While there's plenty to criticize the Buffalo Sabres' organization about these days, there's one thing they've done with the Rochester Americans' roster that's worth praising: The Sabres have made sure the Amerks’ locker room will has strong, smart leaders.
Anyone who's been around the Sabres over the past few years is aware of what captain Matt Ellis brings to the table. Young players in Rochester marvel at his work ethic, leadership and hockey smarts. Forward Tim Schaller, following his first pro game, said Ellis played “a perfect game.” Prospect forward Dan Catenacci said Ellis is far and away the best captain he's ever played for.
But Ellis isn't the only guy who sets the example. This off-season, the Sabres signed veteran defenseman Drew Bagnall to two-year, two-way contract.
It turns out Bagnall isn't just a gritty gamer (or whatever hyperbole you choose to describe a stay-at-home D-man), he's a bright, analytical player who analyzes the game as well as anyone you'll ever come across.
After practice Wednesday, Bagnall stood outside the Amerks' locker room, in the depths of the hockey facility on the campus of Monroe Community College – the one that changes names every few years. The walls have been recently painted yellow and purple for Nazereth hockey or something, so it feels especially unhomey for the pros, who normally practice in the upscale Blue Cross Arena. But Phish is playing there this week. That's AHL life. Sometimes Phish plays in your arena.
And AHL life has been Bagnall's for a while now. After four years at St. Lawrence University, the 29-year-old defenseman was drafted in the sixth round by the Dallas Stars. He spent three seasons in with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, then the last three with the Houston Aeros, where he was teammates with Amerks goalie Matt Hackett. Bagnall got two games under the bright lights in 2010-11 with the Minnesota Wild.
While he was in Houston, the Wild were rebuilding, and he was the captain charged with the job of showing the young'ins the way. It's a role some guys are sensitive about. Bagnall seems to have pride in being looked up to.
“I'll work with guys and I'll tell them what's helped me,” Bagnall said. “Hopefully bring them a step farther, maybe to get them to crack the league at 25 and learn that stuff that I didn't learn until I was 28. With a guy like McNabb, he knows the game really well and he just needs the confidence and composure to be the player he can be every night.”
The prized possession prospect of the Amerks at the moment – until/unless first-round picks Joel Armia or Rasmus Ristolainen are assigned to Rochester – is defenseman Brayden McNabb. The 6-foot-5, third-year pro made a strong impression on Sabres fans two years ago in a 20-game stint, but hasn't been back. In part because of a knee injury that sidelined him last season and in part because he isn't completely ready for a full-time NHL gig.
It's not that Bagnall and McNabb are truly similar players, McNabb has a lot more offensive upside, but they're both big and expected to be physical. And physical play is something McNabb is still learning how to balance.
“You can't play the game going forward because there are no more of those huge Scott Stevens-style open-ice hits,” Bagnall said. “Defenseman have to accept the rush because of how good the other team's defenseman are at jumping into the play. So you have to find your spots within the team's system where you can be that physical player. A lot of it is down low and in one-on-one battle situations.”
Bagnall explained that the Amerks' system calls for first player on the man carrying the puck, or “the pressure guy,” to attempt to end the play with a hit or steal of the puck. The “pressure guy,” however, must be wary of missing his hit and allowing the puck carrier to blow by and charge the net. These situations are an opportunity for a player like him or McNabb to be physical, but they must also make the correct read and snap decision.
“In terms of how you have to be tough to play against, he (Bagnall) is absolutely a great example for Brayden,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said.
There is two other young defenseman on the Amerks' blue line who may be a part of the Sabres' long term plans: Chad Ruhwedel and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc.
Ruhwedel is mostly a finished product, having spent four years in college. He's a terrific skater and has quality puck-moving skills. There isn't a ton to teach Ruhwedel. He just needs more experience at the pro level.
Gauthier-Leduc, on the other hand, is a very raw, offensively-talented defenseman who hasn't yet reached what Cassidy called the “baseline level” of defensive skills.
The former third-round pick scored 74 points in 62 games in his final year in the QMJHL and has five points in five games so far this year. He has improved in his own zone from last season, but still isn't near the level he'd need to be to play in the NHL. He's also only 21-years-old. At 21, Brian Campbell couldn't play defense either.
Bagnall said in the Amerks system, there's a great deal of emphasis on winning battles for the puck in front of the net and behind the net. Not that any system doesn't, but it's by design to allow shots from afar, then have D-men clean up the mess.
Cleaning up the mess is a skill in itself.
“There's different ways to win each battle,” Bagnall said. “I'm going to go through a guy or use my size to my advantage. Jerome is smart enough and crafty enough where he can let the other guy win a race but have the presence of mind to lift the guy's stick and take the puck.
“That's where a guy like (Alex) Sulzer can help a guy like Jerome, because Sulzer can do both. I'm a one trick pony.”
The Amerks' overall team defense (goalies included) has some work to do. They've allowed 19 goals in five games so far and have allowed 37.4 shots on goal against per game. Low percentage or not, that's too many.
Bagnall said as the team comes together and as communication grows between forwards and defenseman, both goals and shots against will come down and the Amerks will have a strong defensive team.
Whether Bagnall ever sees NHL time is unclear. Ruhwedel and Sulzer both have more experience. But he knows being a good leader doesn't hurt his chances.
“When they call down here and ask about me, they aren't going to ask how many points I have,” he said.