By Warren Kosel
Moments after taking the podium as the new general manager of the Buffalo Sabres back in May, Jason Botterill made it a point to address obvious concerns surrounding the organization. Botterill, like many of the individuals in his position that came before him, outlined his vision and the steps he and others need to take in order to see his blueprint to fruition.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from Botterill’s first act as Sabres general manager was his commitment to rebuilding the Rochester Americans, a franchise once known as one of the crown jewels of the American Hockey League, to a Calder Cup contender. Botterill knows first-hand the rich history of the Amerks having donned the red, white and blue over parts of three seasons as a player, but also knows that winning and development go hand-in-hand. That winning culture is what he hopes to instill back in Rochester.
“Our success story or what our model's been in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, what we'll try to implement in Rochester, is very much the same with an emphasis on creating a winning environment and a strong coaching staff that's very tied to what goes on at the National Hockey League level," he said.
Botterill’s first order of business was bringing in Randy Sexton to serve as general manager of the Rochester Americans, a role last held by Hall of Famer Jody Gage during the 2008-09 season. Together, Botterill and Sexton created the winning formula of having success at both the NHL and AHL levels as evidenced just last season by the Pittsburgh Penguins winning their second straight Stanley Cup and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins finishing atop the AHL with a 51-23-2 record during the regular season. Botterill was the key architect in piecing together Pittsburgh’s roster in each of the last two years while overseeing the operations in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which has qualified for the playoffs in each of the eight years under Botterill’s guidance.
“I had a close working relationship with Jason the last seven years and I’ve come to not only appreciate what he brought to the table as a professional, I got to respect his incredible intelligence and his insight for the game,” said Sexton. “Despite his relatively young age, his work ethic and his commitment to excellence was second to none.”
This isn’t the first time Sexton would oversee the daily operations in Rochester. He was the assistant general manager and eventually general manager of the Florida Panthers during their three-year affiliation with the Amerks from 2008-11. But he has a little more work this time around as the Amerks have missed the playoffs three straight years and haven’t won a playoff series since 2005. The team’s last Calder Cup came more than 20 years ago.
Sexton admitted there would be initial challenges up front, but it’s the success that he had during his time in Pittsburgh, his relationship with Botterill and a fresh opportunity to leave his stamp on another organization in need of his services that ultimately drew him to Buffalo and Rochester.
“We were incredibly fortunate to work with great people in Pittsburgh and to capture two Stanley Cups,” said Sexton. “For most of my career, I’ve been a builder. I was able to achieve the ultimate prize in Pittsburgh, and when Jason asked me to come aboard, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to start to rebuild another championship team. It was too good an opportunity to pass on.”
WATCH: DON STEVENS 1-ON-1 INTERVIEW WITH RANDY SEXTON
The next step was finding the right coach to lead the Sabres prospects in Rochester. The obvious choice was Chris Taylor, who spent a total of 14 years in Rochester as either a player or coach before spending last year as an assistant coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. So naturally, given his relationship with Botterill, who was a teammate of his with the Amerks, his philosophy on winning equating to development and familiarity with the organization, Taylor was the heavy favorite.
Sexton identified a number of Taylor’s characteristics that made him a perfect fit for the job.
“Very few players come into professional hockey and get to the NHL and play the same role that they played in junior or college. Chris was living proof of that. He was a prolific scorer in junior, he was a great offensive player in the American League, but in order to get NHL games he had to play good defense. I think that in itself is a great signal to our players. Young players who recognize that quickly in their careers ascend to the NHL much quicker than the ones who fight it or don’t,” said Sexton.
“He’s a great communicator and one of the most positive professionals I’ve ever been around,” added Sexton. “When we look at Chris as a leader, his ability to communicate, his ability to find the positive in everything and his ability to work and treat each and every one of our young players as the individuals that they are, I knew he was our guy.”
Buffalo’s stance on returning the Amerks to prominence was clear when the Sabres made a splash on day one of free agency. The Sabres added eight players to the mix, including five that should directly impact Rochester in one way or another.
Perhaps the most notable of the acquisitions include the return of former Amerks captain Kevin Porter and the addition of forward Kyle Criscuolo, each of whom agreed to multi-year deals. It should come as no surprise to see Porter back in the organization after spending the last two years with Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton under the close watch of Botterill and Sexton.
Porter played a supporting role in helping the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup victories while contributing to the development of some of their top prospects, most notably Jake Guentzel, who was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team last season before going on to lead the NHL with 13 goals during the postseason. Criscuolo, meanwhile, is coming off a productive 41-point rookie campaign and a Calder Cup championship with the Grand Rapids Griffins last season. Buffalo also added defenseman Matt Tennyson, who spent half the 2016-17 season with the Carolina Hurricanes, perennial goal-scorer Seth Griffith and goaltender Adam Wilcox.
Sexton noted that while these moves provide added depth for the organization, it also plays into the idea that it will foster development from some of the younger prospects.
“We added depth across the organization, both in Rochester and in Buffalo, and there are three or four players that I think for sure will play games in Buffalo, and might even earn a full-time spot,” Sexton said. “But if not, they’ll be the types of players that will come to Rochester. They will provide leadership, they will provide some offensive capabilities and some good defensive capabilities, so that our young kids can learn in an environment that has success. Building confidence and having success on a frequent basis in a winning environment, that’s about development.”
Botterill, too, echoed Sexton’s sentiments, adding that jobs are for the taking come this Fall, but that the most deserving players will earn the opportunities.
"We have the veteran leadership there. We want to make sure that there's opportunities for our young players, but they also have to compete for jobs. They're going to have to compete for jobs at the National hockey league level, so they better go through the experience of competing for jobs at the American Hockey League level. It's also a scenario where you're making sure that there are opportunities for those players to get up to the National Hockey League, but in the right setting. If they're not ready in September or October, we have to have sort of more NHL depth players ready to take on those roles."
Although the season is still about three months away, Sexton is aware of what lies ahead and is fully committed to do whatever it takes to return the Amerks back to prominence.
"We have some work to do there. I don't think it's a surprise to anyone, but therein lies the opportunity. It's a wonderful hockey market. We have an organization that needs some work, but we're not going to rest until we restore the Americans to what I think is the rightful place amongst the elite teams in the American Hockey League. It'll come one day at a time, it'll come one person at a time, but we will be relentless in our pursuit of that success.”
Better get ready, Amerks fans.