By Brian Duff for Sabres.com
The Rochester Americans open up their first-round Calder Cup Playoff series against the Toronto Marlies on Friday at Blue Cross Arena.
The Amerks roster features many interesting names - including Defenseman of the Year Zach Redmond and 30-goal scorer Victor Olofsson - so here are five players I'll be watching closely during the postseason who could make a big impact.
One of only three players in the organization to score 30 (28 AHL, 2 NHL) this season, Smith leads all Amerks in goals over the last two years (45) and must be a candidate to infuse more offense into Buffalo's lineup next season.
A pending restricted free agent, the 24-year-old Smith has been impressively consistent all season, including 17 points (10+7) in his final 21 games that followed his last recall to the Sabres.
Skating often with veterans Kevin Porter and Wayne Simpson, Smith is an all-situations player for coach Chris Taylor, ranking first in shorthanded points (5), tied for first in even-strength points (38 with Olofsson) and fifth on the team in power play points (15).
Now with five seasons of pro hockey under his belt (four in Sweden's SHL and one in the AHL), Asplund will still be only 21 when he comes to Sabres camp in the fall. It's possible that no forward in the organization showed more growth over the course of the past seven months than Asplund, who plays with a tremendous amount of pride and self-determination.
With 18 points in his first 53 games, Asplund was grinding through what he openly suggested was his worst statistical season. But his adaptation to the North American game and coachability helped lead him to a team-leading 23 points over the final 22 games.
He will start the postseason with season-long linemates Olofsson on his left, and Danny O'Regan on his right.
When the Sabres season came to an end, it marked the beginning of a new and significant opportunity for the 21-year-old Thompson. Saddled with expectations that came in part from being acquired in a deal for Ryan O'Reilly, Thompson battled inconsistency in all zones at the NHL level.
And while the 200-foot game is most important for Taylor and the Amerks when every game matters, Thompson's confidence will always come from how he handles the puck.
To that end, Tage led the Amerks with six goals in his eight-game end-of-season cameo. Two were on the power play, three were game-winners, and his shooting percentage was 23.1 percent.
The fact that he averaged 3.25 shots per game (compared to 1.54 over his first 106 NHL games) is a step in the right direction. Playing with speedy linemates in Kyle Criscuolo and Taylor Leier should also benefit Thompson and Rochester's overall depth.
After leading the SHL in points by defensemen last season (38 in 52 games), Pilut produced 32 points in 63 games (AHL and NHL) during his first year in North America while shuttling back and forth on the thruway.
Despite only 2 points over his final 9 games with the Amerks, the 23-year-old still led all AHL defensemen with 0.87 points per game. Among those who played in 30 or more games with the Sabres, Pilut ranked tops in 5-on-5 Shot Attempt Percentage at 53.22.
An early season leader for this team, it will be imperative for Pilut to regain his edge, which can often be triggered by feeding off physical confrontations.
Entering his first Calder Cup playoff series, will Pilut emerge - at the very least - as the most talked about Swedish defenseman? The Marlies employ Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, and Andreas Borgman, and could have Calle Rosen back from the Maple Leafs as well.
Perhaps patriotic and professional pride will propel the puck-moving Pilut to post-season prosperity.
"Intriguing and limitless." Those words, from Amerks assistant coach Gord Dineen in an earlier season Americans Made feature on Borgen, continue to resonate with me whenever I watch the 22-year-old defenseman in action.
And while his sample size with the Sabres was small (four games played) his body of work as a first-year pro was pretty impressive. Not unlike Asplund, Borgen's growth was obvious to the eye-test and on the stat sheet.
No one was overly concerned with five points in his first 49 AHL games. But nine more over the final 22 games, along with a couple of fights and an increased presence in all areas make Borgen a critical piece for the Amerks now, and a somewhat unique piece for the Sabres down the road.
Depending in part on how this spring plays out, it is no longer unrealistic to think that Borgen could barge into Buffalo's top six this fall.