhail Grigorenko have to start showing NHL promise. If they turn into the dominant players they were projected to be, the Amerks will have a lot more offensive flair. Second year forward Dan Catenacci needs to learn to play bigger and find his place in the AHL. Younger guys like William Carrier and Justin Kea will need some time to adjust to the professional games, and are not likely to make an immediate impact. Colin Jacobs and Kevin Sundher are likely just depth players in the organization at this point.
Opening Night Roster: Brady Austin, Drew Bagnall, Jerome Leduc, Matt Mackenzie, Nick Petrecki, Chad Ruhwedel
Thoughts: Normally, when the NHL parent club decides to carry *10* defensemen on their roster, the AHL club would be decimated. Instead, Sabres GM Tim Murray planned well ahead and created a lot of organizational depth.
Chad Ruhwedel will provide most of the offense fom the blue line, although Jerome Leduc may get a chance to revive the offensive prowess he showed in juniors (at least, until reinforcements arrive from Buffalo). Drew Bagnall and Nick Petrecki will provide all kinds of snarl on the back end, giving opposing teams fits. Rookie Brady Austin has impressed in training camp, and has the size to grow into a player in the same mold as Bagnall and Petrecki. Finally, free agent Matt McKenzie was re-signed. While not a flashy player, he’s one who goes about his job quietly, and you rarely notice him on the ice. And thats something you like to see out of a defensemen.
Opening Night Roster: Nathan Lieuwen, Andrey Makarov
Thoughts: Amerks fans are used to having real NHL prospects between the pipes. During the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed like there was an endless stream of them. This year, it seems like the Amerks may have two legitimate prospects in net. Neither of them are big-name prospects or overly heralded, but both of them took HUGE strides in their games last season. Nathan Lieuwen is the older of the two, and at 23, played 7 games for the injury-riddled Sabres last season, and did not look out of place up there. Andrey Makarov, 21, started in the ECHL last season, but came up to Rochester and dominated in his 10-game stint. Look for them to split time until, or unless, one of them really sets themselves apart.
Also in the mix will be Matt Hackett when he returns from a knee injury. Barring an injury, the Sabres will have an interesting roster decision to make once Hackett is ready to play.
Predicting what will happen in an AHL season is nearly impossible. An AHL team is subject to injuries and roster moves of the NHL team, so predicting who will be on a team next week, much less the entire season, is a lesson in futility. Organizational depth is the best indicator.
Up front, the Amerks do not have much veteran scoring. Putting pucks in the net will be a challenge. The team will be relying heavily on prospects to add some necessary scoring punch.
The defensive corps is solid, and should get even better when the situation in Buffalo straightens itself out. The goaltenders should get lots of protection.
In net, the Amerks have 2 good options for now, with a 3rd coming later next month. Competition is good for goaltenders, and these guys should all be pushing each other for playing time.
Expect the Amerks to make the playoffs this season, but they will likely need to add a veteran scoring forward or two in order to become a legitimate AHL contender.