The longer NHL and its players play Rock 'Em Sock 'Em over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the more it looks like the Rochester Americans will be the only form of Buffalo Sabres that fans in Western New York will be able to see this hockey season.
But whether the lockout goes all winter or until next week, there will be plenty to keep an eye on this season in Rochester.....
They Call Him Zemgus
With all the hubbub over the Sabres' first first-round pick Mikhal Grigorenko, the guy they selected two picks later Zemgus Girgensons has gotten a little overlooked. But, from all accounts, Girgensons has the potential to be a top six forward in the NHL with speed, a scoring touch and grit. For the Dubuque Fighting Saints last season, he scored 24 goals and had 41 assists in 49 games and added 69 penalty minutes.
Girgensons, who turns 19 in January, gave up a chance to play at the University of Vermont, will have a steep mountain to climb in making the adjustment from the USHL to the AHL – a league filled with depth NHL'ers and brawlers. Don't be surprised if he gets off to a little bit of a slow start just as Marcus Foligno did around December. It will be most interesting to see how he responds to failure and bounces back from bad games. An NHL front office person said last year, “in juniors, skill guys can cruise around and take shifts off because they are so much better than everyone else. They get here and find out you have to go hard every single shift. Some guys make that adjustment, some don't.”
Deep on D
At the moment, the Amerks have about 10 defenseman who could play on most AHL teams. I'm projecting the top four to be Brayden McNabb, TJ Brennan, Jerome Gauthier-Leduc and Mark Pysyk with Joe Finley, Drew Schiestel, Alex Biega and Nick Crawford all battling for the other two spots.
It's hard to imagine a better defense. McNabb and Brennan showed last season they are both NHL worthy – McNabb being the total package with the potential to be a No. 1 D-man and Brennan being a highly skilled offensive defenseman with some edge. Those two should dominate, especially on the power play.
Gauthier-Leduc is an extremely skilled offensive player, scoring 74 points in 62 games for Rimouski Oceanic last season. He should have no difficulty with the speed of the AHL, but we will be keeping an eye on decision making and adjustments to the physical play. In the AHL, most players are pretty slow, but they have great instincts and knowledge of the game. The Sabres ask their defenseman to be dicision makers, especially on the offensive end. We know Gauthier-Leduc has offensive skill, but can me make quick, instinctual decisions at a higher level?
As for Pysyk, he's an all-around defenseman with more of a mind for the defensive game. The same goes for him as Gauthier-Leduc in terms of decision making, but for him, it's all about getting the puck out of his own zone. It takes crafty footwork in small spaces and a quick mind to make the right choice between hitting a man on the wing, moving it to your partner or taking it up ice yourself. We shouldn't expect too much from the 20-year-old's offensive game right away, especially since he's unlikely to see much power play time, but it will be more interesting to gauge his instincts in his own zone.
As for the rest, Schiestel was an all-star in the AHL two years ago, but suffered a knee injury. He was just starting to get his first step back when the Amerks shipped him to the Texas Stars. If his knee is 100 percent, he could see top four time. Finley will give this team toughness. Lots of toughness. As for Biega and Crawford, training camp and the short pre-season will be big for them. Biega can play wing when needed, but neither did enough last year to force coach Ron Rolston's hand.
The MVP, The Kid
Goalie David Leggio is a great goalie because he has great makeup. He's one of the most competitive players you will ever run across and he takes being a never-ending underdog very personally. Last season, the Amerks signed AHL-veteran Drew MacIntyre to be their starting goalie, but half way through the season, Leggio played his way to the No. 1 and carried the team to the playoffs. For that, he was named team MVP.
This year is a little different, though. Instead of a veteran competing for a spot with Leggio, it's a rookie Connor Knapp, a former sixth-round pick in 2009. Knapp is of the mold of the new-age goalie. He's 6-foot-5, 215-pounds and extremely athletic. After an incredible senior season at Miami where he had a .933 save percentage and 1.69 goals against average, Knapp will be looking to push Leggio for the No. 1 spot and show the Sabres he's their future. Coach Rolston will have a juggling act with these two. But, for Knapp, it's a great situation. He won't be asked to do too much and he will learn from just watching Leggio go about his business every day.
Already Stars, They Are
While the NHL'ers are locked out, the Amerks will have one heck of a front line. Three players who showed star potential at the highest level will be putting on an Amerks' jersey this year: Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno and Luke Adam.
Hodgson scored 43 points in 83 NHL games last year and was expected to play center in between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Instead, he'll be back in the AHL where he scored 30 points in 52 games for the Manitoba Moose in 2010-11. The lockout could actually benefit Hodgson. While he showed outstanding potential as an offensive player at times, the 22-year-old forward could still use work on the defensive end. And if he's going to be a No. 1 center under Lindy Ruff, he will need to be at his best on both ends of the ice. We assume his attitude will be fine considering he's only playing in the minors because of the lockout, but it will be interesting to see what kind of effort Hodgson puts forth, especially considering he's working with a coach who has proven he can make young players better.
During the second half of the season, Foligno was a dominant AHL player, then was moved up and did the same in the NHL scoring 13 points in 14 games. There won't be any questions about Foligno's drive or attitude. He showed future-captain type maturity last season in both leagues and he comes in as the leader on this team. As for his game, he is a physical force and scores his goals mostly around the front of the net, but he could still use work on the finesse side and on the power play.
Adam had the opposite season of Foligno. He started out strong, then faded and was eventually sent down to the AHL. But keep in mind Adam was good enough to lead the Sabres in goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 during his time in Buffalo and scored the game-winning goal to send the Amerks to the playoffs last season. We'll see if Adam can bounce back from an up-and-down season and bring some consistency to his game.
And, don't forget about Corey Tropp. He's a quality depth player in the NHL as he demonstrated last season, but he's a top-liner in the AHL. In 2011-12, he scored 22 points in 27 games and played strong on each end of the ice while adding grit.
There's a good chance Rolston won't have all three together all the time, but they will be the young players he looks to for offensive fire power.
Mancari and The Rest
The acquisition of Mark Mancari adds veteran scoring that the Amerks were missing last season. Marcari will be a familiar face around Rochester. He played with the Sabres' organization between 2005 and 2011. Last season he posted 58 points in 69 games for the Chicago Wolves.
Phil Varone had an incredible second half last season, finishing the year with 52 points in 76 games. He will compete for time on the top lines and if he plays anything like last season, could force Rolston to move Adam to a wing to get Varone more time as a top-line center.
Evan Rankin, whose never-ending commitment to driving to the net earned him a contract, scored 29 points in 35 games last season. He should be looking at a top-six role on the wing and plenty of power play time.
We're likely to see Kevin Porter and Nick Tarnasky, two off-season acquisitions by the Sabres, in Rochester. Porter should act mostly as a third-line center, while Tarnasky will team up with Finley to be the Amerks' enforcers.
Another young player to watch is Kevin Sundhur. He was selected in the third round by the Sabres in 2010 and played in the WHL last season scoring 49 points in 58 games between two teams. He's got some grit to his game and a bit of a scoring touch. It will be interesting to see exactly what the Sabres have in Sundhur. But his chances of receiving a lot of playing time have been diminished by NHL'ers coming down for the lockout.
The Amerks have also brought back Maxime Legault, a physical depth winger who will be forced to compete for a spot with players like Sundhur. Brian Flynn is another interesting player. He signed a contract with the Sabres last March after being a top forward at the University of Maine.
They Will Be Missed
Here are the players who were on the 2011-12 Amerks who will not be returning this season:
Derek Whitmore – Signed with AHL's St. Johns. Whitmore had been with the Sabres' organization since 2007 and set a career high with 28 goals last season. Most of all, his personality and work ethic will be missed in the locker room.
Colin Stuart – The Amerks' captain scored 32 points in 51 games last season. The team will have to find someone else to be the only one at his locker after tough losses. Losing Stuart's two-way game and veteran leadership will certainly be felt.
Shaone Morrisonn – A strong stay-at-home defenseman, Morrisonn signed over seas. His role will be filled by younger defenseman.
Mark Voakes – It could be argued Voakes was the most under appreciated player on the Amerks last season. He played every role imaginable and quality set-up man managing 34 assists in 75 games.
Paul Szczechura – The veteran Szczechura signed over seas. The Amerks will be without his speed and scoring ability. He was second on the team only to Evan Rankin in points per game with 46 in 57 games.
Travis Turnbull – The media will miss him as much as his teammates. Turnbull offered fearlessness when standing up for teammates as well as a great attitude and a little scoring touch with 27 points in 63 games.
Dennis Persson – Persson offered very little to the 2011-12 club scoring 5 points in 39 games, but his over-seas signing is notable because he's a former first-round pick by the Sabres
Igor Gongalsky – Like Turnbull, Gongalsky would do anything for a teammate and was a heck of a difficult player to play against. He became one of coach Rolston's favorite players. Igor was signed on a PTO and ended up with a contract for the rest of the season. He signed over seas.
Drew MacIntyre – MacIntyre went up to the Sabres after Ryan Miller's injury, but when he came down never got his job back. He finished with very poor numbers with an .899 save percentage.
Unexpected Breakout Player
Keep an eye on forward Shawn Szydlowski. He played in 53 games last season and didn't score a single goal, but he scored 41 goals with the Erie Otters in 2010-11 and has all the tools to be an effective scorer. Last season, he would have been better served playing the entire year in the ECHL because with the Amerks, he was mostly a fourth-line player receiving less than 10 minutes per game. This year, if he has a strong camp, he could get to a third-line role and prove himself from there. And if the NHL resumes play and Hodgson and Foligno move up, it's easy to see him getting time on even higher lines if he produces.
The hockey season is really long and you never know what can happen. Last season the injury parade in Buffalo got ridiculous and the Amerks were forced to play guys who should have been in the ECHL. This year, though, the team is much deeper and more talented. The veteran additions along with high-ceiling prospects should lead to the Amerks being a Calder Cup contender. The only road block might be that other NHL teams are sending young stars during the lockout, too. That means a much more talented league, but plenty of good competition for the Amerks.
Here's a list from USA Today of some the players you'll be able to see in the AHL. The list includes Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle, Braden Holtby and Adam Henrique.
Projected Opening Night Roster:
Marcus Foligno, Luke Adam, Cody Hodgson, Zemgus Girgensons, Evan Rankin, Corey Tropp, Mark Mancari, Kevin Porter, Phil Varone, Nike Tarnasky, Max Legualt, Brian Flynn
T.J. Brennan, Brayden McNabb, Joe Finley, Mark Pysyk, Drew Schiestel, Jerome Gauthier-Leduc
David Leggio, Connor Knapp
On the bubble:
Forwards: Kevin Sundher, Riley Boychuk, Jacob Legace, Jonathan Parker, Frederick Roy, Rick Schofield, Shawn Szydlowski
Defenseman: Alex Biega, Nick Crawford, Corey Fienhage, Matt McKenzie
Goalie: Nathan Lieuwen
Amerks camp opens Sept. 28
Opening night for the Amerks is Oct. 12 against Syracuse.
Keep it locked to WGR for complete Amerks coverage and follow Matthew Coller on Twitter @matthewwgr for updates all season long, lockout or not