By Ryan J. Harr
Rookie, a noun, is defined as a member of an athletic team in his or her first season in that sport.
Over the course of the 2017-18 campaign, the Rochester Americans used 13 different first-year skaters. Three of those 13 made their professional debuts while three others were on the Amerks roster for a majority of the season.
Forwards Sean Malone and C.J. Smith both made their American Hockey League debuts this season while defenseman Brendan Guhle dressed in 50 games in Rochester to go along with a career-high 18 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres.
The common theme between the three Sabres prospects is they all made an impact on the scoresheet quite often this past season. The trio finished the season inside Rochester’s top 15 point-getters.
Smith, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Sabres in March of 2017, led the rookie class as he ranked third among all Amerks with 44 points (17+24) in 57 games. At one point he paced all AHL freshmen in scoring before suffering a late-season injury.
“I am proud of myself on how my season went,” said Smith, who was named Rochester’s Rookie of the Year. “There were a lot of good learning experiences over the course of the year from overcoming an injury to learning how to be a professional. Overall, it was a good year and I am looking forward to the 2018-19 season.”
Smith missed a combined 19 games due to a lower-body injury but finished among the AHL’s top 10 rookie point-getters. The Des Moines, Iowa, native became the first Amerks rookie to score a hat trick since Tim Schaller did so on April 5, 2014.
“It is never easy getting injured or being held out for any length of time. I was able to use that time, though, learning how to rehab and work my way back from the injury, so I think it will beneficial for me during my career.
While Smith led Rochester’s first-year skaters in points, Malone dressed in 73 regular-season games, in addition to all three Calder Cup contests, after missing the first three games of the campaign from his own injury.
“It was not easy missing all of training camp and the first three games of the year,” said Malone, Buffalo’s sixth-round (159th overall) in 2016 NHL Entry Draft. “Playing in a level that I was not used to after not participating in any training camp or preseason games was tough at first. I think I had a slow start to the season, but as time went on, I started to feel comfortable and found my game.”
Malone was voted by his teammates as the team’s Most Improved Player. It took the Buffalo native 10 games to plot his first professional point, but he closed the campaign with 12 goals and 10 assists while also adding two more helpers in the postseason.
“This league is a developmental league and I feel I got better as the year went on. I knew my role and at the end of the year I was playing more than I did at the beginning. Overall, I am pleased with my season, but I want to keep improving and expand my role next year.”
Smith and Malone both saw what most would call an unexpected raise in their stock while Guhle continued to impress despite being only 20 years old.
“Ending the season the way we did obviously wasn’t the way we had hoped, but it still was a great year and a fun one, too,” Guhle said. “I am excited for the future.”
Guhle dressed for six games with Rochester in each of the last two seasons prior to this year but he was still considered a rookie in the league. The Sherwood Park, Alberta, native posted 26 points (8+18) in 50 games with the Amerks and five more assists in 18 contests with the Sabres.
“Being in Buffalo for nearly a month was a good learning experience. To be a full-time NHLer it was great. It was fun point for me personally during the season. While we did not win as many games as we had hoped, still being there and learning various things, it’s going to be a motivational factor during the summer months.”
The rookie trio made serious strides but they’re all anxious to build off their foundations they constructed during the 2017-18 season.
"We became really close off the ice over the last several months and that helped our friendship,” said Guhle. “I think the future is bright for not only us as individuals, but also the organization as a whole.”