By Warren Kosel
Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray admitted last summer that he was considering doing something a little different when it came time to make a coaching decision regarding the Rochester Americans. He indicated that there was something potentially in the works for his American Hockey League club, but never fully disclosed his true intentions.
Until now that is.
After nearly a year in the making, Murray’s grandiose plan was finally revealed on Monday when he appointed first-year Sabres assistant coach Dan Lambert to succeed Randy Cunneyworth as the new head coach of the Amerks. As part of the reshuffling, Cunneyworth was reassigned to a position in Buffalo’s Player Development department, a role he previously held for two seasons (2013-15) before returning for his second stint behind the Rochester bench for the 2015-16 campaign.
On the surface, Monday’s shake-up proved to be somewhat shocking and understandably so. But the reality of the situation was that everyone involved in the process – Lambert and Murray included – knew this was the plan all along. With the end result in mind, Lambert even went to the extent of rooting his wife and three daughters in Rochester and making the 75-mile commute everyday to and from Buffalo.
“I don’t know if it was hockey’s worst kept secret or best kept secret this past year,” joked Lambert on Tuesday morning during his introductory press conference when he was formally announced as Rochester’s new bench boss. “I knew of the plan to eventually become head coach (of the Amerks) since the day I signed with Buffalo last July.”
Looking back, the plan was quite simple. It was carefully devised to allow Lambert, a native of St. Malo, Manitoba, the opportunity to spend a full year with the Sabres adjusting to the pro game while learning the NHL playing systems. From there, he would shift his focus to Rochester, where the idea was to implement the same style of play and instill a philosophy centered around winning with the main priority, of course, being the development of the organization’s top prospects and draft picks.
“This is exactly what I was talking about,” said Murray. “We had a plan in place going into last season to eventually promote Dan to head coach of the Americans and transition Randy back to player development. With his experience as a Sabres assistant last season, we felt Dan was ready to take on the added responsibility of being a head coach and implementing our organizational philosophy in Rochester. He knows how we want to play; he knows the structure and system. I’m happy with how things worked out.”
Lambert is as well. As an assistant coach with the Sabres in 2015-16, he was part of Dan Bylsma’s staff that helped the Sabres to a 27-point improvement in the standings from the previous season. He also played an extended role in the development of highly touted rookie forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, Buffalo’s No. 2 overall picks in each of the last two NHL Draft years, who became one of the most elite and dominant offensive pairings in Sabres franchise history.
Lambert’s situation was unique in the fact that most junior coaches who move onto the pro ranks don’t immediately find a coaching job in the NHL. The ultimate decision to join Bylsma’s staff was admittedly due to his “lack of experience in dealing with men.” But it was serving under Bylsma that Lambert found most promising during his one-year stint in the NHL. He was able to elevate his passion for the game to new heights, but more importantly, learned how to interact with players at the pro level and grow as a coach.
“At the junior level, you’re working with guys that are 20 and under. Most of your guys are 17 and 18 and it is different than dealing with guys that maybe have families. I certainly paid special attention to Dan and the way he treated players, like Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges and Jack Eichel for example. It was very different, but I imagine will be similar here. I think just to watch and learn was probably the biggest lesson for me,” said Lambert.
Lambert becomes the 31st head coach in the 60-year history of the Amerks and the sixth different bench boss in eight seasons dating back to the 2008-09 campaign. Having spent all of last season in the organization and seen several AHL games over the course of the year, Lambert understands fully what the Amerks mean to Rochester. His familiarity to the city also trace back to his playing days in the early ‘90s as an opponent when he was a member of the AHL’s Halifax Citadels and Moncton Hawks.
“Rochester’s history speaks for itself and I’m very privileged for this opportunity. I’m truly passionate about this game and passionate about teaching.”
Prior to joining the Sabres, Lambert led the Kelowna Rockets (WHL) to a 53-13-6 record and a Western Conference title in his first season as head coach in 2014-15. The Rockets followed up their regular-season success by posting a 16-3 record in the WHL Playoffs, winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup and earning a berth in the Memorial Cup, where the team fell to the Oshawa Generals (OHL) in the Final.
Before taking over as head coach in Kelowna in 2014-15, Lambert spent five seasons as an assistant coach with the Rockets from 2009-10 to 2013-14. During that time, the Rockets compiled a record of 218-117-9-16 (.640 points percentage), including a league-best 57-11-0-4 mark in 2013-14. He began his coaching career with Kelowna immediately after retiring from his playing career.
Lambert enjoyed a 19-year professional career as a player after being drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the sixth round (106th overall) of the 1989 NHL Draft and netted 15 points (6+9) in 29 NHL games for Quebec. Lambert also appeared in 614 combined AHL/IHL games with Fort Wayne, Halifax, Moncton, San Diego and Los Angeles, totaling 474 points (120+354) and 845 penalty minutes. He was named the IHL’s outstanding defenseman in 1997-98 after recording 78 points (19+59) in 81 games for Los Angeles. He went on to spend 10 seasons playing in Germany (DEL), including five seasons as the captain of the Hannover Scorpions. In 488 DEL games, Lambert had 299 points (80+219) and 667 penalty minutes.
First Things First
His first act as Rochester’s new coach will be to finalize his coaching staff, which he intends to do so in the coming days. Lambert said he did have initial conversations with assistant coaches Chris Taylor and Paul Fixter as well as goaltending coach Bob Janosz and did say discussions will continue.
“As of right now, we’re still evaluating,” said Lambert, who hopes to have everything finalized a as soon as possible.
“I do want to move quickly,” Lambert added. “I think it’s important we have a staff in place and get all of our ideas together.
A ‘Working Relationship’
Lambert’s relationship with Bylsma extends far beyond than just in a working capacity. Before they were reunited on the bench in Buffalo this past season, the pair skated alongside one another for two years (1997-99) as members of the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League.
The relationship blossomed over time, beginning when Bylsma, who at the time was out of coaching after his dismissal from the Pittsburgh Penguins, visited Lambert in Kelowna as a favor. Lambert acknowledged Bylsma as a “close friend and mentor” and noted that they did communicate frequently.
“He came out for about a week and we found that we worked really well together,” said Lambert. “A lot of his ideas were things that we were trying instill in our team and our players. When he became head coach in Buffalo, we started talking about the possibilities of something like this and he brought the idea to Mr. Murray, who was all for it.”
Now that the two are back sharing a working relationship, Lambert said he’s going to heavily rely on Bylsma’s input and feedback to succeed at the AHL level and stressed the underlying importance of communication between the respective clubs.
“I think it’s very important that we have a good relationship or at least a good working relationship. So far it’s been great over the last little while before this announcement came along because I am going to need his guidance in a sense of what my expectations are as far as assistant coaches and things like that. We have had many talks and they have been very positive. I feel communication is very important and I feel our conversations are going to continually get better over time.”
Lambert played four seasons for the Los Angeles/Long Beach Ice Dogs and all four were under former Amerks coach John Van Boxmeer.
“He was tough to play for, but he was probably one of the more influential coaches in my career,” said Lambert.
Van Boxmeer’s 337 career coaching victories were the most in the Amerks history until Cunneyworth set the franchise record with his 338th win over the St. John’s IceCaps on Mar. 23.