By Ryan J. Harr
After spending the majority of the last seven months together, the Rochester Americans cleaned out their locker stalls and met with the coaches and management for their exit interviews on Monday before saying their goodbyes as they made their way back to their summer homes. But as the Amerks gathered for one last time, the common response among the group was the thought of yet another disappointing season and another early departure.
“The fact that we are not still playing is disappointing,” said first-year Amerks head coach Dan Lambert. “We had 16 guys play for both us here in Rochester and with the Buffalo Sabres. A number of things contributed to that but I am really proud of that fact that a lot guys did get that did get an opportunity. Some of those players did really well with the Sabres.”
While the Amerks finished with an 8-4-0-1 record in their final 13 games of the campaign, they missed the postseason for the third straight year. Overall, Rochester finished with a 32-41-0-3 record during its 61st season while finishing sixth in the American Hockey League’s North Division with 67 points.
“We ended the season on a good note but it is still disappointing not getting into the playoffs,” said second-year forward Nick Baptiste, who led the team with 25 goals this season. “The last few weeks, we played meaningless games in terms of standings but guys had a lot to play for as in jobs next season and beyond. So with that said, the way we finished the season is great but is disappointing because if we had played that way all season, we still could be playing. But we cannot talk about the what if, could have, should have…we just have to learn from it and use it as motivation.”
Despite the season of ups and downs, the mainstay for the Amerks was goaltender Linus Ullmark as he appeared in 55 games in the blue paint. Rochester’s team MVP led the AHL in saves (1,525), shots-against (1,678), and minutes played (3,201) and finished with a record of 26-27-3. Ullmark, who was one of three players to represent Rochester at the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic in January, ended the slate tied for seventh in the league with 26 wins.
“Looking back on the season, it is disappointing not to make the playoffs,” Ullmark said. “I am able to take some positives, though, regarding my own experience this year as I continue my development as a goalie and as a person.”
Ullmark was just one of six AHL goaltenders this season and the first Amerks netminder since former team MVP David Leggio to appear in 50 or more games in the same season. Ullmark and Jack Campbell of the Ontario Reign were the only two at their position with more than 3,000 minutes played this season.
“I had a great support staff who helped keep my body in tip-top shape,” Ullmark explained. “Last season, my second half of the year I was not happy with how I ended it. This year, however, I feel great about myself heading into the offseason.”
While Ullmark controlled the back-end of the ice, fifth-year forward Cole Schneider led the Amerks in scoring as he established career-highs in assists (39), points (63), shots (176) and games played (71). He also added 24 goals, securing his fourth straight year of reaching the 20-goal mark.
“I felt I had a pretty good year,” said Schneider. “I played with a number of guys who were very skilled, so they helped contribute to my success. I, like everyone in the room, though, would rather still be playing but unfortunately we are not.”
In January, Schneider was named to his first-career All-Star Classic and concluded the season with 14 points (5+9) in his final 13 games, which included a season-long seven game point streak.
“The team really started to gel the last month or so,” said Schneider. “We were in a lot of the games throughout most of the season but just came up short in some games. Hopefully the young guys can remember what they learned over the season, especially the end of the season, on what it takes to win.”
While Schneider paced the Amerks in points, second-year forward Justin Bailey joined Baptiste (25) and Schneider (24) as the three 20-goal scorers as he ended the season with 23 goals. It marked the second-straight season that the 6-foot-4 forward tallied 20 or more goals as he became the first Amerk to do so since Mark Mancari reached the mark in 2006-07 and 2007-08. He also owned the longest goal-scoring streak in the league this season at seven games.
“This season, I personally had a lot of ups and downs,” Bailey said. “I started off slow, then got really hot around Christmas time and earned a recall as I spent nearly two and half months with Buffalo. Looking back on the season as a whole, I can take a lot of positives. My goal now is going to take the positives from the year and translate it to the next level.”
Throughout the course of the campaign, 16 different Amerks were recalled to the big club. For six of those players who made the trek down the New York State Thruway, it was for the first time in their professional careers.
“Playing with Buffalo was big for my confidence,” said Evan Rodrigues, who was named Buffalo Sabres Rookie of the Year. “It showed myself, and I think Buffalo, I can play at that level. That said, it is something I am going to take into the offseason and I will make sure I work as hard as I can.”
“This season went pretty well,” said Brady Austin after finishing his third year in Rochester. “I started slow but as the season went on, I got more comfortable and I was able to get some time in with the Sabres. Playing a handful of games with them was a goal for me last summer. I gained a lot of confidence from that opportunity and it is something I will build on this summer.”
“I was able to accomplish some of the things I wanted to this season, including my first-career call- up,” said seven-year pro defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer. “Earning that first trip to the NHL in year seven made it that much more special. It has been a long journey. Spending those few days with the Sabres is something I will never forget and definitely something I am going to use as motivation during the offseason.”
As the Amerks return home for the offseason, many will head into their first full summer after their rookie season. Of the 47 players who dressed in at least one game with Rochester during the 2016-17 season, 15 players were first-year players in the AHL.
“I had a lot firsts this year,” said Alexander Nylander, who led all Amerks rookies in scoring with 28 points in 65 games in between helping Sweden to a fourth-place finish at the 2017 World Junior Championship. “I also had a lot experiences while I learned a lot from the coaches and other players this season. I got my recall to Buffalo, so that is a big motivation factor going into my first summer.”
“It was definitely a year of ups and downs,” said fellow rookie forward Hudson Fasching. “The major setback was my injury, but fortunately I was able to overcome it. It is something I can learn from. I tried to be more consistent this year because as a player you can’t take nights off. I learned how to do all the little things and how to take care of my body, so I am looking forward to improving and growing over the summer.”
While the players will make their ways to their summer destinations all over the world and North America, one thing is common. They left The Blue Cross Arena as a close-knit brotherhood that made up the 2016-17 Rochester Americans.