A LOOK INSIDE AMERKS FREE AGENCYSep 16, 2021
By Suzie Cool
One focus. One word. Leadership.
“Leadership. That’s a really important thing and we saw last year just how important this was,” said Amerks head coach Seth Appert when asked what exactly the Buffalo Sabres organization was looking for heading into free agency.
As the weeks have unfolded, we’ve seen players come and go at the drop of a dime. Which in turn has left questions and gaps to fill whether you’re a fan in Buffalo or here in the Flower City.
We’ve seen the departure of fan favorite forwards in C.J. Smith and Dalton Smith, Amerks 2020-21 captain Steven Fogarty and Jean-Sebastien Dea return home to play for his hometown Montreal Canadiens organization. However, we’ve seen the return of West Seneca native Sean Malone, veteran defenseman Brandon Davidson and the wholesome story of goaltender Michael Houser back with Buffalo.
As one door closes another opens and the main focus of this particular free agency period for the Sabres organization is leadership, which in turn they hope adds depth to their offensive production.
“We need some depth in offensive production. I think our young players are going to be really talented players, some already started to show that last year, but at some point in time there’s going to be growing pains in the American Hockey League and you want some offensive production to offset that,” Appert said.
Looking back on the last several weeks, we’re now going to take an in-depth look at what contracts have been dealt within the organization and what that could entail for each player involved keeping that leadership mindset at the forefront. Keep in mind that all of the following players have the chance to be at The Blue Cross Arena over the course of the 2021-22 campaign.
TWO-WAY NHL CONTRACTS
Currently, the Sabres organization has it split almost evenly in terms of focusing on both sides of the ice over the course of free agency and the players that they have had agree to two-way NHL contracts. These specific contracts will allow players thew ability to bounce back and forth between Buffalo and Rochester, or at times, remaining on one roster with the option to be recalled or reassigned to the other. Additionally, just because a player may start on Rochester’s roster doesn’t mean they can’t end up in Buffalo at some point during the season and vice versa.
As deals began coming through, Appert couldn’t have been more adamant about the fact that the Sabres and Amerks organizations wanted leadership to help show the way for younger players in the pipeline.
“We want leadership, and we want veteran presence. Not only talented hockey players but guys that are going to show the way for the young kids.”
Through the first three weeks of the free agency period Buffalo has signed forwards Sean Malone, John Hayden and Ryan MacInnis, defensemen Brandon Davidson, Jimmy Schuldt, and Ethan Prow and goaltender Aaron Dell all to one-year, two-way NHL contracts. Defenseman Casey Fitzgerald is the lone two-year, two-way NHL contract that has been re-signed. Each of these players have taken on a leadership type of role over the past couple of seasons, no matter where they are in their pro careers.
Malone was the first of the eight NHL contracts signed when free agency opened on July 28. The West Seneca native is familiar with the Flower City as he was with the Amerks for three seasons between 2017-20 and had his best year in Rochester during the 2019-20 campaign. In his third year with the Amerks, Malone tallied a career high 30 points on 12 goals and 18 assists. Last season, Malone spent time in the Nashville Predators pipeline, notching 15 points (5+10) in 23 games with the Chicago Wolves, who stepped in Nashville’s AHL affiliate while the Milwaukee Admirals elected to take the 2020-21 season off due to COVID-19-related challenges.
Hayden was the second of three forwards brought into the mix, most recently spending the 2020-21 season with the Arizona Coyotes. In 29 games with Arizona, Hayden notched five points (2+3) to bring him to 31 points (13+18) over 185 total games in his six-year pro career. Additionally, Hayden has registered 17 points on five goals and 12 assists in 24 American Hockey League contests with the Rockford IceHogs during the 2017-18 campaign.
MacInnis wraps up the forwards on two-way NHL contracts for the upcoming 2021-22 season. Last year, MacInnis split time between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Cleveland Monsters, combining for two points (1+1) in 21 games. His 16 games with Columbus were a career-high in games played at the NHL level. In all, the 6-foot-4, 201-pound forward has amassed 87 points (26+61) in 250 AHL contests between the Cleveland Monsters, Tucson Roadrunners and Springfield Falcons.
The first returning blueliner to Buffalo was Davidson, who appeared in six games with the Sabres last season while also playing in two contests with the Amerks. A native of Taber, Alberta, the 29-year-old has totaled 23 points (9+14) in 180 career NHL games with Buffalo, Edmonton, Montreal, NY Islanders, Chicago, Calgary and San Jose, while also adding 49 points (15+34) over 192 AHL contests with Rochester, Oklahoma City, Rockford and Stockton.
Schuldt was the second of four defensemen that the Sabres picked up over free agency so far, after spending the 2020-21 season with the Henderson Silver Knights and tallying 14 points (6+8) in 38 games played. His six goals led all Silver Knights defensemen while his 14 points finished second. In his first full professional season in 2019-20, the 26-year-old totaled 21 points on six goals and 15 assists in 52 games with the Chicago Wolves.
Next to sign a one-year, two-way NHL deal on the blueline was Prow, who spent last year overseas with the Munich EHC of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) on loan from the Florida Panthers. In 26 games, the 28-year-old blueliner finished second amongst the club’s defensemen in both assists (16) and points (20). A native of Sauk Rapids, Minn., Prow has totaled 116 points (32+84) in 220 career AHL games with Springfield and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton while also adding a pair of assists in four ECHL contests with the Wheeling Nailers.
Fitzgerald was the final familiar face we saw inked to a two-way contract with the Sabres and the lone two-year deal of the bunch. The 24-year-old returns for his third full season with the organization after appearing in 51 career games with the Amerks since the start of the 2018-19 season. Last season, Fitzgerald tied for second among all Amerks defensemen in goals (2) and third in points (11) in 22 games. In addition to earning his first-career recall to Buffalo’s taxi squad in 2020-21, Fitzgerald was voted as winner of the Rob Zabelny Award as the team’s Unsung Hero.
Dell is the lone goaltender of the bunch when it comes to two-way NHL deals. This comes as no surprise, as prior to the start of free agency, Appert felt very confident in the goaltending position for the organization depending on the decisions made in Buffalo.
“Depending on what happens in Buffalo, we do feel very strong in our goaltending position right now. And we will have to add some defensive depth because we have a little more forward depth with our young players than we do on the defensive end.”
Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, Dell will be thrown into the goaltending mix along with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Dustin Tokarski, Michael Houser and newcomer Mat Robson.
After splitting time during the 2020-21 season between the New Jersey Devils and Binghamton Devils, Dell posted a combined 1-5-1 record in eight appearances and a .854 save percentage. In 114 NHL career appearances with New Jersey and San Jose, the veteran netminder posted a 49-39-12 record to go with a 2.83 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage. Additionally, Dell boasts a 33-26-11 mark with a 2.31 goals-against average and .923 save percent in 73 American Hockey League appearances with Binghamton, San Jose, Worcester, and Abbotsford.
TWO-WAY AHL CONTRACTS
Players on two-way AHL contracts will have the mindset that they’re going to be splitting their time between Rochester and Cincinnati going into the 2021-22 campaign, with the goal being that they spend a majority of their time in the Flower City. Now, just because these players are signed to AHL deals currently doesn’t mean that their contracts can’t be upped over the course of the season depending on their play or the skillset needed in Buffalo at any given time.
When looking at this type of AHL specific contract, another seven players have been signed to one-year, two-way deals. We’re looking at a lot of offensive production with four forwards on one-year deals in Ryan Scarfo, Brendan Warren, Lukas Craggs and Dominic Franco, four blueliners with Josh Teves, Peter Tischke, Nick Boka and Matthew Cairns and two goaltenders in Michael Houser and Mat Robson. Each of these players having spent some time in the AHL, giving them all the more of a chance to land in the Flower City at the start of the season.
Scarfo, Warren and Craggs were all signed on the same day, adding a plethora of experience and depth to the Amerks offensive skillset.
Last season Scarfo spent time with the Amerks on a professional tryout and recorded two goals in nine games with the club. The fourth-year pro has appeared in 65 career AHL games between Rochester, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the Belleville Senators, totaling 16 points (6+10) while also adding 29 points (14+15) over 58 contests in the ECHL with the Brampton Beast and Wheeling Nailers.
Warren was yet another player we saw on a professional tryout coming later in the Amerks 2020-21 campaign. The 24-year-old returns to Rochester after recording four goals and two assists in 10 games with Rochester last season, and prior to coming to the Flower City, the young forward collected 22 points (9+13) in 44 ECHL contests with the Jacksonville Icemen. As a rookie with Jacksonville last season, Warren represented the Icemen at the 2021 ECHL All-Star Classic.
Craggs was the next forward to join the organization after combining for 11 points (3+8) in 15 games between the Chicago Wolves and Florida Everblades during the 2020-21 season. In 2019-20, the Elmhurst, Illinois, native split his rookie season with the Milwaukee Admirals (AHL) and Everblades, producing 17 points on nine goals and eight assists in 35 contests before the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Rounding up the forward signings on another two-way AHL deal is Franco, who returns to Rochester after recording nine points (4+5) in 23 games as a rookie with the Amerks during the 2020-21 campaign. Prior to last season, the second-year pro completed a four-year collegiate career at West Point (AHA), where he registered 97 points (45+52) in 141 games with the Black Knights from 2016-2020.
Coming from an all-too-familiar opponent in the Utica Comets, Teves was the first defenseman that the Amerks signed to a two-way AHL contract. Teves joins the Amerks blueline after skating in 23 games in 2020-21 with the Comets, registering four points on one goal and three assists. After spending his first two years in the pros with Utica, Teves has accumulated six points (1+5) in 52 career games in the AHL while adding four points (2+2) in four contests with the Kalamazoo Wings in the ECHL.
Tischke was the second of the rearguards who agreed to a two-way AHL deal and comes to the Amerks after appearing in 16 games with the Colorado Eagles, where he scored a goal to go with an assist last season. As a rookie during the 2019-20 campaign, Tischke spent the majority of the season with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, where he finished second in goals (4), assists (11) and points (15) in 51 games among all Grizzlies rookie defensemen.
After appearing in 44 games with the Fort Wayne Komets last season, where he produced 18 points (4+14) in 44 games, Boka comes to the Amerks looking to get his first shot in the AHL. The third-year pro finished the 2020-21 season third among all Komets defensemen in both assists and points, while also helping Fort Wayne claim the Kelly Cup as he recorded a pair of assists in 13 playoff contests.
Rounding out the incoming defensemen on one-year AHL contracts is Cairns, who joins the organization after spending the 2020-21 season at the University of Minnesota of Duluth (NCHC), posting six assists in 28 contests. Before joining the Bulldogs, Cairns played his first three collegiate years at Cornell University (ECAC), where he totaled three goals and three assists in 61 games from 2017-2020. Cairns also played parts of three seasons in juniors between the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots (OJHL), Georgetown Raiders (OJHL), Fargo Force (USHL) and Powell River Kings (BCHL). In 134 career games from 2014-17, he recorded 63 points (12+51) while also claiming two OJHL Championships.
The signing of Houser certainly comes as no surprise to the Sabres fanbase after the season that he put together between Buffalo and Rochester in 2020-21. Houser, 28, earned the start in each of Buffalo’s final four games, posting a 2-2-0 record with 127 saves, a 3.46 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage over that span. Houser made his NHL debut with a 34-save effort on May 3 to earn his first career victory. He was just the seventh goaltender in Buffalo history to record a win in his first start.
Houser also started four straight games for the Amerks to close out the season, going 1-3-0 with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage, winning his final appearance of the season.
After spending last season overseas with the Straubing Tigers (DEL) and posting a 1-8-0 record with a 3.61 goals-against average and a .861 save percentage in nine appearances, Robson makes his way to the Flower City as one of two goaltenders in the AHL mix. During his rookie season in 2019-20, the netminder went 11-10-5 in 26 games with the Iowa Wild before the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His .901 save percentage and 2.97 goals-against average were ninth-best among all AHL rookie goaltenders while his 11 wins were tied for 11th. Additionally, he was one of 12 rookies to record at least one shutout over the course of the campaign.
ONE-WAY AHL CONTRACTS
One-way contracts, no matter if they’re at the NHL or AHL level, are pretty simple. Essentially, these players primarily play in that specific league or with that specific team to which they are signed to. They do have the ability to go between leagues if signed to another contract and typically their compensation remains the same despite what level they’re playing at. Now, there are the exceptions of players on rehab assignments or restructuring contracts in order to fit the needs elsewhere within the organization, however, those decisions are made when appropriate throughout the duration of a season.
Currently, there’s only three of these kinds of deals within the Sabres organization and that is with forwards Michael Mersch and Mason Jobst and defenseman Mitch Eliot. The veteran Mersch is inked to a two-year, one-way AHL deal with the Amerks and will most definitely maintain a leadership role as the season progresses. On the other hand, Eliot inked a one-year, one-way deal with the Amerks and is going into just his second full season in the league.
First looking at Mersch, he’s returning to the Amerks after finishing second on the team in points (19) and third in goals (8) in 28 games during the 2020-21 season. Additionally, he closed out the month of April with a team-high nine points (5+4) in 11 games, which included a season-high two goals and two assists on April 23 against Utica.
After the signing became official, Appert acknowledged the leadership and helping hand that Mersch displayed in his first season in an Amerks sweater.
“Mike did so many things for us last year. First and foremost, he was a great guy for me to lean on, so I leaned on him many times and bounced ideas off of him.”
Appert then went on to add, “the way the young guys looked up to him, the way he attacks every day, Mike Mersch still prepares every day like he’s going to play in game seven of the Stanley Cup Final.”
The eight-year pro has appeared in 405 career AHL games between the Amerks, Texas Stars, Ontario Reign and Manchester Monarchs, totaling 264 points (130+134) while also adding 35 points (16+19) in 44 Calder Cup Playoff games. Additionally, Mersch, a four-time 20-goal scorer in the AHL who won a Calder Cup with Manchester in 2015, has skated in 17 career NHL contests with the Los Angeles Kings, tallying a goal and a pair of assists.
Mersch is most definitely that offensive veteran, and spark, that the Amerks are looking to help lead the younger players as they head into the 2021-22 campaign with a fairly young roster.
Jobst was among the first to be signed as he heads into his third full season in the pros. Last season, Jobst split time between the Bridgeport Islanders and Binghamton Devils, where he produced a combined 10 points (5+5) in 19 games. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound forward began his professional career during the 2019-20 campaign with Bridgeport, recording five goals and eight assists for 13 points in 44 contests.
On the flip side, Eliot comes to Rochester after spending the entire 2020-21 campaign with Utica, recording four assists in 26 games. The 6-foot-0, 190-pound defenseman began his pro career in 2019-20 when he combined for eight points (3+5) in 34 games between the Comets and Kalamazoo Wings before the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before turning pro, Eliot spent two seasons with the Sarnia Sting (OHL), registering 58 points on 19 goals and 39 assists in 82 games from 2017-19.
Three very different players with unique skillsets that we are seemingly guaranteed to see on the Amerks roster for the duration of the season unless their contracts are changed.
As free agency continues to unfold over the coming weeks, there’s only more that the Sabres and Amerks can add to their up-and-coming rosters. For now, they’ll continue to look for leaders who are constant culture drivers in the locker room and out on the ice in order to obtain the identity that they’re trying to establish prior to the start of the 2021-22 season.
For now, there’s one word and one focus that remains true. Leadership.
Who’s ready to step up?