Amerks (Sabres) Season Preview: Forward thinking
Looking around the hockey world, there are plenty of players getting bumped off rosters due to the influx of skaters and goaltenders previously slated for the NHL. The effect will be felt across Europe and particularly at the AHL level.
While individual AHL teams will benefit from skaters on entry-level deals making their way down to the developmental league, the players who would have typically battled for one of the final roster spots are likely destined for other locations.
Rochester serves as a perfect example of this as a few tryout players and summer free agent signings have suddenly found themselves on a roster with a lot more talent than originally expected.
Marcus Foligno and Cody Hodgson were each expected to be in Buffalo to start the season with Luke Adam, Kevin Porter, Nick Tarnasky and Corey Tropp were all expected to at least push for a roster spot with the big club. Now, those six join 14 other forwards who now face a much more daunting task in making the AHL club.
Those who are most affected by the infusion of talent are; Riley Boychuk, Maxime Legault, Jonathan Parker, Frederick Roy and Jamie Wise. Boychuk and Parker each saw time in the ECHL last year, while Legault has stuck with the organization on AHL contracts over the past few years. Roy and Wise each made a positive impression at development camp, but are behind far more skaters than they would have been after their camp performances earlier in the summer.
Wise is likely a long shot to make the team, while players like Boychuk, Parker and Roy can be stashed in the Coast depending on depth, injuries and individual performances. Others who could get bumped out of the picture in the AHL are Shawn Szydlowski and possibly Jacob Lagace.
Count Luke Adam, Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Hodgson, Mark Mancari, Corey Tropp and Phil Varone as safe bets for positions in the top six or nine forwards. Hodgson will slide it as the Amerks’ top center while Adam and Foligno will likely flank each of the top two lines on the left side. Mancari will likely benefit from skating alongside a talent like Hodgson. Meanwhile, Girgensons and Tropp would form an interestingly skilled, gritty trio with Foligno.
Varone could actually find himself on the outside looking into the top-six after a breakout season, but it is just a result of the lockout. However, Varone proved his worth and could easily maintain the top-six role he earned in 2011-12. Don’t sleep on him putting up big points if he skates with one or two NHL-level prospects.
Girgensons will probably the most closely watched player out of any for Rochester this season thanks to his draft pedigree and hard-nosed attitude. One lingering question is where he falls. Is he a top-six center? Does he need to skate with a couple veterans (maybe on the wing) as he gets his feet under him? Is letting him take on a big role immediately even the best growth model?
Personally, I like putting him with at least one NHL-level talent (see: Foligno, Marcus) and allowing the two to form some chemistry. The reason Foligno is an attractive option is his size and willingness to battle. Girgensons isn’t a cream puff by any stretch, but putting him with a big battleship wouldn’t be a bad idea, at least to start.
The balance up front for the Amerks is actually quite impressive. There are a few decent AHL veterans (Mancari, Evan Rankin, Rick Schofield) along with a pair of veteran free agents originally pegged for the Sabres roster (Kevin Porter and Nick Tarnasky). How Ron Rolston decides to use these players will be interesting. The most skill and potential lies with the top prospects delivered by the Sabres. However, Rankin has proven to be a reliable AHL player and Porter’s skillset should translate very well to the AHL.
Still, Porter, Rankin and even Schofield are likely destined to weed out spots on the “3rd and 4th” lines with a smattering of skill and grit around them. It would be safe to assume that Porter will still land a decent set of wingers regardless of which line he is skating with considering the Amerks should be able to put together three lines that can be a threat to score whenever they’re on the ice.
As for the fourth line, Nick Tarnasky comes as advertised and will be a nice enforcer presence for a team with some young, talented players on the roster. Much like how Joe Finley’s presence makes the Amerks somewhat intimidating, as will Tarnasky. However, don’t expect too much else from him. Whoever Rolston skates with Tarnasky will likely play with that similar edge. However, there is a chance to see a couple players rotate through the fourth line who do have some offensive upside.
How the Amerks match up with the rest of the league will be interesting to see considering every NHL club has sent talented prospects to their AHL club along with lower level veterans. One thing that should aid the Amerks is their ability to form two – if not three – solid scoring lines who will create matchup problems for opponents.
Expect Hodgson and Foligno to be two primary offensive leaders with Mancari likely being the most potent goal scorer on the roster. Ensuring the proper support for two-way talents like Girgensons, Tropp and Varone will be important but shouldn’t be a difficult task considering the wealth of talent Rolston will have to choose from.
Who ends up in the Coast, however, will be creating a similar situation they faced in the AHL for their peers in the ECHL.