By Suzie Cool (@SuzKewl) | Published on October 3, 2019)
The Rochester Americans are set to kick off their 64th American Hockey League season on Friday night against their North Division rival, the Syracuse Crunch, at The Blue Cross Arena. Friday’s Home Opener, presented by Seneca Niagara Resort and Casino, is slated for a 7:05 puck drop to begin the 2019-20 season.
Rochester is coming off a season that saw the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. For the second straight year, the Amerks earned a playoff berth after racking up a 46-23-5-2 (99 points) mark during the regular season, their best record on the ice since the 2006-07 campaign. Heading into the Calder Cup Playoffs, the Amerks were confident to face-off against an opponent that they posted a 5-1 record against during regular season – the Toronto Marlies – a team the Amerks know all too well when it comes to the postseason. Toronto would come in with an attack plan, though, and for the second straight year, Rochester got knocked out of postseason play in a three-game sweep, ending their season on the road at Coca-Cola Coliseum.
Friday night will rehash a matchup that the Amerks saw a little over a week ago against the Crunch, a North Division foe that the Amerks will see 12 times this season, the most against any single opponent. During the first preseason tilt of the new season, Rochester fell to Syracuse 4-1 while facing a very strong veteran core coming from their opponent. Despite the final score line of their first preseason game, Amerks interim head coach Gord Dineen looks forward to the challenges heading into Friday’s intrastate showdown.
“It’s Opening Night, whether it’s different situations or you’re playing in front of a sold-out crowd at times. You’re playing your first game in pro hockey, or playoffs, those are good challenges for guys to optimize their game in the moment and keep their composure.”
The Return to the ROC
Returning to the Amerks roster are 18 players that have seen significant time in the red, white and blue.
On the blueline for Rochester this season are seven returners, including assistant captains Andrew MacWilliam, Zach Redmond and Nathan Paetsch. Both MacWilliam and Redmond are headed into their third season with the club following their stellar 2018-19 campaigns. Redmond was awarded the Eddie Shore Award last year as the AHL’s most outstanding defenseman, leading the league’s defensemen in goals scored with 21. MacWilliam matched a season-high of three goals on the season while playing in 66 tilts for Rochester, third-most games played on the Amerks current roster during last season.
Paetsch is headed into his 13th season in the AHL and seventh in a Rochester uniform. A guy with over 150 games in the National Hockey League, Paetsch helps bring a heavy veteran presence to the Amerks roster.
Following the first preseason matchup against Syracuse, Paetsch reflected on what the team’s veteran forwards showed the newcomers during some preseason play.
“I thought our veteran forwards played really well. They got in there, they were aggressive, they were really physical and showed them what it means to be an Amerk and how hard you have to play every shift.”
Some more familiar faces on the backend are three players that split time between Rochester and Buffalo last year. Will Borgen, Lawrence Pilut and Casey Nelson are all set to start 2019-20 with the Amerks. Borgen makes his return after appearing in 71 games at the AHL level. Pilut made his NHL debut with Buffalo back in November of last season and spent 33 games with the big club before being recalled to Rochester for some Calder Cup action during the 2019 playoff push. Nelson appeared in only five games for the Amerks on a rehab assignment, recording one assist before getting the call back up to Buffalo where he finished out the 2018-19 campaign.
One other blueliner that saw all of 2018-19 in a Rochester uniform, Brandon Hickey will be making his return as well. Hickey saw 38 games with the Amerks in his first professional hockey season just last year.
The 11 remaining returners are all loaded on the offensive side of the ice.
Heading up the forwards and in his fifth season with Rochester is team captain Kevin Porter. Like veteran teammate Paetsch, Porter is a player that has seen over 200 games at the NHL level with time in multiple organizations before settling into an Amerks jersey over the last couple of seasons. In his second year as team captain, Porter appeared in 58 games while tallying up 39 points, including his 300th AHL point with an assist against the Hershey Bears at The Blue Cross Arena back on Nov. 2.
During training camp, Porter emphasized what an exciting time of the year it was for the guys and what it will take to keep everyone levelheaded going into Friday night.
“It’s an exciting time and we got some new guys and everyone is excited for the start of the new season. I think it’s just getting everyone here, working hard, getting everyone on the same page on the ice and everything else will fall into place.”
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Among those sent down from Buffalo to begin the season are four forwards that have seen ample time at both the NHL and AHL levels over the last year. Returners Scott Wilson, C.J. Smith, Tage Thompson and Remi Elie have all made a statement, combining for 17 goals in their stints with Buffalo during 2018-19.
Wilson appeared in 17 games for Rochester last year before returning to the Sabres in late February. Smith finished second on the Amerks roster in scoring last season with 58 points in 62 games, while also getting the nod 11 times for the Sabres. Thompson starred in his second season at the NHL level, appearing in 65 games with Buffalo before being reassigned to Rochester prior to the team’s 2019 playoff run when he notched two goals in the first-round series against the Marlies. Elie, who was claimed off waivers by the Sabres early last October and got the nod in 25 games with the Amerks last year, scored eight goals in his stint with Buffalo’s affiliate.
The remaining six returners are all players that spent the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign on Rochester’s roster. Andrew Oglevie, Sean Malone, Eric Cornel, Dalton Smith, Tyler Randell and Rasmus Asplund are all looking to notch another year under their belt at the AHL level.
Oglevie missed the final 14 games of last season due to an injury, but not before he racked up nine points in his last 11 games out on the ice, finishing off his first season in the AHL on a hot streak. Malone appeared in his 100th AHL game just this past February in his third season with the Amerks. Cornel was the lone skater to appear in all 76 regular-season games for the Amerks in his fifth season with Rochester, while tallying a career-high in points with 22. Dalton Smith is the returning, physical forward who set a team-high penalty minutes with 17 at Springfield back on Nov. 16 last season, helping push his season total to 111. And finally, the Amerks Rookie of the Year and Most Improved Player, Asplund returns to the roster after racking up 41 points in his rookie season with the club.
New to the Flower City
The Amerks have a lot of familiar faces to start the season, but there’s also no shortage of newcomers either. Seven new Amerks joined the squad this season with a mix of players that are in their rookie seasons to some that have years of professional experience under their belts.
New to Rochester, but not to the game, are three players that combine for 16 seasons in professional hockey. Jarrett Burton, Curtis Lazar and Jean-Sebastian Dea are three more players that the Amerks can count on to have a heavy veteran presence in the locker room. Burton comes from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization where he has spent the entirety of his career thus far. In his time with Pittsburgh, last year was Burton’s first full season at the AHL level where he was named the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Defensive Player of the Year.
Another player being added to the Amerks that put in several years with the Pittsburgh organization is Dea. Last year was Dea’s first season experiencing what it was like to be traded and to go through waivers as he spent time between the NHL and AHL levels with multiple teams. Despite what seemed to be never-ending change, Dea still managed to net 21 goals in his 69 games on ice.
After Dea was reassigned to Rochester earlier in training camp, he reflected on why the transition to a brand-new organization has been easier for him due to the circumstances he experienced last season.
“It’s never easy to change places and meet new people and obviously the systems are different. I’ve kind of been through a lot this last year and kind of know how it is now, so I’m not too nervous about meeting new people or having a new system.”
Lazar, originally the Ottawa Senators first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, has found his way to Rochester to begin the 2019-20 season. Back on July 1, the Sabres signed the young but experienced forward to a one-year contract. At just 24 years old, Lazar has already played in 246 NHL tilts with his best season dating back to the 2015-16 campaign when he racked up 20 points while tying a career-high of 10 goals.
When it comes to the “rookies” on Rochester’s roster, four guys are in their first year of professional hockey or are headed into their first full season at the American League level. Casey Fitzgerald, Jacob Bryson, Pascal Aquin and Brett Murray are all new to the squad when starting off the brand-new year at The Blue Cross Arena.
Fitzgerald comes from a bloodline of professional hockey players, trying to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother. Fitzgerald saw four games with the Amerks last season after finishing up his final season at Boston College where he faced off against fellow H-East conference competitor, and now teammate, Bryson. Bryson attended Providence College for three years before signing an entry-level NHL contract with Buffalo on April 15 of this year. Fitzgerald and Bryson are two young defensemen that spent a good amount of time on the blueline together in the Amerks preseason games
Prior to Rochester’s first preseason showdown against the Marlies, Bryson expressed his thoughts on the team’s veteran presence and the benefits of being paired up with another new rookie defenseman.
“Take a lot of tools and learning experience from the vets. They help us a lot day in and day out. Obviously, it’s nice to play with vets as well because they’re pretty vocal on the ice and they kind of direct you on where to go, so it’s helpful. Playing with a new young guy, it’s good too. You kind of feel more comfortable, you guys are both new.”
Aquin spent 68 games with the Cincinnati Cyclones last year, notching 59 points in his time with Buffalo’s ECHL affiliate. During the Amerks preseason, Aquin saw time in all three matchups and knocked in the eventual go-ahead marker in Rochester’s first face-off against the Marlies. He’s since been reassigned to Cincinnati to start the season.
Finally, coming from the junior circuit, Brett Murray is a player who looks to make an immediate impact in his first season in pro hockey. The 6-foot-5 Murray spent all last season with the Youngstown Phantoms in the United States Hockey League last year, leading all skaters with 41 goals and ranking second with 76 points in 62 games. He also spent parts of two seasons with Nittany Lions at Penn State University.
Combo in the Crease
The guys guarding the net this year will be a mix of a young and newcomer combo.
After appearing in five games with Rochester last season, Jonas Johansson will be seeing some more time in the net with the Amerks this year as he enters his first full season with the team. Johansson posted a 4-1 record with Rochester during the 2018-19 campaign and got the nod in the first two preseason tilts, going 1-1 between the pipes this past week.
New to the red, white and blue is AHL veteran Andrew Hammond. Hammond comes from a background of NHL and AHL experience ranging from the 2013-14 season to just last year when he spent the entirety of 2018-2019 with the Iowa Wild. Last season with the Wild, Hammond saw 33 games in the crease with a .910 save percentage. In his one preseason start this past Sunday with the Amerks, Hammond received the win against the Toronto Marlies while notching 22 saves on the night.
Following stints with four other NHL affiliates, Hammond remarked earlier in training camp on his ultimate decision to join the Buffalo organization this season.
“As a player you want to go places where you feel wanted and that you think you’ll have a chance to have success, and I think for all those reasons it made a lot of sense for me to come here.”
Looking into October
The Amerks will be in action 10 times during their first month of the new season, with four of those tilts happening right here in the Flower City at The Blue Cross Arena.
Prior to Friday night’s home opener, the Amerks are hosting a Rockin’ on the River pregame party, free for all fans to come as the team ushers in the 2019-20 season on home ice. After enjoying the brews, food and views out on the riverside terrace, gates open at 5:30 with each fan set to receive a 2019-20 Amerks magnet schedule, courtesy of Nissan, to keep their calendars marked on when they’ll be spending their time at Blue Cross Arena this season.
On Friday, October 18th, the Amerks will be hosting Hocktoberfest presented by Rohrbach Brewing Company. The first 500 fans will through the gates at Blue Cross Arena on the 18th will receive a limited edition Amerks/Rohrbach Brewing Company beer stein. Along with a commemorative giveaway, the night will include live music by the Krazy Firemen and stick around afterwards to meet the entire team at the postgame meet and greet in the Hall of Fame area.
The month of October will close out at the Amerks home base with two midweek tilts on both Wednesday, Oct. 23 and Wednesday, Oct. 30. Both puck drops are set for 7:05 PM.