The Rochester Americans have worked their way into sixth place in the Western Conference and are coming off a three-in-three weekend in which they posted five out of a possible six points. Rochester’s rise has come on the back of several highly-regarded prospects, including several former first-round draft picks that are likely to factor into the future.
Under head coach Chadd Cassidy, who has a background in player development, many of the team’s young players have taken big steps forward.
Here is a look at how the Buffalo Sabres’ prospects have come along this season.
Prospect: Forward - Johan Larsson Stats: 38 games, 14 goals, 22 assists, plus-14 Area of improvement: Goal scoring
When the Amerks’ versatile forward arrived in Rochester via trade last season, it appeared he would be relegated to a defensive role. That thought was affirmed when he only managed one point in 21 NHL games. However, since coming back to the AHL, Larsson’s offensive game has taken off. He has been far more aggressive, going to the net and getting shots through traffic. Last season, the 5-foot-11 forward got 99 shots on goal in 69 AHL games. This year he has 92 in 38 games. Larsson is learning how to score by playing huge minutes on the power play and on the top line with Kevin Porter
“He creates a lot of offense at this level, for sure. He is playing a position that isn’t really natural to him at wing. He seems to be in on most of our scoring and seems to create the bulk of our 5-on-5 chances.” – Cassidy
Prospect: Forward - Luke Adam Stats: 44 games, 26 goals, 18 assists, plus-11 Area of improvement: Defense
Since being sent to Rochester at the end of the 2012 season, the biggest criticism of the former second-round pick has been his defensive effort. This season there has been a noticeable difference in his own-zone efforts. Adam has gone from hanging around at the blue line waiting for an outlet pass to battling in the corners and in front of the net. Is his defensive game perfect? No. But Cassidy has used his scoring forward on the penalty kill and in late-game situations. You would not have seen that two years ago.
“He's become a 200-foot player. It is what we have tried to emphasize to him since we have been working with him. He has the gift to score goals, but if the coach doesn't feel he can put you out there and play in situations in your own zone or difficult situations, you are not going to get those offensive opportunities.” – Cassidy
Prospect: Forward - Joel Armia Stats: 42 games, 6 goals, 15 assists, minus-5 Area of improvement: Physical play
When Armia first arrived in Rochester, he struggled to adjust to the North American game. He was trying too hard to take defenders one-on-one rather than working hard away from the puck to get his chances. He also was regularly losing wall battles and giving up when he faced hard checks from the other team. Since his hand injury has fully healed, his all-around game has improved significantly. The former 16th overall pick is drawing penalties by working hard, winning wall battles and getting to the front of the net more often.
“It took him a little bit to get used to the North American style. There is not much time out there. He has great hands. His skill is unbelievable. It is just a matter of getting to know your linemates and making sure he has his space to do his thing and get open. He has improved with not as many turnover, making sure he is hard on the puck and he has improved his forecheck,” – linemate Colton Gillies.
Prospect: Defenseman - Rasmus Ristolainen Stats: 29 games, 5 goals, 12 assists, minus-5 Area of improvement: Decision making
Early in his demotion, Ristolainen was trying to carry the puck through center ice too much and it opened him up to taking big hits and forced him to shorten his shifts. He also pinched too often and was overly aggressive wit hits. His game has calmed down and he has begun picking his spots smartly. Ristolainen is producing points and playing power play and penalty kill – largely because he has worked hard to eliminate mistakes. While his play has not been perfect, the rate in which he has improved has given fans and the organization reason to be high on their 2013 eighth overall pick.
“He is such a big body guy and has the ability to out-muscle players out there. That is what we need him to do – to stop guys from getting to the front of the net. Just focusing on the defensive side of the game and knowing that is going to create offensive chances for our forwards.” – Captain Drew Bagnall
Prospect: Defenseman - Mark Pysyk Stats: 23 games, 1 goal, 8 assists, minus-1 Area of improvement: Offense, one-on-one battles
By no means has Pysyk turned into Erik Karlsson, but the former first-round pick has become more aggressive offensively. While in the NHL, he was asked to play a “safe” game because he was paired with step-up-in-the-play master Christian Ehrhoff. Now that he is the No. 1 D-man in Rochester, he is asked to carry the puck deep and create offensively in more ways than just making solid zone exit passes. Pysyk is also receiving power play time, where he may eventually play in the NHL.
“For me, he is an elite talent. Let’s see what’s there offensively.” – Cassidy
Prospect: Goalie - Nathan Lieuwen Stats: 17-9-4, 2.37 GAA, .920 save % Area of improvement: Confidence
There was some question whether Lieuwen would even make the team out of training camp with several other prospects in the pipeline. After making the team, he was the clear No.2 netminder to Matt Hackett. Over the past two months he has forced his way to getting the majority of the ice time. Lieuwen is huge at 6-foot-6 and has gotten quite good at positioning. His top attribute is his competitiveness – he stays calm in net, but battles with the best goalies in the AHL.
“He doesn't let a whole lot bother him. There have been very few incidents this year where he's had a meltdown in net. He's a competitor, too. I remember talking to him after he had a rough night and I explained why I didn't pull him. He said 'I don't ever want you to pull me.' That tells you a lot about him.” – Cassidy