When Connor Knapp made the Rochester Americans' roster coming out of training camp, he probably figured the team would bring him along slowly. But he probably didn't think the Sabres' organization would bring him along this slowly.
Knapp has only been in net six times in the first 40 games. David Leggio has started 34 including the last 13 in a row heading into the All-Star break. The rookie hasn't seen a start since Dec. 22 when he gave up five goals to the Binghamton Senators.
In the second half of the season, the 6-foot-5 goalie should get a few more chances. The Amerks have 12 games in February including three back-to-backs.
“We want to get him in there as far as development goes,” head coach Ron Rolston said. “Our schedule has been favorable to play David the bulk of the games, but we'll certainly have to get Connor some games.”
In his six starts, Knapp has just one win – an outstanding 42 save performance over the Adirondack Phantoms. In the other five starts, however, he's allowed 19 goals with an .888 save percentage. It isn't just his performance that's kept him out of the lineup, either. At this point, Leggio gives them the best chance to win and the Amerks are sitting in eighth place in the Western Conference.
“I think it's been great practicing and getting used to this,” Knapp said after practice on Wednesday. “I think it's good for my development to be here with these guys and to get a feeling for this level. I have to keep working, have good practices and be ready.”
At practice, he's had a chance to adjust to supremely more talented players than the ones he played against at Miami (Ohio), where Knapp had a .933 save percentage during his senior year. The York, N.Y. native has also had a chance to study Leggio, who was last year's team MVP.
“The biggest thing anyone would take from him is that he's a competitor,” Knapp said. “He's been beating the odds his whole career and it's because more than he likes to win, he hates to lose.”
It's clear Knapp, who went to McQuaid High School in Rochester, has been paying attention to his teammate. Leggio was undrafted, but battled his way through stints in the ECHL, a Finnish league and as a backup in the AHL twice to become one injury away from the NHL. That doesn't happen by accident.
“It's a great example to see how hard he works,” Knapp said.
The Pegula Effect is also assisting the young goalie. He works with a team psychologist on mental imagery and studies video of the league's elite goalies.
“At this point I'm kind of my own goalie and have my own style,” he said. “But I'm always picking up on things. Everyone has things they do really well and if you can take that and incorporate it into your game then you are that much better for it.”
Bringing along goalies is tricky for NHL organizations. It's the position that takes the longest to adjust to the highest level and the one most difficult to predict success or failure. Rarely does a late-round forward or defenseman turn into a top-level player, but it's not uncommon for a netminder.
Last year's three Vezina Trophy finalists were all late picks. Henrik Lundqvist was selected in the seventh round, Pekka Rinne in the eighth and Jonathan Quick was a third-rounder. And the Sabres' franchise goalie Ryan Miller was picked in the fifth round.
Because of the slew of late-rounders that have had NHL success, Knapp has tried his best to simply trust the process.
“I'm doing whatever they think is best,” he said. “They're an organization that's been dealing with this with guys like Miller and Marty Biron and I just trust in what they're doing and in the long run this will be beneficial.”
Zemgus Girgensons spent his break in Michigan getting medical attention for the concussion he suffered on Jan. 12 against the Syracuse Crunch. The Sabres' first-round pick skated on his own on Wednesday.
Rolston said Girgensons is getting closer.
“We're going to get him back into practices here,” Rolston said. “We're hoping he can continue to progress the way he's coming along right now. It's very positive.”
After the lockout took Marcus Foligno and Cody Hodgson, it appeared Girgensons was ready to take the next step in his progression by getting power play and penalty kill minutes.
“With the injury, it kind of pushes me back,” Girgensons said Wednesday. “With the lockout's end, a couple guys get called up and I would get more of a chance, but right away I got blown out. When I come back, I want to up my game and put up some more points.”
The Latvian prospect also said improving his cooking skills is not on his list of goals in the second half. He'll keep leaving that to roommate Jon Parker.