By Jourdon LaBarber for Sabres.com
Chris Taylor was displeased with the effort from his team, and he wanted his players to know it. The Rochester Americans had just lost in a shootout to the Utica Comets, a divisional rival whom they had already faced seven times with varying degrees of success.
The Amerks admittedly were not at their best on this afternoon, and the fact that they salvaged a point at all could be seen as a testament to their development as a team. Furthermore, they remained a close second to Toronto in the North Division standings.
Taylor was irked, however, by two factors. One was that Utica's lineup featured six players on professional tryouts. Rochester's had none. It was a contest, Taylor told reporters after the game, his team should have won based on the skill of its roster.
The other aspect of the loss that bugged Taylor was the fact that, in his mind, Utica was a team with a reputation for working hard. Syracuse, whom Rochester had lost to two nights earlier, held a similar reputation.
The fact that Rochester did not perform well against these teams was unacceptable.
When the players arrived for practice the following morning at Bill Gray's Iceplex - a facility so cold that Taylor wears a toque on the ice - they were met with a lengthy, battle-heavy practice. Once it concluded, they circled up to stretch at center ice and then were free to leave.
What happened next, in the coach's mind, is the true testament to the culture that has been developed in Rochester over the last three-plus months. Not one player left the ice, opting instead to hold a shootout competition in which every member of the team was required to score a goal.
When the competition dwindled to two finalists, the rest of the team laid on their stomachs and formed a path to the net, cheering and tapping their sticks on the ice.
"That's all up to them, what they wanted to do," Taylor said afterward. "To me, that speaks more volumes than our practice."
It's that type of camaraderie - knowing when it's time to work, but still making time for fun on the ice - that Taylor remembers defining the great Rochester teams he played for more than a decade ago, teams that helped spawn back-to-back Eastern Conference finalists in Buffalo.
With management as focused on building a winner in the AHL as it is on building one in Buffalo, a leadership core that knows what it takes to win and a group of players who have bought in from the very beginning, something special might be brewing in Rochester once again.
On the day that Jason Botterill was introduced as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres in May, it became clear that a new era of commitment to the Rochester Americans was on the horizon. In his opening remarks, he spoke of building two teams: one in Buffalo and one in Rochester.
Botterill's approach to development was formed by two experiences. One was the decade he spent with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, where he worked for eight seasons as the general manager of their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins never missed the postseason during Botterill's tenure, and he took note of how that success allowed players to make seamless transitions to become key contributors to Pittsburgh's back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Botterill's other experience stemmed from his playing career, when he was a veteran on Rochester teams that included a laundry list of players who would go on to become key contributors to Buffalo's teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Ryan Miller. Thomas Vanek. Jason Pominville. Derek Roy. Paul Gaustad. Brian Campbell.
The fact that so many of those players went on to successful NHL careers, Botterill said, became a point of pride for him when he reflected on his career. Thus, one of his goals upon becoming general manager was to re-strengthen the relationship between Buffalo and Rochester.
The organization would be structured as it was in Pittsburgh. Just as Botterill served as general manager in Wilkes-Barre, Rochester would have its own assigned general manager. He hired Randy Sexton, who had worked with him as Director of Amateur Scouting for the Penguins, for the job.
For Sahir Gill, a forward who spent the last two seasons in Wilkes-Barre and is now having a career year in Rochester, the relationship he formed with Botterill during his time with the Penguins organization was essential to his coming with the Amerks. Likewise, both Botterill and Sexton have made their presence felt in Rochester this season.
"There's a lot of dialogue that goes through the coaches and the players and the management," Gill said. "It's good. I think everyone knows where they stand and they're down here working. There are opportunities to be rewarded for working hard and playing well."
They know where they stand, too, because of the man who Botterill brought in to coach, another figure with both Rochester and Wilkes-Barre in his background.
For someone who is generally described as a player's coach, Taylor is not one to sugarcoat the truth. His door is always open, and he strives to make sure his players know exactly where they stand. If a player arrives at the rink to find out he's been demoted in the lineup or removed from the power play, they'll know why because Taylor will tell them.
The players have come to respect that honesty, in part because they know that Taylor genuinely wants the best for them.
Gill, who played under Taylor when he was an assistant coach in Wilkes-Barre last season, described him as knowing when to push the right buttons. Because Taylor's generally positive, in the instances he does get on his players, they know it's for a reason.
"He holds us accountable," alternate captain Nathan Paetsch said. "He makes it enjoyable for guys to come to the rink every day, but he presses us. He makes sure guys are ready to play and he wants the best of us. I think he's done a good job of getting that from guys."
The players, in turn, respond. The day after the shootout loss to Utica, Taylor was asked about the performance of Alexander Nylander, the organization's first-round pick in 2016. Taylor was forthright in saying that he'd like to see Nylander play more engaged and hold onto the puck.
That same afternoon, Nylander was the last player off the ice after practice, dedicating extra time to improve his craft.
"That's great to see," Taylor said. "Alex is a hard worker. He's trying to put the work in. We're doing the video with him and we're going to push him. I'm not going to be light on him. Some people have an easy way of teaching and coaching. I'm the type of guy who's going to tell you exactly how I feel, good or bad. I want them to learn from the good, I want them to learn from the bad.
"It's hard to get out of the American League to get to the NHL," he continued. "That's why we've got a leadership group in here too that are showing him how to play. It takes time. Alex is going to get there. Once he gets there, he's going to be fine. But every day is a learning process for him."
Taylor's motivational skills are matched by his mind for the game. Paetsch, his teammate for three seasons in Rochester, described him as having been a "cerebral player" and knew even during their playing days that he'd one day make a fine coach.
"He was just smarter than the other guys on the ice," Paetsch said. "He was a power-play guy who could put up points, but he was a great penalty killer because he had a great stick and a great mind for the game. It was an easy transition for him to coaching."
Jason Pominville was Taylor's linemate as a young player in Rochester, and said he acted as a coach of sorts even on the ice.
"He was a great communicator, a great guy to be around," Pominville recalled. "Always upbeat, always positive. But his ability to come and talk to you about details of the game and how you need to be better - Even on a line, he would talk to me about, 'OK, we should try to do this, try to do that differently.'
"He definitely helped me along the way."
One hallmark of the Rochester teams in the early 2000s, on which Botterill and Taylor were veteran leaders and players like Pominville, Paetsch, Vanek, Miller and Roy were just beginning to adjust to their professional careers, was their closeness off the ice.
Taylor, as one of the team's elder statesmen, would host team parties at his house. Players got to know each other's families and children.
"We were a close-knit team," Taylor recalled. "Everybody got along, everybody enjoyed each other, but when we came to the rink we worked hard. Everybody knew how hard we had to work to get better. And a lot of guys got up to the NHL from those teams. That's the culture we want to set here."
Botterill only played eight games during the 2004-05 season, Vanek's lone season in Rochester, before sustaining the injury that would ultimately end his career, yet his was the first name Vanek mentioned when asked about his time as an Amerk.
"He was big for me early on. He was a power forward," Vanek said. "Botts and Chris Taylor and Rory [Fitzpatrick] and a lot of the older guys we had were really good people. They really groomed us."
The Amerks' veteran leadership has worked to recreate that culture this season. Botterill and Sexton brought in Kevin Porter, who played in both Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre during the past two seasons and captained the Amerks back in 2012-13, to return as team captain.
Porter has become one of Rochester's most important players on the ice, so much so that, when he was forced to miss two weeks due to injury, Gill said the team could feel the void. Porter's 27 points (12+15) in 37 games this season ranks second on the team only to C.J. Smith, a rookie who was named an All-Star.
Whether it's organizing team get-togethers or lightening the mood on the ice (Porter was partially responsible for bringing the end-of-practice shootout drill from Wilkes-Barre to Rochester), Porter and Paetsch have helped establish the team's balance between work and play.
"Guys are having fun, but we're working hard," Paetsch said. "It's not like we're just messing around. All the guys come and enjoy each other's company and it's a tight group, but we come and work for each other. That's the important part."
When it comes to setting the tone for practice, the team has benefitted from the added presence of former Sabres captain Brian Gionta, who practices with Rochester on non-gamedays as he prepares to captain Team USA at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Not only has Gionta kept his commitment to be at each practice, he's one of the first to arrive at the rink each day despite an hour-long commute from Buffalo. On some occasions, Taylor has asked him to have 1-on-1 conversations with young players, who respond in part because of Gionta's decorated resume and in part because they see how he competes each day in practice.
"For our young guys to see him every day is unbelievable," Taylor said.
Away from the ice, the young players have formed a sort of collegiate bond and spend most of their free time together. Many of them live in the same building downtown, and the ones who don't visit often.
To paint a picture of the relationships being developed on the Amerks, consider this: When Brendan Guhle was recalled to Buffalo for the first time this season in early January, he twice mentioned to the media that he was hoping his teammates were having a good day of practice in Rochester.
It's equally rewarding for the veteran players. One day Paetsch could have one of his young teammates over for dinner, and the following week his son might see that same player on television in an NHL game. As a leader on an AHL team, Paetsch said, it's almost as if a part of you goes up with them.
"That's what we want," Taylor said. "We want an experience with each other that we grow as a family, become a family and care about each other. I think you play harder for guys that you care about."
One aspect to the Amerks' success this season is the internal belief that, no matter the score or the time remaining, they refuse to feel like their out of a game. A lot of that, Smith says, has to do with the 6-foot-4-inch, 212-pound presence in net that always seems to have a smile on his face.
Linus Ullmark has had a unique trajectory to his career. His first game in North America came at the NHL level back in 2015-16, filling in for an injured Robin Lehner when his own recovery from double hip surgery wrapped up well ahead of schedule. He played 20 games for the Sabres that season.
Ullmark was an All-Star last season for a Rochester team that struggled, and he was named the team's MVP. This year, it's all come together. The goalie is an All-Star once again, and his 17 wins rank second in the AHL.
Ask him where he's developed in his three professional seasons, and he'll tell you it's mostly been as a person.
Taylor elaborated. He told the story of the 4-0 loss in Syracuse on Jan. 13 of this year, which had come just two days after Ullmark had turned in a brilliant performance in his season debut in Buffalo.
Ullmark gave up four goals in two periods that night. Upon being scored upon a fourth time, he broke his stick over the goal post.
"He came to me after the second and apologized," Taylor, who was an assistant coach with Rochester when Ullmark was a rookie, said. "I told him, 'Don't apologize. None of those goals were your fault.' That's his maturity. I'd be mad too. He goes, 'I don't want to come out.' That's maturity. Most goalies would say, 'I'm done with this game. Get me to the next game.' He didn't. He stuck with it. Guys respond to people like that."
Likewise, Ullmark is quick to credit his success to his teammates. He might lose a shutout in the final minute of a win, for example, but be too overjoyed with the victory to care. Had his teammates not blocked shots or boxed out in front of him, that shutout might not have been possible in the first place.
While some goalies are legendary for their intensity, Ullmark has struck a balance between positivity and competitiveness. He hates losing, but likes to point out that the sun will come up regardless of a result. Ask five of his teammates about him, and you'll be met with five smiles.
Porter, whose locker is stationed next to Ullmark's, says the two have an ongoing competition in practice. Porter tries to score on every shot; Ullmark tries to shut him out.
"He's pretty similar on the ice," Porter said. "He likes to win. I think this year's a little bit of a change of pace. I think he's having fun because we're doing so well and we're winning."
In late October, the Amerks found themselves at a crossroads. After winning the first two games of their season against Syracuse they had lost three straight, all in regulation. It was a pivotal moment for a team that had finished in the bottom three of its conference in the three seasons prior.
Following that third loss, they discussed what kind of team they would become. They won their next two games against Laval, dropped one to Syracuse and then began a stretch in which they earned at least one point in all but one of 18 games.
Entering their road trip in Toronto and Belleville this weekend, the Amerks have still not lost back-to-back games in regulation since that three-game losing streak in the third week of October.
"We discussed it," Taylor said. "We all said what we wanted to get out of this hockey team. When I look at our hockey team I look at, first and foremost, we have a lot of skill in here. The second thing, we have a lot of leadership and we have a lot of young guys who are really good.
"So, how do we combine all that and bring everybody together? That's being a team and working as a team and doing everything as a team. And we bonded."
The Amerks have been fueled by two elements that, on the surface, might seem contradictory. The first is that they genuinely seem to play for each other. With each win comes individual recognition, not just for the player who scores a goal in the game or the goalie who makes 40 saves, but for the defenseman with good gaps or the forward who makes a crucial play along the wall.
It's ironic, then, that they're also playing against one another. Taylor cites internal competition as being the principle motivating factor for his team.
Because of the AHL's development rule - which says that teams can only dress up to five "veteran" skaters per game - deserving players are sometimes relegated to the press box. Their looming presence fuels those in the lineup to have to work to stay there.
"To me, we're not playing against the other team," Taylor said. "We're playing against ourselves. If we push ourselves to be a better team, we don't have to worry about the other team. That's what we stress, for me, first and foremost. Worry about ourselves. Don't worry about the other team. We can't control what they do. We can control what we do."
As they've continued to work, the Amerks have learned how to win in different ways. They've scored five or more goals in five of their victories, but many others have been close, low-scoring affairs. Porter said the veteran leadership is looking to instill a mindset to continue battling regardless of the score.
Even if your down four goals, he says, show them you'll get them next time (Porter backed that up this past weekend when he scored twice in the span of 2:38 to force overtime in a 5-4 loss to Charlotte).
"It's learning every day," Taylor said. "We won't stop learning until our last game this year, and that's part of it. The game's full of mistakes. You get better at minimizing those mistakes."
At the rate they're going, that last game might not come until May or beyond.