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Cassidy looks for strong second impression with Amerks

Maybe first impressions just aren't Chadd Cassidy's thing.

In his first game as Rochester Americans interim head coach last February, his club was blown out 5-1. Last Friday, his debut behind the bench as full-time head coach ended with Rochester being steamrolled 8-1 by the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Maybe first impressions are overrated.

After he took over last year, the Amerks went on to win 16 of 28 to finish 2012-13 and battled their way into the post-season.

“I thought of it, to be honest,” Cassidy said after practice Wednesday. “On the positive side, we know how things ended last year and how well we played down the stretch. You just have to keep that in mind and say to yourself, 'file it away, it happens.'”

The late-season run and progression of prized prospect Zemgus Girgensons, who scored three goals in three playoff games against Toronto, spring-boarded the 40-year-old Lake Placid native to being hired in the top spot in Rochester – a position that has been held by hockey heavyweights such as Don Cherry, John Tortorella and Mike Keenan.

Pretty cool for a former Division III hockey player.

But becoming the guy brings with it the pressure of being the guy. The Buffalo Sabres have struggled to attract big-name free agents and have been forced to put an emphasis on raising the next wave of NHL'ers down on the farm. And guess who's responsible if the prospects don't turn out?

Not to mention the Amerks have a proud fan base – one that took owner Terry Pegula's promises of a Calder Cup to heart.

Even when I was interim last year I treated it like it was our hockey team as a staff and I was the coach,” Cassidy said. “Whether you're the interim or the head coach, you have 10,000 thoughts running through your head about how you want to run your hockey team.”

The 5-foot-not-much, enthusiastic head coach spent five seasons as an assistant coach at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and won a gold medal at the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Under-18 World Championships in Germany. His philosophy is much like that of Ron Rolston: He gives instructions instead of orders, he pats guys on the back instead of screaming in their ear.

Cassidy is aware he doesn't bring with him the credibility in the locker room that a former NHL player would. Because of that, he doesn't overcompensate – he delegates.

The Sabres brought back highly-respected forward Matt Ellis, who has played 267 NHL games and is known for his impeccable work ethic, intelligence and leadership. After last season's run to the playoffs, Cassidy gave Ellis a great deal of credit for taking a hold of the locker room.

He expects his captain to do so again.

“It's huge because as a staff, he gives us someone to bounce things off of,” Cassidy said. “There aren't many guys who are more professional or better example for young players than Matt Ellis.”

Cassidy and his leadership group will be asked to win games and help several of the organization's most important prospects prepare for The Show. It's tough to say yet whether the group will gel with many new faces, but the current prospects are valuable property.

Defenseman Brayden McNabb and goalie Matt Hackett are at the top of the list.

McNabb made a name for himself with Buffalo fans in 2011-12 when the former third-round pick played 25 games as a Sabre and displayed a physical presence combined with stick-handling skills and a bomb shot.

However, the young D-man struggled at the beginning of 2012-13, then suffered a knee injury late in the season when his game was coming back around. Cassidy preaches patience with the 6-foot-5, 22-year-old.

“He had a really good camp in Buffalo, but it's a crowded house there,” the Amerks' coach said. “He's going to have to be a little patient. It's a little frustrating for him. But the biggest thing is his skating and his ability to get around the ice.

“For guys that are 6-foot-5, when they're 21 or 22-years-old, it takes a little while to get used to your body, to fill out a little bit and be confident in gap control and using your stick and body position. A big part of his game is physical play as well and stepping up in the neutral zone. That timing takes time. I think one of the worst things you can do is bring guys up too early and kill their confidence.”

Cassidy noted that defenseman often take longer to bring along, in part because they are so exposed on mistakes. For goalies, he says, it takes even longer to be NHL ready.

Dealing with Hackett will be a 180 from his goaltender from last season David Leggio. At 27, Leggio was in the running for league MVP, was a finished product, a presence in the locker room and mature mentally.

“The most important thing for a goalie is just minutes in the net,” Cassidy said. “It would be better for them if they were facing NHL shots all the time, but that's part of the progression to get to that point. Matt is moving closer to that. He has 13 NHL games and a couple great runs in the AHL. He still has to work on his consistency here and the mental part of his game here.”

The Amerks' system will be reflective of what Rolston is using in the NHL so as to make the transition easier for players getting the call. Cassidy does not yet know how the process of selecting call-ups will go. During Rolston's time, the current Sabres coach was largely influential in determining which players were sent to Buffalo.

Cassidy will find all that out that soon enough, along with some of the other perils and pressures involved with being the guy.

But at the moment, he'll just have to worry about making a better second impression Friday against Utica at Blue Cross Arena.

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