Hockey season is just around the corner. The NHL’s preseason is underway. The Cincinnati Cyclones along with the rest of the ECHL will open their training camps in just over a week with the first preseason game in Wheeling just two weeks away.
Back in May, it was announced the Cyclones would be serving as the ‘AA’ affiliate of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and AHL’s Rochester Americans for the upcoming 2017-18 campaign. For the Americans, their training camp begins this Monday and will feature many different names that the Cincinnati faithful will get to know over the course of the season.
Before the hockey season gets underway, we thought it would be a good idea to break the ice a bit and get to know our new AHL affiliates a bit better. What better way to do that, then to request the services of two men who are more than familiar with the Amerks. Chris Schiffner is the lead-man of Amerks Extra, and Keith Wozniak, one-half of Let’s Go Amerks, both join me for a roundtable discussion to offer their thoughts on multiple topics surrounding the entire Sabres organization.
Without further adieu, let’s begin.
Q: It was announced in May that the Cyclones were going to be Buffalo/Rochester’s ECHL affiliate. Last season, Cincinnati only got three total players from Nashville’s organization. This season, they could receive as many as four defensemen from Rochester alone. Talk about the depth in this organization right now and how you think it’ll play out for both the Cyclones and Amerks.
AE: Short and sweet – there are a couple of players who thought they had an NHL spot locked up that are going to find themselves starting with the Amerks. There are a few players who believe they have an AHL spot locked up that are going to find themselves starting with the Cyclones. The same couldn’t be said in previous seasons. The organization still has a lot of work to do but having to make tough decisions about who to cut is a good start. It’s not just about filling rosters with able bodies this season.
LGA: Under Tim Murray (former Sabres General Manager), the organization did not have enough depth for the Amerks to be competitive, much less Elmira. As a result, the Americans provided the Jackals with little quantity or quality and created disruptions as a result.
Q: It’s been a pretty active summer in Rochester with a lot of key additions. Steve Moses is an example, as well as Nathan Paetsch, who won a Calder Cup with Grand Rapids last year. The Americans have missed the postseason each of the last three seasons, with all the changes that were made over the summer, how do you feel heading into this season?
AE: On paper (assuming the rosters shake out how I think they will), this is the strongest Amerks roster in a decade. There’s quality veteran leadership and many of the recent signings bring a winning culture with them. I love that we signed Paetsch, who wanted nothing more than to play for the Amerks. In his case, he knows exactly what he can offer in the locker-room and on the ice. He’s publicly stated that he would like to transition to coaching after his playing career ends. Could he be a future Amerks assistant coach? What better way to cement a path to coaching than to bring home a Calder Cup win as a player?
AE (Cont): You’ve got a natural born leader in Kevin Porter. Steve Moses has the potential to be a scoring machine. Kyle Criscuolo just won a Calder Cup. Hopefully we’ll see more of Fedun in Rochester this season. If you haven’t seen Fedun lead a power play unit, you’re in for a treat. Eric Cornel made a lot of progress last season and I expect to see him continue to develop under the new leadership. Vaclav Karabacek has the opportunity to prove that he deserves to stay in the AHL. If Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste don’t crack the Sabres roster out of training camp they’ll be doing everything in their power to earn a lasting recall. While I’m not a fan of the “baggage” that Garrett Ross carries, he brings some on-ice grit. Seth Griffith knows how to get the puck to the back of the net. Not only do I expect to see a lot more winning this season – I expect this team to make the playoffs.
LGA: It’s been 12 seasons since the Amerks have made it past the first round of the playoffs. In the 12 seasons prior, they won a Calder Cup, made it to the finals twice, and made it past the first round three times. Long time fans miss those years versus just simply making the postseason. Looking forward, we’re beyond excited about the signings (Happy Days Are Here Again).
Q: Now, let’s talk about the people responsible for those changes. Phil Housley as Head Coach and Jason Botterill as General Manager in Buffalo. Chris Taylor behind the bench in Rochester with Randy Sexton as the dedicated AHL GM. Your thoughts on the off-ice shake-up this summer and the direction they’re taking this organization?
AE: The “shake-up” was necessary. As time passed, it became obvious that Tim Murray was in over his head. The picture we’ve been offered from inside Murray’s organization is one of a reclusive and secretive GM. Players felt neglected and staff were shut-out. The bigger issue for me was that Murray seemingly had no master plan. He cobbled together an NHL roster but made few meaningful moves at the AHL level and never established depth in any one area. A single recall or injury decimated rosters. When the dust settled, the organization had the same salary cap issues Murray inherited and hadn’t made notable progress in any one area.
AE (Cont): Yes, he “landed” Eichel… but that didn’t require skill. The Sabres had a top draft pick in a rare draft with two players destined for greatness. Anyone would have made the same pick. The point is Murray had his chance and blew it. In the short time Botterill and Sexton have been at the helm, we see a clear direction. Build depth at defense, add speed, and add scoring. These might seem like simple objectives to adopt, but they’ve managed to begin implementation in a very short amount of time. Phil Housley brings a fresh approach to coaching within the organization and has earned player respect through his own playing career. Chris Taylor is returning after a previous stint as an assistant coach but is well liked by players and has also earned respect through his own playing career.
LGA: So far, so good. From the Amerks perspective, the biggest deal is having our own GM in Randy Sexton. Sexton was also around when the Amerks were affiliated with the Panthers and they had a great off-season heading into the 2009-10 season. He appears to be on the same page as Botterill in building that success from the ground up, look at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Not everyone is sold on Taylor as head coach but as a former player, he’ll have the respect of players. He knows what it’ll take to win. Adding Gord Dineen as an assistant will make up for Taylor being a rookie head coach.
Q: This isn’t the first time the Cyclones and Amerks have partnered. Back in 2010-11, they were affiliates in the Florida Panthers organization. It was more of a “one and done” type deal but would you like to see more of a long-term deal this time around?
AE: The last decade has been a turbulent one for the Amerks organization. Curt Styres purchased the team in 2008 and essentially saved the team from financial ruin. In 2011, the Amerks were purchased by Terry Pegula, reuniting the Sabres and Amerks. With a new owner for the 2011-12 season, everything was being reevaluated. From a geographic viewpoint, it made sense to establish an affiliation with the Elmira Jackals – they were a New York based team and a very short drive from Rochester. What the organization needs now is stability. The latest management and coaching changes have established a solid foundation for the future of the franchise. By hiring Randy Sexton as the Amerks GM, the organization has signaled that they are serious about winning at the AHL level. Recalls to the Sabres are inevitable, and, in turn, to the Amerks. In order for the Amerks to be successful, we need a strong ECHL affiliate with AHL ready players. It will take time to fully build depth (and a winning culture!) at every level. The only way that can happen is with a long-term affiliate.
LGA: Yes – it’d be good for stability and Cincinnati is a great city, too! #SkylineChili
Q: Going back the last couple of seasons, the Amerks had an ECHL affiliation with the now-defunct Elmira Jackals. That… didn’t exactly go as planned. From an AHL perspective, how important is it to have a healthy and successful affiliation with an ECHL club?
AE: It’s incredibly important to have a successful ECHL affiliation. The goal is to build winning teams at every level. The Sabres want to recall players that are NHL ready and have a winning mentality. In order to maintain a winning culture in Rochester, the Cyclones will need to provide AHL-ready players with a winning mentality. A losing culture is like cancer…if left unaddressed, it will spread throughout the organization. The Sabres/Amerks/Cyclones will need to work hand-in-hand to build the culture required for success at every level.
LGA: First, Elmira is in our area so having any part of their demise was troubling. Secondly, when players learn to win at ANY level, it carries to the NEXT level.
Q: Buffalo had their Prospect Challenge a couple of weekends ago that featured multiple guys that’ll be going between Rochester and Cincinnati this year, including Cyclones defenseman Arvin Atwal. What did you see from the up and coming Sabres prospects and who stood out to you during the tournament?
AE: Obviously, Brendan Guhle stood out. Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste are really close to sticking in the NHL and it showed. In terms of ECHL/AHL talent, I liked that Atwal was willing to stand up for Baptiste against the Bruins. Colin Blackwell is fighting for a job. He put up two goals and an assist in the Prospect Challenge and proved he can play with the other prospects. He’s been invited to the Amerks training camp and may ultimately be destined for the ECHL where he’d add depth. Brycen Martin and Devante Stephens were both drafted by Tim Murray and have yet to prove they belong in the AHL. Martin stood out for all the wrong reasons in the challenge (missed passes, missed empty net). Both need further development before making the Amerks roster.
AE (Cont): Anthony Florentino is unproven at the professional level and would benefit from starting with the Cyclones. Justin Danforth may end up spending some time with the Cyclones. He looked good in the Amerks games he played in at the end of last season but he was also filling out a roster that was depleted by recalls. His size also puts him at a disadvantage in physical match-ups. Ideally, Danforth would add a little bulk while maintaining his speed. While I really like Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, I’m not sure I see how he fits into the master plan Botterill and Sexton are laying out. He might find himself on the outside. The organization has improved goaltending depth by adding Adam Wilcox and Jonas Johansson. Johansson has had moments of greatness but also needs to develop. Thus far, I haven’t seen any deficiencies in his game that cannot be resolved through coaching and development. Linus Ullmark will be the Amerks primary goaltender and Wilcox will be his backup. That leaves Johansson and Jason Kasdorf looking to make a big impression in the organization. It’s possible the Amerks go with 3 goalies, making Johansson third in succession, but I think it makes the most sense to go with two goalies and assign Johansson and Kasdorf to the Cyclones. Kasdorf will likely spend most of the season with the Cyclones. While Kasdorf had a less than stellar 2016-17 season, he was playing for a last place team with little help in front of him. This season will be his defining moment. Adam Krause wasn’t part of the Prospect Challenge but he will likely start with the Cyclones and he adds depth at center along with a little AHL experience.
LGA: I don’t follow or give a lot of thought about these prospect tournaments. If I’m honest – I think it gives some borderline prospects a false sense of being NHL’ers.
Q: Finally, back to the Elmira disaster, obviously, there’s still some Cincinnati fans a bit uneasy about being affiliated with Buffalo. A lot of personnel changes, a lot of positive things happened over the summer worth getting excited about. Any words of comfort you can provide for those fans still unsure?
AE: Jason Botterill knows how to build winning teams. He has proven his commitment to winning in the AHL by hiring Randy Sexton as the Amerks GM. Having someone like Sexton that is committed to building a winning team in Rochester can only benefit the Cyclones as the two’s success is linked. In order to be successful in the AHL, the Sabres and Amerks need a strong ECHL affiliate with a winning culture to match the ones they’re trying to build in Rochester and Buffalo.
LGA: Jason Botterill used to live in Rochester during and after his playing days here. He’s not going to overrate a few prospects and micro-manage decisions like the previous bosses. If you read our most recent article, you’ll see there were 13 non-prospect signings this summer. That tells you everything you need to know. That didn’t happen in any of the previous seasons. I’d also say be vocal on Twitter to us and we’ll make sure it’s heard if you’re unhappy!
My thanks go out to both of these gentlemen for taking time out of their hectic schedules to talk a bit of puck before the season begins in just a couple short weeks. Both of them do tremendous work in covering the Rochester Americans. Be sure to check them out; you can follow all of their work with the links provided below.